We should really just quit calling it Literary Fiction.

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When I got started on this crazy ride of starting a literature-centric nonprofit, all I really wanted was a Reading Series in my town, and to shine a light on literary–or any craft-concerned, smartly written–fiction.

I also wanted to be able to get paid to read and talk to authors while providing an amazing thing to my community, and eventually the larger, literary world.

As it turns out, the larger literary world is a little warmer than my community in some key ways–but my community is also really excellent.  So this thing is going to go, even if it takes another six months to really sprout our wings.

Then our friend Peter Damian Bellis came on board, and he made some great points about how the publishing industry–even 20 years ago–is ineffective at promoting quality books, and it changed into this thing about reclaiming the market, or maybe publishing, for literary fiction–figuring out how to position efforts to get lit fic writers the merchandising kudos their commercial counterparts enjoy: end caps, big distribution, wild blog tours, social media frenzy.

I’m starting to see that the two are closely related.

What smart books have is a MAJOR public relations problem.  Literary Fiction as a genre label is so rogered up by public perception that there’s no point in trying to get smart stories in front of people using that label.

And whatever else the academic/elitist/MFA trained authors believe about themselves, they want people to read their books.  Not because of money, because of art.  Writing is art.  Writers are artists.  Writers want you to see their art.  They want to enrich the cultural experience.  They like money, but that is not what motivates them, which is probably part of the problem, too.

So what people who write smart books are going to have to do is to handle the ever-faltering publishing industry by pitching smart books–and finding agents who will–in a commercial genre label.

I will give you an example.  It’s a book I’m talking a lot about lately because I really think it’s brilliant.  It’s called Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr., and it is literary fiction.  It should be marketed as science fiction.  Someone would make a movie.  That is how freaking brilliant this book is.  Go read it.

So it’s not that people don’t want to read good stuff, it’s that the good stuff got knocked out of public esteem sometime during the modern/postmodern aesthetic of dense, unreadable, pretension.  The great us/them divide happened, and nobody ever sent out a memo when smart books started to have stories again.

The last two collections of literary short stories (which were one of the most hotly criticized things in the delicious comments to my piece at Jane Friedman’s blog) I read were short storeis that told a story like a novel would, but that had their own little narrative arcs.  Delightful, digestable, but without all kinds of repeated language and ellipses and tropes and poorly rendered, unnecessary past perfect tense.

Go listen to my talk with Smoky Zeidel.  I’m sure she’s not the only author with a similar story.

And organizations like Billtown Blue Lit and people like Marc Schuster are going to have be curators.  Because publishing houses will be absorbed by the ether within 20 years.  Yes, there will always be books, there will always be publishing.  But paper books will be rare, and publishing house production staff will be replaced by cooperatives of editors and proofreaders and book designers and cover artists.

What I’m saying is that we can’t count on the publishing industry to guide us to quality literature anymore… Apparently, we haven’t been able to for some time.

I expect the future of publishing to look a lot like Create Space at Amazon.

What we need to do–instead of bemoaning an idyllic past–is brace ourselves for being competitive in the future, and to take this opportunity to be aggressive about getting smart books in front of people. More people will read them if we don’t call them literary fiction.

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7 Comments

  1. Smoky Zeidel

    Brilliant, April. Very astute observations. Writers *are* artists, and we need to be able to claim that title just as a painter or a sculptor or a cellist can. Genre, to me, is not important; it’s just a label, like “white middle-aged female” is a label. We writer/artists want readers to go beyond the label on the cover and dive into our carefully crafted words, and in doing so, get lost in a world of our own creation.

    • Thanks, Smoky! I’m kind of stoked for some angry backlash, though, from people who would prefer to think of themselves in that elitist ivory tower, lording their awesomeness all over the place.

      • Smoky Zeidel

        People who dwell in elitist ivory towers tend to get trapped there, looking down on the world, which merrily goes on, never once looking up.

  2. Marc Schuster

    Thanks! I’m honored that you think of me as a curator.

    • Of course! What else do we call “Small Press Picks”? They’re great. That’s curation. I read this thing about “why write novels” from the NY times. That talked about how we now show literati/educated/elevated taste status by curating through facebook (and other social media). I reckon that as publishing evolves, there’ll be more folks who offer that service via blogs, magazines, subscription services–you’re already doing it. Gate keeping will be replaced with curation and there will be much, much more self-publishing. That is my theory anyway.

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