Literary vs. Genre: Do I Have to Choose?

literary-vs-genre1So, just how wide is the gap between Literary and Genre Fiction? I found two relevant recent articles that helped me think about this topic:

Firstly, “Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction” by Steve Petite, in The Huffington Post. This article concludes,

“In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”

And “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate” by Joshua Rothman, in The New Yorker. In it, Rothman contends,

“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed.”

Rothman goes on to make a case for such a system already existing in Northrop Frye’s work, and applying this system to a modern novel that seems to straddle the Literary and Genre divide—“Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel.

The Agile Writer Method is, ostensibly, for genre fiction—crime, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, sci-fi, western and a newer variety known as inspirational. It is very well-suited to the somewhat formulaic nature of these works.

But I find nothing in the method that precludes its use for crafting Literary Fiction.

I came to Agile Writers nearly one year ago with very little idea of what I wanted to write, but a clear understanding of what I like to read. When it comes to novels, I prefer Literary Fiction. I just wasn’t exposed to much Genre Fiction, aside from one aunt who reads Romances, and a period of time in which my then-teenage brother read a lot of Westerns. My parents are both non-fiction lovers. The books I was assigned in school were mostly Literary Fiction, apart from a few classics predecessors of the contemporary Genre world. I simply never learned to enjoy Genre Fiction.

So, naively, I assumed that the Agile Writer Method, which is based in large part on the most universal story ever told—The Hero’s Journey—as it was traced by Joseph Campbell, would pertain to whatever kind of story I had to tell.

When forced to consider choosing a genre for my book in the Storyboarding Process (the planning stage at Agile Writers), I settled on ‘Inspirational’ by default—my story didn’t fit any of the other genres. And yet, most of Inspirational Fiction is actually Christian Inspirational Fiction. My story didn’t fit that distinction either. From a marketing standpoint, I’d probably be a fool to label my book Buddhist Inspirational Fiction, though it does have “Buddhist themes,” since self-identifying Buddhists make up less than 1% of Americans. (Never mind the longstanding affinity for Buddhist ideas among literary circles—The Transcendentalists and The Beatniks were both heavily influenced by Eastern Wisdom Traditions.) I feel more comfortable calling it Literary Fiction than Non-Christian Inspirational Fiction, though I have utilized every element of the Agile Writers methodology and theory.

But I don’t think it matters what label I ultimately choose. I, like my fellow Agile Writers, aim to write a hero’s tale. We want to tell the story of someone who gets a call to action, overcomes their fears, and emerges transformed at the end of the story by the trials they have endured.

In order to do that we need a strong protagonist—a hero with agency. The Agile Writer method helps us to arrange the plot in such a way that the reader is taken on the full journey of our hero. We must set the right obstacles in his/her path in order to make his/her transformation believable.

But, to me, the story is about the transformation of the hero. It’s not about the obstacle course it takes to get there. And if that isn’t the essence of Literary Fiction, I don’t know what is.

How the reader chooses to utilize the book—as an escape from reality or an emotional journey—as Petite sets up the divide, is really up to him or her. I, as the writer, can only write what I feel needs to be written. I think any hero’s journey—whether Literary or Genre—is equipped for entertainment or elucidation, whatever the reader is open to receive.

Taking Notes on Life

5174Writers are in the business of noticing. Just as the skilled eye of a painter takes in a sunset and sees subtle undertones of color and the play of positive and negative space, writers look at a stranger’s face or a tree branch or the slant of afternoon light and see a story.

Everything we ever write is an attempt to convey what we notice. It is not that writers have some monopoly on the ability to notice. Far from it. Everyone is capable of pausing in any moment of their lives to pay attention. But as writers, we cultivate this habit. Also, we cheat a little by taking notes.

The chapter of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that we mulled over this week was entitled “Index Cards.” And she meant literal index cards. As in, keep one with you and write down your ideas. She has made it a practice, and thinks we all should too.

Maybe the banality of note-taking goes against the romantic notion of a writer as a teeming brain, slurping coffee at all hours in a darkened basement with a typewriter for his only company. But, I agree with Lamott that writers desperately need to go out into the world. After all, we are interested in creating worlds; worlds complete with enough ordinary and oft-overlooked details to render our prose realistic.

So, we cultivate and strengthen the skill of noticing like we would any other skill—by practicing.

And we practice scribbling whenever and wherever our ideas might hit. Many of us know that once you are immersed in a writing project you find that the world around you is constantly handing you the raw material you need.

Maybe a clip of dialogue in the grocery aisle is the impetus for a new minor character?

Or a run-in with a neighbor who teaches you something about gardening inspires your main character’s hobby?

Or the opportunity to accompany a friend and their child on an afternoon escapade becomes a telling memory your character cherishes of a childhood outing?

These events, if captured, can serve to flesh out our characters so that they walk off the page and into the reader’s imagination, accompanying him or her long after the final page of the novel. These daily details are the very human substance out of which resonant stories are made.

And without a pen, and a trained attention, we forget them or miss them altogether.

Agile Writers, in one sense, is another place where ideas may come to light on the tip of your pen and beg to be written. The group is a diverse cross-section of the Richmond metro area. Variations in age, gender, socio-economic, educational, ethnic, religious and professional identities abound. We are a group of strangers pulled together by our shared dedication to writing. And we are human resources for each other.

Agile Writers is also a place to gather with others who, like you, make it their business to see the world in all of its prismatic variance. Sometimes our individual wells of inspiration may run dry, but being in community means discovering the truth time and again that there really is an inexhaustible supply of ideas out there.

Your job is to carry a pen. Or, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself a member of Agile Writers, you can always borrow your neighbor’s.

A Dragon Named ‘Publishing’

DDP_logoThe journey of writing a novel, or other lengthy work, is a bit of a hero’s journey unto itself.

For months or even years you keep your head down, diligently doing your work, the daily effort of writing. Maybe you get feedback from a few trusted others, you make changes, you cycle through edits and polish paragraphs.

Then the day comes—the exultant, terrifying day—when you are finished. The novel is complete. And homeless, you suddenly realize. This thing that you have labored over tirelessly must be set out into the world in some fashion. After all, writing—for all of its innate fulfillment through the process—is an act of communication.

Writers in the modern era face a choice that is totally unprecedented in literary history. We can choose to go it alone all the way to the finish line. Self-publishing has a growing share of the market. With that comes self-designing and self-marketing.

If you, like me, have always dreamed of that pristine white letter coming in the mail,

Dear Ms. Hill,

We are pleased to inform you that we at Random House loved your manuscript and are prepared to offer you a publishing contract complete with a handsome advance to get you through writing your next book. . .

It would seem that those days have passed. More often than not, those sorts of publisher-writer relationships are becoming relics. And, the common wisdom among many of today’s fiction writers is that traditional publishing can still leave you doing all the work of marketing and somehow getting only a swiss cheese version of your book’s sales.

I will venture to say that the skills that make you a good writer do not necessarily translate into the skills that make you an effective editor, graphic designer, marketer, and sales director.

New skill sets aside, these things require a Teflon belief in yourself and your book. Who better to advocate for the work you are so intimately and passionately connected to than yourself, though?

I think you need bravery to write honestly. I think you need bravery to put what you have written into the world. I think you need bravery to declare that your work is worthy of an audience.

This need for bravery is one way the writing process acts upon the writer, refining our humanity, if we are willing to do the work it takes to invest totally in our books and then separate from them when the time comes: sending them out of the nest like our mind’s grown children.

The merits of traditional or self-publishing must be carefully weighed by each author when the time comes. The proliferation of the written word, and the democratizing effect of the internet, surely levels the playing field. There are more published authors than ever before, but there are also more potential readers.  I will not pretend to know which kind of publishing is “better.”

What I do know is that writers need the expert advice of those who speak a different first language, and can act as interpreters and translators from the unknown lands of publishing. Agile Writers provides just such opportunities through our “Beyond Agile Writers” series, to comb the minds of expert graphic designers, book sellers, editors and publishers.

You must slay that final dragon called Publishing for yourself. But, don’t leave your Armor of Knowledge at home.