Maybe I write literary books.
I’ve heard people say this before. My writer friend Matt has said I’m a literary writer yearning to write genre. I took it on board, thought I understood it, but yesterday the same idea hit me deeper than before.
First, let’s look at what ‘literary’ writing is, and why I have resisted embracing the label for so long.
Here are 6 features of literay fiction according to Wikipedia:
- A concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition.
I definitely do this. With Wren the social commentary, political criticism and human condition are right there at the forefront. It’s about race, about social media, about the fragility of the human mind which we are coming more and more to accept/understand.
In my zombie books these same themes are also there, if less overtly. My apocalypse is very diverse, and we watch Amo basically get his mind broken by trauma over the books.
In my Sen fantasy books, diversity is everything – they’re all different races. There’s a caste/class system based on race, and one factor of the story is about breaking that system.
In the Mr. Ruin books, it’s all about the fragility of the mind, and the nature of evil people – how far dictators would take things, if they were allowed.
- A focus on “introspective, in-depth character studies” of “interesting, complex and developed” characters, whose “inner stories” drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit “emotional involvement” in the reader.
I most definitely do this. All my characters are integral to all my stories. Without their inner drives, there is no real story. I always transform characters, or have them arc organically thanks to their choices and the world they’re embedded in.
I don’t think I overdo this though. I’ve read literary books that endlessly noodle on inner thoughts. I can occasionally lapse into this, but I always aim to trim it for pace and purpose.
- A slower pace than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way”.
I have done this – the Sen books were pretty sumptuous on world and details, likewise with Mr. Ruin, and even Wren had some in depth (if quite fast) sidetracks into the backstories of his various cult members.
This is not something I much want to encourage in myself, and my goal has been to speed things up. I dislike slow stories in almost cases, except maybe Haruki Murakami, where the slow pace is the point. In pretty much everything else, I want pace.
- A concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as “elegantly written, lyrical, and layered”.
I’ve been getting in trouble for purple overwriting in the past. I love to play with words, use neologisms, use non-standard grammar to fuel the pace or the impact.
I’m reducing this. While I love literary wordplay as a writer, I’m not a big fan of it as a reader. I’m happy to rein this in, if it allows me some leeway on the social issues
- Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern.
I don’t do this. Plot and character and interwoven. Wren’s backstory, emotions and mental state are always integrated to the things he does and what happens around him. Same with all my books. I don’t know how I would extricate them.
Probably the ‘standard’ literary book is not set in genre worlds, as I do though. It’s family drama, which I have no interest in. I’m dealing with end of the world stuff, in all my books. So the emotions are heightened, and the heroes’ inner worlds are essential.
- The tone of literary fiction can be darker than genre fiction.
This is me all over. I always go dark, go to the end of the line, because it feels true. If your bad guy is holding back, then the story is not genuine. The hero is not fully challenged. There was never really that much threat.
My comments are always about the Wren books being dark, gory, scary.
So, literary then?
The reason I wouldn’t want to accept a label like this is because my experience of ‘literary’ books is that I hate them. I read some of ‘Freedom’ by a much-vaunted author, and despised it. I forced myself to read 100 years of solitude, hundreds of pages of descriptions mounting on top of each other with no story at all, and despised every second.
I am not THAT. I really dislike that.
But genre literary?
I think about other definitions of genre – and they’ve got to be around a story following certain tropes, motifs, structures and plot expectations. I always subvert these, and can’t seem to help myself.
In Wren? Constantly. About the nature of the hero. About the way the climaxes play out. About the nature of the bad guys and the good guys.
In Amo? Baked into the core story – the very nature of the zombies.
And so on. If I had to write genre fiction without subverting expectations, I don’t think I could do it. It would feel pointless. Why not just put all my energy into my day job?
This makes it super clear for me – I’m not writing solely to entertain. I have messages I want to share. I want to challenge my readers to some degree.
So I write literary genre books.
This may explain many things.
Why Wren 1 sells but Wren 2 doesn’t.
I have honed my Wren 1 cover, blurb and marketing materials to target Jack reacher readers. They expect Reacher-like books. Reacher is edgy, but not nearly as edgy as Wren. So they buy book 1 expecting that, find out it’s not what they expected, and read no further. You can’t blame them.
It’s my fault.
The cover needs to look like literary genre. This is more symbolic, like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Livia Lone, Silence of the Lambs, I Am Pilgrim, even the early Reacher covers (bloody palm print).
The blurb needs to target readers of this darker, more challenging stuff – so I need to mimic books in those sub-genres and patterns. Not Reacher.
Why Mr. Ruin doesn’t sell.
I can diagnose this but not easily fix it. My first instinct was to put a China Mieville-esque cover on book 1, but it didn’t look good. The concept was fine, but the delivery (led by me) was poor. I then tried various Action/Adventure types of cover, now it’s cyberpunk, but the book is none of those.
It doesn’t fit into any easy subgenre. It’s a new genre. It needs a literary SF cover – whateevr that means. Then the blurb needs to do the heavy lifting.
Why Sen book 2 doesn’t sell.
I have a great kind of grimdark fantasy cover – it definitely helped me sell books. But book 2 doesn’t sell at all. This has to be the same thing as with Wren. The contents of the book are very different from what you might expect in a book with a cover like that.
So maybe it needs a new cover. Literary fantasy – perhaps like the Mieville covers again. A different blurb that makes the weirdness the selling point. Eschew the genre readers, because they largely won’t like it. A cover that is symbolic.
And the zombie books?
These remain my biggest success. The cover is solidly on genre. The book content starts on genre, then subverts that massivelky, and continues down a somewhat wacky path. It gets pretty good reviews though, and fair readthrough these days.
It’s possible it would benefit from a more literary, symbolic cover. That’s something to think about.
What is genre, anyway?
Genre is just a story/world/character combination that people previously enjoyed, and want more of. Twilight became a new kind of genre. Lord of the Rings, when first written, had to be literary because not much like it really existed. It broke new ground and created a massive new genre.
TL;DR, what’s the takeaway?
My covers, pretty much across the board, may not be right. They signal genre conventions that I don’t follow. Some readers will find that departure delightful. Some will just put down the book.
I need to signal as honestly as I can. I may need more literary covers, more symbolic, and blurbs to match. Don’t push them towards mainstream too far.
Interesting. Could be expensive. We’ll see.