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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.
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.
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.
This 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?
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?
Meanwhile, Julie Crisp, Tor UK’s Editorial Director, reveals in Sexism in Genre Publishing: A Publisher’s Perspective, that 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.
The 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:
If 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.
Apple loss to DOJ is a black mark for a company that really doesn’t need another one. http://t.co/U4GvifWcjs
— Tom Dupree (@TomDupree1) July 11, 2013
(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. Literature 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
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.
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.
This 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?
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).
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. In 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.
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).
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.
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. But 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?”
Does BEA plan on giving me a prize when I successfully complete my fourth unsubscribe from their feedback emails? — Matt Mullin (@mrmullin) July 10, 2013
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.
Len first, Len last.
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) July 8, 2013
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”?
Bought myself a Henry Miller letter. http://t.co/HAazI7gfpM
— Shaun Usher (@LettersOfNote) July 3, 2013
Main image: imelenchon