WRITING ON THE ETHER: Time for Literary Fiction To Come Out of the Cloisters?

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Table of Contents

  1. Our Deepening Disruption
  2. Anastas Has Left the Building
  3. East of Eden

Our Deepening Disruption

If I could make today’s Ether “come on little cat feet,” as Fog poetically does, I’d like that.

No, put away those cat pictures, and don’t stick the voodoo of your Pinterest collection into Carl Sandburg, he can’t defend himself.

See, I’m trying to sneak up on a speculative issue. The trick is to avoid tripping the genre-paranoia and business-is-business wires. They tend to set off all kinds of mind-closing alarms whenever someone says “literary.”

To weigh the growing burden that I think is now heavy on the literary-fiction community, we need to get around a couple of barriers.

(1) Genre-paranoia is my phrase for the unhappy belief suffered by many genre writers that they are automatically disparaged by literary-fiction people and seen by most creatures of the realm as lesser lugs, serfs in the fields of mindless consumer consumption. If you are a genre writer and have ever felt so cheapened, please note that I am not saying such bad things about you here. Any such paranoia you’re feeling right now has come in on your own little cat feet, I’m not big-footing your genre.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Roz Morris

In fact, have a look at Why Literary Novels Take So Long To Write by Ether sponsor Roz Morris. Without writing “formulaic”—nor even the word formula—she was accosted in comments by readers who wrote that she had said genre work is formulaic. What she was saying is that literary work, by contrast to much genre work, doesn’t offer the parameters of specific subject matter. Literary starts with no set answer to audience expectation. And thus it can take a literary writer longer to develop a theme because “there are no rules,” as the phrase goes.

Morris:

If I wrote genre fiction, it would be clear how to develop an idea. I’d line up the tropes, check I’d ticked all the boxes, add a twist of me and voila. Instead, I have to invent the novel’s framework, context and references. Tropes and conventions might suggest possibilities, but I’m out on my own – and not even sure what I’m looking for.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookThis is no more difficult a point, surely, than one of the key observations we get from another Ether sponsor, Joanna Penn, in her new How To Market a Book. (She has just followed up, by the way, with 3 Critical Marketing Principles For Authors From The Bookseller Marketing and Publicity Conference held earlier this week in London.)

I was quoting her post here at Ether host JaneFriedman.com, How to Sell More Books By Optimizing Your Metadata on Tuesday at Publishing Perspectives in Ether for Authors: Is Today’s Book Marketing All in the Algorithms? 

Penn wrote:

You might not want to put [your book] in a box or a genre or a category, but you have to, because that’s how readers find it. The category/genre reader has expectations, and if you don’t “fit,” they will be disappointed.

UPDATE: See Penn’s comment below in which she points out something potentially very helpful. As long as everything must be categorized for the online marketplace, why shouldn’t we finally ditch the “genre” terminology entirely and simply talk of “categories?” Literary fiction is, in that context, a category. The playing field goes level. What do you think?

Julie Crisp

Julie Crisp

Meanwhile, Julie Crisp, Tor UK’s Editorial Director, reveals in Sexism in Genre Publishing: A Publisher’s Perspectivethat there can be a lot of bad assumptions made within the genre world about itself, too, of course. (In what industry is that not the case?)

Crisp and her staff wanted to respond to complaints that there aren’t enough women in science-fiction. As chief of an open-submission house, and going over what had come in since the end of January, Crisp writes:

The facts are, out of 503 submissions – only 32% have been from female writers [for all Tor UK genres]…When it comes to science fiction only 22% of the submissions we received were from female writers. That’s a relatively small number when you look at how many women are writing in the other areas, especially YA. I’ve often wondered if there are fewer women writing in areas such as science fiction because they have turned their attentions to other sub-genres but even still, the number of men submitting to us in total outweighs the women by more than 2:1.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookThe helpful chart Crisp includes shows that, true to many expectations, women’s submissions far outnumber men’s in YA (68% to 32%). And women handily lead men in urban fantasy and paranormal romance. (57% to 43%). But it’s really hard to argue with the numbers on sci-fi as well as on a category Tor calls “historical/epic/high-fantasy” (women 33%, men 67%), horror (women 17%, men 83%), and a particularly delightful designation, “Other (difficult to categorize)” — it seems the guys are playing harder to categorize than the women by a substantial 73% to 27%.

Nevertheless, the general defensiveness around the topic of genre work goes on. Just to grab a couple more lines from Morris’ responses, here is fantasy and sci-fi writer Michael S. Manz in a comment:

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookIf you wrote genre fiction you might have a better idea of what’s involved in writing genre fiction. Although, come to think of it, you do write genre fiction. ‘Literary fiction’ is just another genre – the pretentious genre, as you’ve proven here.

Get that tone? Not even collegial. Adversarial. Genre-paranoia at work. That allegation of pretension always seems to come up, doesn’t it?

And Morris, going down for the 18th time or so, answers:

Yes, I write both sides of the literary/genre fence, which is what enables me to make the comparison. I feel you have misunderstood me because I was comparing the relative difficulty, not saying genre was worthless.

(2) The business-is-business trip wire is a conversation stopper. It’s that’s dismissive phrase hurled at you as soon as you suggest that literature of any kind—high or low, literary or genre, illuminated manuscripts or the backs of cereal boxes—is anything more than a business. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookLiterature is more than a business. It’s not all “just content.” it has to do, however tangentially or unflatteringly in some instances, with the cultural character of a nation and of the world. You don’t have to be writing to the Corinthians every time you sit down at the keyboard. But shutting down any discussion of what’s going on in the industry! the industry! with the business-is-business shrug shows the rest of us only a coarse opportunism that doesn’t really belong in creative expression. In his New York Times op-ed piece, Book Publishing’s Big

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Boris Kachka

Gamble, Boris Kachka (author of Hothouse, about Farrar, Straus & Giroux, coming in August) is looking at the Penguin Random House merger with a careful eye that allows for no whine of business-is-business. He points out (I’ll give him a little length here, stay with me):

Dozens of formerly independent firms have been folded into this conglomerate: not just Anchor, Doubleday, Dutton, Knopf, Pantheon, G. P. Putnam’s Sons and Viking, which still wield significant resources, but also storied names like Jonathan Cape, Fawcett, Grosset & Dunlap, and Jeremy P. Tarcher. Many of these have been reduced to mere imprints, brands stamped on a book’s title page, though every good imprint bears the faint mark of a bygone firm with its own mission and sensibility…Among the imprints that survive, the tendency is to homogenize and focus on a few general fields like ambitious nonfiction, accessible literary fiction or thrillers.

Nobody gets out of Kachka’s piece with a business-is-business smirk, thankfully.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Dave Morris

And, look, here’s another Morris heard from, author Dave Morris, whose app-interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—Etherized here 65 weekly columns ago, or just after Shelley’s death in 1851—is, believe it or not, actually expected finally to show up for Android this week via Google Play. Morris followed Tuesday’s Ether with a reaction in comments to some of Penn’s guidance on categorization of work for good metadata with an interesting concern for how confining these algorithmic needs may be when it comes to book discoverability. Again, we’ll take a little depth here to get Morris’ point that our new digital realities—to which Penn is rightly responding—make it harder to escape genre-fication, even when that’s not the intention. Morris:

This question of the need to declare a genre… It troubles me. I love Dorothy L Sayers, but have no interest in crime novels. I’m an avid reader of Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, but otherwise never so much as glance at superhero comics. My enjoyment of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell almost certainly won’t induce me to pick up any other fantasy novels this decade. When someone asks me what kind of books I like, I could talk for hours and never mention genre. So, are my reading tastes so peculiar? When I go into a bookshop, I browse around the shelves marked only “Fiction” – but I notice that’s by far the largest section, so we non-genre (or at any rate genre-agnostic) readers must be in the majority. Or rather, we were. While there were still bookstores on most high streets, non-genre fiction could thrive. When the bookstores are gone, and book sales are largely online, that’s an environment that will favour the clear and distinct labels of genre.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookThis is a serious point. Amazon, of course, includes a Literary designation in its intricate categorization scheme and nothing there indicates that non-genre readers and writers aren’t fully welcome. Nevertheless, what Morris is getting at is that when, as I wrote Tuesday, your first and potentially most influential reader is a machine—the job of which is to parse and niche your book properly for sale—the ability for both creator and consumer to stay floaty, to get off into that marvelous in-house Tor designation of “Other (difficult to categorize)” and look around? It gets harder. Morris again:

From the point of view of successful marketing, it seems genre will be as essential as team colours in a football game. And genres will become ever more specific – no longer just “SF” but now “pre-Victorian colonial steampunk” and so on. For those of us whose preference is to pick up a book without much idea where it’s going to take us, is there hope?

Good question. Read on. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Anastas Has Left the Building

 

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Jane Friedman

I hope you’ve been following the conversation triggered by our colleague Jane Friedman here at her site yesterday with her post Does Twitter Make Sense for Most Writers? She’s taking on the tour-de-social-media mounted by literary writer and memoirist Benjamin Anastas, of last fall’s Too Good To Be True. God forbid I give you his Twitter handle. He has withdrawn, declared himself a most determined Twitter refusenik, after “1 year, 4 months and 22 days.” He posts twice about it: First in Goodbye to Twitter Village, and then in a follow-up, Goodbye to Twitter Village, Part II: Lessons Learned. Several of us have noted with Friedman in the discussion of the last couple of days that blogging, itself, is largely part of social media (still a plural word, damn it).

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Benjamin Anastas

There’s some gentle irony, perhaps, in his extensive divestiture in that form.  Friedman does us the service of sorting out an efficient list of his points, she writes, “that I find striking and true—each encapsulating things I’ve told authors myself, again and again.” Her list: (1) “It’s all ephemera, meant for instant consumption and destined for replacement by the avalanche of tweets to follow.”  (2) “If I wanted to gain an audience on Twitter—and keep as many of them as possible from un-following me—I had to offer something beyond a promotional platform for my book.”  (3) “I came to Twitter because I had a book to sell, and my misgivings about the whole enterprise meant that I would never be any good at it.”  (4) “I’ve come to doubt Twitter’s value as a marketing platform.”  (5) “My friend A. was right when he said that you had to enjoy Twitter for it make any sense.”  (6) “Tweets won’t gain you followers. Publishing in the real world will.”  I commend that list to you, and would like to add just one point of my own that will surprise no regular Ethernauts who know of my disgust for cutesy corporate names. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookIn his first of the two pieces, Anastas gets at the Twitter name. Thusly:

The name…Twitter—was an obstacle for me from the start, in part because it was so patently stupid, but also because I recognized that it was stupid in just the right way and would probably make the people who coined it billionaires.

For that sentence, alone, all is pretty much forgiven, Anastas, as far as I’m concerned. Twitter is, exactly, a patently stupid name. We need not get too stuck on this point, but I sometimes wonder what we might think of this powerful platform Twitter had it been given a serious, respectable name instead of what sounds like the title of a small, amateur ornithological society newsletter.

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Mathew Ingram

I worry about this especially when I watch our GigaOm colleague Mathew Ingram toiling away to explain, yet again, that Twitter is, in fact, locked in a huge struggle to find its footing as a new-era news medium, beset at every turn by users who come to it with all the sense and responsibility we might expect from twits. If you don’t see Ingram’s work regularly, here’s a good recent example of what I’m talking about. In Research shows Twitter could be a tool for aid workers during events like the Boston bombings, he writes:

Twitter came under fire for its lack of credibility as a real-time news source during the bombings in Boston earlier this year, thanks to a variety of hoaxes and erroneous reports that were spread about those who were allegedly responsible for the attacks. But despite these obvious flaws, researchers with the Harvard Medical School who looked at information flow on Twitter during the bombings argue that the network could be a valuable tool for emergency workers and others during such disasters.

 

  But putting aside the Twitter name so we can have an adult conversation about it, it’s not hard to understand the qualms of the exiting Anastas. You can see this in many of the comments Friedman’s post has attracted. The addictive, time-eating, party-paced clamor of Twitter is simply not right or useful for many authors, nor for lots of others whose lives and work fare better in more focused, long-stint rhythms of application and output. And yet, just as Friedman writes in her appraisal, I’m pretty torn on this question, too. What she’s talking about is centered in Anastas’ lines:

Mystery plays a big role in our love of books, and by using social media to promote yourself, you’re only demystifying your work for everyone who follows you. And that makes you lose potential readers.

And you know, he’s right. And so I’m signing off of all social media now for good, take care. I’m teasing. Friedman responds to the mystique issue:

It’s a perspective I find most common among the more literary authors—a desire to preserve the mystique of their work, who they are, and what they do…On the one hand, the whole author mystique game is very peculiar to the literary community. It’s hard to find commercial or genre authors acting like a Thomas Pynchon; you won’t find them saying things like “I don’t really write for readers. I think that’s the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer.” On the other hand, I think it’s possible to use social media and keep the mystique in play. That’s part of the artistry. Use the tools to your own ends, rather than letting the tools use you (which I believe happened to Anastas—and it happens to all of us, at one time or another).

Back to Table of Contents  Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

East of Eden

We do have examples, a few, of literary authors who have used social media, even Twitter, as Friedman says, to keep the mystique in play.  

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Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, of course, is the champion on this, going so far as to co-write material (about zombies) for Wattpad and, yes, the great lady tweets. But, then, Atwood had several decades, many books, and major literary cred before venturing forth among our bluebirds of yappiness on the tweet machine. I take nothing from Atwood, don’t misunderstand. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBookBut that’s just it. At this stage in her career, almost no one can take anything from her and the sheer charm value of getting a tweet from her kitchen in Toronto is, just as Friedman suggests, the social-media art set dancing. Anastas, in his forties and with several books to his credit, is no spring chicken, of course. But is he, like HRM Elizabeth II, ready to arrive at the Olympics in an apparent Bond-stunt from a copter? Or is that dive still too steep for someone for whom literature is not initially about commerce or entertainment but about art? A side of me says Anastas is right…and he’s right… and he’s right…and I don’t know if we can afford that particular rightness anymore.

 

As you can tell from my label-issuing impatience with the genre-paranoids among us and with the business-is-business shrug-offs at the next table, I don’t like what I see as a gradual diminution of the place and purpose of literary fiction in our culture. I’ve written before about how the digital dynamic is a distributional energy that favors genre and entertainment. Like a fire seeking oxygen, the digital disruption seeks the biggest audiences. And those biggest audiences prefer, for the most part, entertainment over art and genre work over literary. (No value judgment here, this is simply life in our era, populist diversions available on a scale unmatched in human history.) But at the same time, I now have to question in all honesty whether the sort of mystique that Anastas is writing about—something I’ve actually enjoyed, respected, even admired in some writers and other artists—is going to be, what? Affordable? Viable? Even desirable in a world that loves nothing more than to call literary writing “pretentious?”

I’m in lockstep with Morris—with Morris & Morris, actually—whether trying to sort out the slow-food nature of literary work or worrying about having to over-categorize every freaking syllable. Because, Penn is right, the algorithms are upon us, and those machines need keywords to sell anything. But when I first encountered Friedman’s flagging of the Anastas material, I wrote back on Tumblr to her:

Each time an author tweets me, I wonder about this. At exactly the moment I appreciate the access they’re giving me to them, in some subtle way I also regret it. Both for me and for them. In the same way that our celebrity culture has finally succeeded in “pulling down” the famous to such a ground-level state that the public seems to expect to have access to them, that special distance Anastas talks about is closing between writers and “their” authors.

If we say to writers that the advantage and mandate of the digital dynamic is the interaction with and development of one’s audience, it gets harder every day to support artful aloofness


No, not because I need our best literary writers to bunk on Olympus and giggle fabulously from on-high at our tweet-smeared fistfights for respect at ground level.

However, like conflict of interest, even the appearance of pretension—and that’s what the “mystique” can surely conjure in minds looking for it—may at last prove too costly in a world that’s now mad for the ether and determined to have access to everyone on it.

So I’m going to head in this direction and I’d like your input on it: I need to see people read, support, and promote literary fiction more than I need to see the trappings of mystique, distance, and deference preserved for its writers.

Honestly, I still think good things come out of cloisters, not bad things. Because the lucky refugees inside from the hurly-burly outside have a chance to think straight. A lot of the best literary work has come from soul not situation, calm not comedy, examination not exhibitionism.

 

But maybe the digital drive has made it so far into literature’s lair now that we have to start asking our best literary writers if they could give this thing some thought. Anastas is out the door, fine, but there are lots more where he came from. And I think we need them.

We need literary fiction. We don’t need it sidelined by every genre-paranoic who wants to shout “elitism!” at them from across the street.

Maybe it’s time the literati joined us.

What do you think? Should literary writers try doing a bit more to meet this modern marketplace halfway? Or should they, as Anastas says he’s doing, “go back to being a writer again”?

 

Back to Table of Contents


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Posted in Writing on the Ether and tagged , , , , .

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He’s The Bookseller’s (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He’s a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he’s a regular contributor of “Provocations in Publishing” with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal’s SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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67 Comments on "WRITING ON THE ETHER: Time for Literary Fiction To Come Out of the Cloisters?"

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TheCreativePenn

On the genre question, why don’t we just call it category now?

That would kill the arguments. Every book HAS to be loaded into 2-5 categories so authors/publishers have to make a decision about that for every book.
Thanks for the shout out Porter 🙂

Porter Anderson
@TheCreativePenn:disqus Actually, that’s a pretty promising idea, Joanna, and thanks for dropping by to comment. Since categorization is mandatory in online selling (as you and Dave Morris point out), then maybe that can become the great equalizer we haven’t seemed to have until now. Ditch the “genre” terminology that’s become inflamed and we’re left with “category.” And while “literary” has never sat well with some of its proponents as a genre, it’s very factually a category among many other categories in the online marketplace. So your solution has semantic grace based on demonstrable fact. Imagine that. Good job, let’s spread… Read more »
Roz Morris

You beat me to it, guys. I’m voting for ‘category’ too. And what about ‘subject’?

Porter Anderson
@byrozmorris:disqus Hey, Roz, thanks — I think category is it. “Subject” can be a lot of things within a category (a mystery can be about a lot of subjects, for example). But the use of “category” as the kind of labels we see on Amazon or another site setting up the major sectors and sub-sectors, really does treat “literary” as on a category-par with everything else — no unfair advantages, no unfortunate denigrations. I do like the idea a lot, not as a solution but as a way to get a more neutral way of discussing things into place at… Read more »
jenniecoughlin

Simple and perfect. Why didn’t somebody suggest that before?

Porter Anderson

I mean really. This sounds so logical. I wonder how people who work in genre would feel about this, I hope we hear from some.

AJ Sikes

I’m in. I’ve never liked the so-called lit/gen distinction because it created an aloofness to look for. Words have meanings, and ‘literature’ means ‘classic,’ ‘academic,’ and for some people ‘boring.’ (not me, but we all had those classmates in college).

Porter Anderson

I’m told by Sheila Bounford that there’s a store in Shaftsbury where I can get a powdered wig. Which I need. If I can pick up the wig next time I’m in London, I’m going to try to revive the phrase “arts and letters.” Those were the days.
-p.

AJ Sikes

I would happily sign up for a lecture, maestro.

Brad Beauregard
But if we abandon the term “genre” in favor of “category,” do you think the genre dust-up would just piggyback on the category conversation? As I see it, the core problem isn’t what we’re calling our loose parameters, but how writers working within certain parameters form their identities against those working in other parameters. At this very moment, I’m sure, someone is plopped down in a bookstore (mythical as they may be) with a copy of Infinite Jest in their lap as they lift their nose toward the person reading Twilight (in public!). We draw these lines in the sand,… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@bradbeauregard:disqus Hey, Brad, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I don’t think — unless I’m misreading her — that Joanna Penn is suggesting that “category” is anything more than a cosmetic change in nomenclature. It does, however, have the advantage of existing in fact (in online shopping “literary” is no more or less than “suspense,” they are both simply categories. “Literary,” by the most common concept in the industry, is not a genre. And that’s where some of the presumptions of perjorative intent seem to start. The fact that there is extremely good work, and literary work, within each genre, too,… Read more »
Brad Beauregard
Thanks for the clarification, Porter. Your point about stepping around “the emotion-laden terminology” is crucial. My earlier comment wasn’t to suggest that adopting a neutral term wouldn’t be effective. I completely agree that in order to have the conversations about these genres/categories we need a neutral ground, and creating one through the use of an already established term is probably the easiest and most effective route. My only concern is that the conversations won’t happen, and that our new term, over time, will become charged with the same battleground mentality we had hoped to avoid. Thanks for comments, and the… Read more »
Porter Anderson

It could happen, Brad, you’re right. Clearly, the only thing of real value is getting the actual exchange of understanding and respectful perspective going, regardless of what we can do with terminology.
Thanks again for all the input!
-p.

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Darrelyn Saloom

Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Olen Butler seem to enjoy Twitter. And I think enjoyment is key. To Tweet or not to tweet is not determined by what you write but by what you like to do.

Porter Anderson

Absolutely, Darrelyn, that’s even included in the points Jane draws from Anastas’ writings (and thus is one of his own admissions) — there has to be some enjoyment to make it fly for anyone.

Thanks for the good point!
-p.

AJ Sikes

Not remembering where I saw it, but someone said/posted/tweeted “If you use social media that you do not enjoy using, it won’t work for you.”

Truth.

Someone followed up with: “And it will SHOW!”

Bigger truth.

Darrelyn Saloom

Agree!

eightcutsgallery
Excellent stuff – I’ve been the victim of plenty of genre-paranoia in my time – mention my aims when I’m writing and I often get accused of looking down my nose at genre writers when nothing cuold be further from the truth. And as for “business is business” – I’ve said many times that when an author says they want to earn a living from their work, even be a bestseller, they are roundly applauded for their ambition. When I say I’d like to leave a lasting mark on culture or change people’s lives, those people shoot me down for… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@eightcutsgallery:disqus Hey, Dan, It is tough, yes, I hear you. The world isn’t kind to people who talk in terms of making a contribution to world thought or concept or purpose. At the same time, the thing to remember is that over the ages, what we remember, revere, and aspire to are the instances in which someone DID make a contribution to world thought or concept or purpose. The insecure masses whose prospects seem to hold no more than commercial viability become only more insecure when in proximity of higher goals and intent. Not unlike some very fine genre workers,… Read more »
eightcutsgallery
I have never been one for the cloister – which is one reason I’ve found such a welcomnig and comfortable home in performance poetry. I’ve always been a burbler, a rambler (communicator is gracing it with too much) who thinks best by bouncing off others, so the digital melee suits me. I have issued plenty of clarion calls to literary writers to get out into the world and engage more. What is interesting about what you say here is the assertion that doing so is somehow unnatural for literary writers – I honestly don’t think that’s the case. You only… Read more »
Arjun_Basu

I hate labels. But I also understand the need for them from a marketing point of view. So we live in a world with people who hate labels who need them. I guess life is complicated.

As for the “literary” thing, a large part of it has to do, of course, with the “artist’s” aversion to commerce. If there’s a pretention, it is that, and it’s a big one. Let’s see how “mysterious” I become when my novel is published in the spring. Because, for want of a better label, the damned thing is “literary.”

Porter Anderson
@Arjun_Basu:disqus You’ll always be one damned mystery to me, Basu, no worries about that. 🙂 Seriously, the traction in your point here about commerce is important. What we’re saying is that the commerce of the day in literature is coming more and more to involve the digitally arrayed exercises of author-reader relationship. This is what sent Anastas into his Long Night of the Tweets, apparently, his or someone’s understanding that he needed to see if he could find himself in that particularly milieu in support of his work. For him, the answer was a resounding no, clearly. (Though I do… Read more »
Arjun_Basu
I think with Anastas, he approached Twitter for the absolute wrong reason – ie: doing something he normally hates doing and then having to do it in a space he wasn’t comfortable in and well, two wrongs don’t make a right. I may be a cad but I’m more than happy to be a Poster Child as well. I don’t have the reach or history or brand of more well established writers, for sure, but I have an odd hybrid thing happening and we’ll see how that translates. I may also be that odd literary duck in that I see… Read more »
Porter Anderson

Nothing if not difficult, I’ve always said that about you. 🙂
-p.

James Scott Bell
On Twitter: It was massively misperceived as a direct marketing tool. It’s not. It is more like advertising–over a long period of time, you establish a brand, a perception. But you do have to enjoy it, add value to peoples’ day-to-day grind, and not get into a time suck that takes away from actual writing. In this, Mr. Anastas may be right, for him. Vis-a-vis literary elitism and “genre paranoia”, this has been a point of contention at least as old as the pulp era, and probably before. As the great Mickey Spillane once said, “Those big-shot writers could never… Read more »
Shauntelle H.

Here, here! I especially love this:
“And of course that’s the rub. Readers are consumers. As much as writers say they just want “to be writers,” they do want to make a buck. If what they write is not what the salted peanut crowd buys in bulk, accept that fact and write well and riskily and bravely, and be content.”

I wish more creatives would choose to understand this… no one “owes” you a living because your a talented writer/artist/whatever.

Porter Anderson
@jamesscottbell:disqus And as the number of nuts in that peanut gallery grows exponentially on the Web… oh, wait, that’s the wrong discussion. 🙂 Thanks for these cogent comments, Jim, right as ever. The great frustration for the literati is, clearly, that the world doesn’t love that caviar as much as those peanuts. Even lovers of caviar will tell you it’s an acquired taste and not many have the means or opportunity to acquire it. Some chafe at that, and usually those are the ones we hear growling about perceived snobbishness among the literary types (who are assumed, usually wrongly, to… Read more »
Shauntelle H.
I think the simple answer is “who are you writing for” and “what do they want?” There’s every good chance that the bulk of a literary writer’s audience isn’t going to be found in the mainstream of Twitter. They probably aren’t “finding” new books by searching Amazon’s genre categories (actually WHO is finding new books that way?)… If you know who your audience is, then you can judge any networking tool by it’s likelihood for attracting your audience. As many people rightly pointed out, Anastas is still participating in social media by blogging and most likely, that IS the best… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@shauntelleh:disqus Hey, Shauntelle, And thanks for both your comments here. What you’re talking about as a “mid step” is probably exactly what we need to consider. Emily St. John Mandel, the author and critic, in fact, has joined us here with some great commentary about the general oversharing culture of social media — and you’re right, many serious people in any walk of life, let alone literary fiction writers, may not want the food tweets all day and all night! (The cat picture brigade, lol.) If anything your good sense in talking of going where one’s readers are has only… Read more »
Shauntelle H.
Hi Porter, You said: If anything your good sense in talking of going where one’s readers are has only the potential problem of where literary authors’ natural readership-gathering places may be. I’m not sure we’ve found those spots yet in the digital scenario, nor do we want them — I’m thinking on my feet here — to necessarily be “ghetto” experiences. ************** Dear writing world, may I introduce you to a new-ish and growing social media tool by the name of Google+? G+, at least as it stands currently, is a WONDERFUL place to find people who are thoughtful, ready… Read more »
Emily St. J. Mandel
Interesting and thought-provoking Ether, Porter, as always. The question of mystique is interesting. It’s easy to dismiss a desire for mystique as preciousness and self-importance (“I cannot be on Twitter, for I am a Great Artist and must maintain my Mystique!”) but I think it actually speaks to a couple of interesting points. One is that most social media users of my acquaintance could frankly stand to have a little more mystique, writers or not. Oversharing is rampant. I am perpetually baffled by the notion that it’s considered normal to complain about our relationships on a worldwide platform and publish… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@72f50f3dafbbd1a05dda6de2bcd7d4a0:disqus Hey, Emily, thanks for jumping in, as ever with some important elements here we haven’t brought into the mix yet. I couldn’t agree more with the “most need MORE mystique” line. I find it pretty appalling the things some of our colleagues seem to feel are correct material for open session online, too (I’m completely out of step with you, lol). From fiercely argued political positions (no qualms, apparently, about the coworkers, employers, friends, colleagues who may not have signed on for such elements) to some awfully revealing personal points of family and relationship life, as you point out.… Read more »
Arjun_Basu

The idea of authors as brands points to a convergence of two different things that happened at the same time. Well, three: publisher marketing budgets went down and unless you were an A LIst author you weren’t going to get any serious support (though I doubt it was ever THAT different), the rise of digital and self-publishing and with it the rise of the author-entrepreneur, AND the advent of social media.

Porter Anderson
Right. Of course, there WERE author brands in place long ago but we didn’t really think of them as such. For example, I grew up reading, avidly, the espionage books of Helen MacInnes ( http://ow.ly/mSVGl ) and I would simply read anything I could find she wrote. That was a brand working but before we thought of it as such. Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Etc. I think the convergence you’re putting your finger on gets us a big step further in that it’s now the author himself who thinks (or doesn’t) of his work and career as a brand,… Read more »
AJ Sikes
Amanda Palmer called for us to open the garret window and shout down to the crowd, invite them up, share the wine and bread, ask them to watch out for the cat while they’re dancing around our typewriters and easels, and please don’t mind the plaster dust. It’ll wash out. And yet how do we produce our art if we’re constantly playing host to conviviality? I binned Facebook last week for precisely the reasons Anastas cites for fleeing the birdcage. I still tweet. And I’m slowly learning to maintain my personal website as my primary form of social media. I… Read more »
Roz Morris

AJ, this is where we find the misty areas when we attempt to categorise anything creative. I was indeed thinking more of the conventional genre practitioners with that post. And I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect to them – not that you implied any in your comment, but I’d just like to put that on the record. I prefer the writers who go off piste, but my shelves contain many genre writers who can really rip a story and I love them for it.

And as you say, every genre started with an adventurous writer.

AJ Sikes

Cheers, Roz. Indeed, even those first ever best sellers on the ‘pop fiction’ shelves started from a place of boldly going.

Anne R. Allen
Twitter is a silly name, but it’s a wonderful tool. NOT for direct marketing, but for connecting. I have a problem with Feedburner, tweet it, and in minutes have a link to step by step instructions on how to switch to MailChimp. I have a friend in Tuscaloosa during a tornado, I go to #Tuscaloosa and find out if my friend’s neighborhood has been evacuated. Leaving Twitter because it’s a bad way to sell books is like getting rid of your phone because it’s bad for selling aluminum siding. On the genre front–I weighed on Roz’s post. I think there… Read more »
Dave Morris

I certainly agree that you can find a good book in any category, Anne, and it
doesn’t matter whether the prose is elegant as a Fabergé egg or as swift
as a switchblade. There is high and low art; both are valid, and a quite
different axis from quality-or-trash.

But I am not sure about “taking more concentration”. That sounds like hard
work, and a great book never feels like work to me. Perhaps we can agree on
“involves you more” instead?

Anne R. Allen

Dave–If you see “concentration” as having negative connotations, then yes, “involves you more” conveys my intentions better. It’s interesting that in our multi-tasking culture, “concentrating” is construed as a bad thing. But you’re probably right, so your correction is well made.

Porter Anderson

Having been rendered by Les Twits quite free of the ability to concentrate at all…wait, what was I saying?…and fearful of any involvement whatever (keep your distance, buddy)…I’m particularly grateful to you two for hashing this out for all of us. We’re in good hands at last. Carry on and deliver your final report in triplicate, please, once international consensus is established. That is all.
🙂
-p.

Porter Anderson
@disqus_gjh5IRwg5y:disqus This, DavabilisMir, is an interesting point about axes. Quality-Trash vs. High-Low (or Elegant-Swift). Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could somehow ban for a day or two as an experiment, the use of all normally evaluative words from, say, the Amazon reviews or the Goodreads recommendations? No mention of good, bad, great, marvelous, terrible, awful, etc. Instead, people would actually have to search for something specific. I used to (and then gave up) berate people on Twitter who would write “fabulous post on so-and-so” and ask them instead to try for something pointed such as “trenchant” or “mystifying” or… Read more »
Porter Anderson

@annerallen:disqus
Great point about connection rather than marketing, Anne. Why don’t we just say that more frequently? Is it because the marketers must claim it as their tool in order to sell their services?

-p.

On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

Alex Myers
Great article and great conversation in the comments. I am taken by the notion of categories/subjects replacing genres. And multiple categories/subjects for any one book: since when did anything fit neatly? Much of what has been commented on makes me think of the Metadata article you cite. What’s the main point of this? Once you get past picky writers who have artistic conceits about genres, the point is to let you book be found by people who want to read it. There is tremendous power and potential to the proper keywords, subjects, and labels being applied to your book… love… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@alex_myers:disqus Thanks, Alex, great to have you and good of you to comment. Yes, where we went with Joanna Penn’s piece on the “alchemy of algorithms,”‘ as I think I put it on that one ( http://ow.ly/mTC1X ), is to exactly your point that while digital parsing of the world of literature may not be what we’d all love to see, the development, as you say, “love that or not,” is with us and simply must be a part of any serious author’s work and understanding in order for him or her to gain any traction in the marketplace. The… Read more »
Rohan Quine
Porter, what a feast of an Ether this one is: super-relevant at this stage in the digital dance, tons to think about, fab analysis, and some great ideas here in the comments. I wish I had a clue as to what the best overall “answers” are to the question of how ambitious literary fiction can thrive as discoverably as other categories (yep, let’s just adopt Jo’s neat suggestion there) from now on … but I’ll keep thinking and let you know if my cluelessness there should happen to be disrupted by a brainwave. At any rate this discussion here feels… Read more »
Rohan Quine
Porter, what a feast of an Ether this one is: super-relevant at this stage in the digital dance, tons to think about, fab analysis, and some great ideas here in the comments. I wish I had a clue as to what the best overall “answers” are to the question of how ambitious literary fiction can thrive as discoverably as other categories (yep, let’s just adopt Jo’s neat suggestion there) from now on – but I’ll keep thinking and let you know if my cluelessness there should happen to be disrupted by a brainwave. At any rate this discussion here feels… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@rohanquine:disqus Rohan, thanks for the good response – sorry some travel has slowed me down on getting back. Yes, keep thinking on it. Clearly we need to free the question of bringing literary fiction into view for more readers (who can be tempted to try it if they aren’t told, perhaps, that it’s “literary,” lol) — and that’s helped if we can unhook the entire assemblage of genre-talk. Too bad that for a day or two we can’t simply make all genre/category listings disappear entirely. In fact, it would make a lovely promotion on Amazon for a couple of days… Read more »
Rohan Quine
A “no-category day” of that kind might in fact be viable, yes (now where did I put Mr Bezos’s phone number?). Also, I wonder whether it might be viable for some skilled platform-builder to create a new online venue specifically designed to contain nothing but a single cleanly-presented, semi-curated stream of snippets of all kinds of prose — each snippet to be no longer than perhaps a sentence or two and (coming back to your Ether subject-matter here) to be presented without any author name or book title or category. Every snippet would of course be clickable, so that those… Read more »
Tom Bentley
Porter, sometimes the genre/category classifications can seem a benefit, sometimes a bane, and sometimes a peeling label. Amazonian algorithms aside, I thought of the book I just finished, Kent Haruf’s Benediction, and the book I’m now reading, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. Benediction is such a spare, elegiac prose poem; it seems like something that could be read in a church at a memorial service. Whereas Telegraph is a clotted, lurching thing, with corners filled with interesting curios, a bowling alley of a book where you’ve got giggling cheerleaders on one lane and bookish intellectuals on another, and everybody’s got beer.… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@disqus_z8blEym8w8:disqus Well, Tom, it was an engaging and redolent ebbing away, as ever — and you always end up sitting beside Mr. Twain and those people on rafts, don’t you? 🙂 You would not be alone in reading YA, by the way. Our research people love nothing more than telling us how very many adults — even in their 50s and 60s — are reading YA as a main interest and not to check it out before handing it to the grandchildren but for themselves. The Attempt to Return to Youth is not new, after all, and I’ll be Ponce… Read more »
Tom Bentley
Now Porter, I can’t be beholden to read the YA for you: I try to write literary fiction myself, thus my reading is mostly in that vein (thus the Haruf and Chabon,, and Kingsolver before that). I do need bright fires to stoke my writer’s envy. I just mentioned that I might be induced to read some YA that came highly recommended (but probably only after the standard six Sunday martinis). I suppose I was harkening back to the YA of my youth, thinking affectionately of Salinger and Hesse (and maybe of Carlos Castaneda, though perhaps he fits in the… Read more »
Virginia Lloyd
Hi Porter. May I begin by an overdue sincere thanks for Ether. I find talk of the dominance of genre in online marketing a bit tedious because reading is like a diet of any kind: everyone will have a different taste preference. In my writing and publishing life I wear several hats. As an agent, I’ve heard clients groan at the sales success of a book that they themselves would never read. I tell them that books are like going food shopping. I see things at the supermarket that I could not imagine eating, then see that the person in… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@virginialloyd:disqus Hi, Virginia and thanks for this kind and cogent comment. Agree with you completely on the romance of imprints. I’ve tried to explain to people that they’re like television networks, at least in the States (where we have so many, many networks). Many viewers never figure out which network is which or which show is purveyed to them on which network. They simply know their favorite show is on “channel 67” or whatever. They are unimpressed with the network-bragging of HBO, SyFy, FX, ESPN or Tennis Channel. They react to content, not to the name of a provider. And… Read more »
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Charles Dickey
I think “literary” is more a matter of style than genre. Any genre work can have a literary quality. At its best, this quality heightens the substance of the work by artful use of language and style; at its worst, it conceals lack of substance by the same use of language and style. As far as twitter, blogging, and social media go, my personal opinion is that writers, especially writers in early stages of their careers, should focus on writing, not having an internet presence. It might make sense and be fun for Margaret Atwood and others of her stature,… Read more »
David Biddle
The era of naked text is just about done, my friends. We really need to stop worrying about short term market issues and whether Twitter sucks more than Facebook. Where we are right now in the Kingdom Of Lit is not where we’re going to be in 20 years. Those of us who try to be hip and innovative today — whether Indie or Trad — we’ll all be sucking on Viagra4Authors when the real shit starts hitting the fan as the next generations come up. No, not the kids who are graduating from MFA programs today, or even college… Read more »
Porter Anderson
@davidbiddle:disqus Hey, David, thanks for your comment, good to have you at the Ether. I’m curious. If we were to stop talking about things like the uneasy relationship of literary fiction writers to the industry in transition — and if we instead were to talk about what you seem to think is important, i.e. “Good? Interesting? Titllating? Intelligent? In-Your-Face? Worth Your Time?” — how would we do that? Do you mean that today’s ever-so-retrograde categories and genre indicators need to be replaced by labels, somehow, along these lines of yours? Maybe “Awesome, Clutch, and Rad?” Would this, then, mean that… Read more »
David Biddle
Porter, So, all of this back and forth has given me the seeds for my own blog post essay that should be out in a few weeks. The genre/classification issue is everywhere, of course. As I research it, I keep finding crazy interesting stuff. Here’s a paragraph from a piece done at The Millions about a month ago, called “A Genre Is Born: The Babylon Rite Slaughters Its Darlings.” “There has been a lot of giddy talk lately about the crumbling of the walls that once divided literary genres into tidy fiefs. In our brave and blurry new world, categories… Read more »
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Arjun_Basu

I wonder, Porter, if poets and “poetry” have long ago already achieved a kind of acceptance of the state of things. Is “literature” going the way of “poetry” – meaning is it a style (and not even a genre!) and, well, not a very big selling one at that….

(love that this conversation continues!)

Porter Anderson
@Arjun_Basu:disqus You know, I don’t THINK literary is actually going the way of poetry, Arjun, though I get where you’re coming from. The reason I say this is that we’re far more two-faced about literary than about poetry. Poetry we simply have left in the dust. It now is practiced only because (and thanks to) lots and lots and lots of contests and small chapbook outfits that see some value in getting it all published and moved around. It’s a busy niche, in other words, like opera’s hounds or old-car enthusiasts. Literary, however, still affects everyone, in that all the… Read more »
Corey Barenbrugge
I let this one sit in my feed for a while. I broke down this morning and read it and now I’m sifting through my thoughts. Thank you Porter (and Joanna) for bringing a generous voice to this dichotomy, which I see as being between the cloisters of literary fiction and the abundance/generosity of the new economy. Writers who cling to the cloisters remind me of other writers who complain that blogs and other free content detract from their ability to make a living; for writers in the cloisters, blogging and other online interactions detract from their ability to write… Read more »
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