Literary Genre Intimidating to the Consumer? — J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest and cigar

J. Conrad Guest and cigar

I recently participated in a forum in which the question was put forth, “Do literary novels intimidate consumers?”

I voiced my opinion that how a text is written is as important as what is written, that writers of literary novels focus on word choices and arrangement of words, and not just story. We’re challenged to use new words we’ve learned, but use them in such a way that the reader can infer their meaning; while other writers write to a sixth-grade level. We’re concerned about the turn of a phrase, the beauty of the prose, what Elmore Leonard calls “the writer butting into the story.” Mr. Leonard, forgive me, but you write with a screenplay mentality, and I’m underwhelmed by your work.

If I were writing to a genre, a formula, it would be a much quicker process: start with my last novel, change all the names of the characters, change the setting, maybe the period, toss in a couple different plot twists, and I’m ready to go to print in three months. The market seems huge for genre-specific novels that allow consumers to escape from their own mundane reality. While the publishing industry seems to think they must compete with Hollywood blockbuster action thrillers, requiring page-turning narrative designed to keep the reader in the story from start to finish.

But what about those of us who write “small” novels about everyday people dealing with the universal ideals of love, loss and regret? My protagonists don’t go on quests to prove that Jesus was indeed married and fathered a child; but I like to think that readers can connect with someone dealing with those universal ideals with which perhaps they, too, are grappling.

Does that mean that the consumer is put off by something labeled as “literary?” Do they fear it will be too deep for them, that the language will be too dense? I can’t say. I only know there is a market for what I write, because I seek  for my own reading pleasure novels that are similar to my own. The world will either embrace my work, or eschew it. Nothing will ever change that. Hemingway had his detractors. I have mine. Art either connects with someone, or it doesn’t. Writers today are taught that if they want to be a bestseller, they must become a mercenary. Identify your audience and write to it. One of the largest audiences today seems to clamor for stories about vampires and werewolves.

I’d like to hear from other writers about their views on literary fiction: do you write with an audience in mind, perhaps dumbing down your text in an effort to appeal to the masses? Or do you write what you wish to write, following your heart, and hope that your audience finds you?

J. Conrad Guest, author of: Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s ParadigmOne Hot JanuaryJanuary’s ThawA Retrospect In Death


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Filed under musings, writing

14 responses to “Literary Genre Intimidating to the Consumer? — J. Conrad Guest

  1. Regarding Elmore Leonard’s “the writer butting into the story”: I think it’s worth noting that in literary novels, there are a number of authors who also pay attention to those aspects of the text to render themselves invisible (rather than declared: “Hey! I’m an author and this is my literary work! Look at all the gorgeous prose, and oh yeah, the story is passable too”—don’t get me wrong, I love literary novels, but sometimes, we all have to admit, they try a little too hard), like, for example, in The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, or The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; they create these characters that speak in an unpretentious, relatable way. These authors are still paying attention to those critical elements of the writing itself (rather than creating formulaic fiction), but without inserting themselves.

    I think you said it best with “Art either connects with someone, or it doesn’t.” In my exhaustive research on writing in the past few years, it has become clear that one might sometimes need to strike a happy medium between writing for a particular audience and writing for oneself. If the first alone, you cannot possibly be enjoying your writing, unless you identify with that audience (which I suppose is probably pretty common). If the second alone, then you are likely isolating yourself to the type of authorship that leaves you without a nationally acclaimed best seller, and that may or may not leave you hailed as an author of high, literary talent, while perhaps intimidating the average reader—who is, after all, who authors should expect their novel/book to be picked up by in bookstores.

    I suppose this response was a bit too diplomatic, as I seemed to have formed no arguable opinion here. Enjoyable post though and on a topic that I have been thinking about a lot lately.

    • Thanks, A.B., for starting off the discussion.

      I, too, have read a few novels where the writer seems to show off, and that’s never a good thing. Perhaps I should’ve made mention of that in my post; or maybe it’s a good topic for a future post. At any rate, I read in part to connect with the author, and there is nothing wrong with a writer who loves language or wordplay, and has a unique voice, so long as it doesn’t come across as arrogance.

      I agree with you: the writer who writes strictly for a paycheck likely doesn’t enjoy his or her work.

  2. Thankyou. An interesting read. I write deliberately, slowly. I write what I need to write and I trust that my audience will find me there. I abhor the ‘business’ side of writing and don’t think the craft should be used to make people rich. Writing purely for money is obscene. But people do it. A lot of people write total shit and it makes them a lot of money.

    • C.J.: I’m not fond of the business side either; but I do think a writer, or any artist of merit, should be able to make a living from their work. Most are able to only supplement their income.

      E.L. James certainly proved that drivel, and poorly written drivel at that, can be immensely profitable. She gives hope to many self-published novelists that they, too, can win the lottery and have their work picked up by a major publisher. I’m sure many publishers turned her down before she parlayed her social network into noteworthy sales figures. I hold accountable the publishing house for riding her coattails.

  3. I write what I want to read which is more genre fiction. As I used to write screenplays, my fiction leans toward an easily filmed format with a lot of dialogue and movement. Doesn’t dumb it down, but doesn’t make it literary. I’ve read a lot of literary works I didn’t care for because they appeared to have no plot. Literary fiction doesn’t scare consumers, but doesn’t attract younger, more instant gratification audiences than genre fiction simply because is tends to move slower and delve into retrospection. The digital audience (I think) wants to disappear into a fast paced world that warp speeds them away from their own.

    • I fear you may be right, Sheila, about younger readers wanting instant gratification, plots with lots of action. Certainly many publishers, the major players, seem to want novels that compete with Hollywood action flicks.

      Yes, many, if not most, readers want to escape into a world of make believe. I like to do that on occasion, too. But I still want a novel with a theme or central message that I can apply to my reality.

      Thanks for adding your voice!

  4. shannonleegonzalez

    IMO, I’m not sure that the publishers want to compete with Hollywood, but rather benefit from them. When a book makes it to movie, the marketing of accompanying pariphenelia boosts book sales. They salivate when they can capitalize on the frenzy surrounding book-to-movie. I suppose they view books as “is it good enough to get a movie deal?” as one of the main criteria. Look at how many books recently have gone that route. Hollywood seems like its all sequels or relying heavily on books/comics to get a story nowadays.

    • Good point, Shannon; however, whether it’s competition or a desire for a summer blockbuster movie, the result is the same: publishers expect page burners. While it’s true that some quiet gems are made into films, I don’t think they make nearly the amount of money that action films do.

  5. A very thoughtful piece, and worth reflection. I can’t remember the exact quote, but William Zinsser, commenting on the question of who the writer should be writing for, answered “for himself/herself!” Do that, he said, and if your work is good, readers of good fiction will find you. I have written newspaper columns for years, and I write in a breezy, conversational tone. Now I am finishing my first novel, and I find I can’t escape that approach. That is apparently “myself.”

    Re the “literary” debate. I know of a college professor who has two copies of everything Robert Parker ever wrote. He keeps on set in his residence and another in his beach house. I can go through a Parker novel in one long evening and be throughly entertained, but I couldn’t describe the plot a week later. The dialogue crackles, the wit is matchless in its genre. Is it literary? Beats me.

    • Thanks, Chuck, for leaving your comments.

      I read one of Parker’s Jesse Stone novels and was underwhelmed. Personally, I enjoy the movies more. I wouldn’t consider Parker’s work to be literary. I find Raymond Chandler’s novels more engaging, and while I wouldn’t consider his work any more literary, I’d call him one of the great stylists of the 20th century.

  6. I used to read literary novels constantly (even the more pithy ones like Dostoyevsky, Henry James) but sometime in the 1980s I kept finding the contemporary writers I’d previously liked were writing in a new style with sentences constructed so I could no longer comprehend them and I didn’t want to bother. Thomas Pynchon is one of those. These days, there’s a trend of writing an entire book in the present tense. To be literary doesn’t mean one has to reconstruct the sentence or the language, does it? A lot of thrillers do come off like they’re written to be movies or TV shows and this gets tiresome, but I don’t want to have to jump through hoops to finish every paragraph.

    • Mickey: I wrote a 32,000-word novella in present tense. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought it was effective. I wouldn’t attempt it for a novel.

      No, one need not reconstruct the language to be literary. I do like a lyrical prose, but I also like introspective narrative, themes, and stories that relate to universal ideals as opposed to lighter fare associated with escapism.

    • Mickey, I’m the same way — I don’t want to go through hoops. People have the idea that a literary novel has to be challenging both in content and structure, but it only has to be challenging in content, giving you something more that the literary equivalent of a fast food hamburger.

  7. That’s quite the question to be asked at an event, and you gave a great answer.

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