Literary vs. Commercial

Last weekend I participated in the Writer’s Digest Conference Pitch Slam. After the event, an agent-friend and I discussed the pitches that got us excited, and there was one in particular that became the subject of a debate. I talked about a pitch for a magical realism novel that I couldn’t wait to read; she said the same about an urban fantasy. It took us all of ten seconds to realize we were talking about the same novel.

During the pitch, the author didn’t label his work with either genre, so we were left to fight over it. In her more commercially inclined hands, she would find an urban fantasy angle and exploit it to publishers. My tastes run more literary, so my mind ran with ideas of magical realism comparison titles and where I’d place it. (Keep in mind, neither one of us has read this manuscript yet, but this is what an agent needs to think about when hearing a 3-minute pitch.)

When I receive queries that claim to be literary fiction, it often turns out, after reading the synopsis, that they are very, very commercial. The flip side has happened too. I’ll request a supernatural thriller or dark mystery, with the intention of hopefully selling them to those specific markets, and the books turn out to be much more literary than the author probably realized.

I don’t think writers should get too hung up on labels, but it’s important to know the market in which you’re writing. You’re expected to give an agent an immediate sense of where they can sell your book, but even more than that you should be able to know who you’ll be next to on a bookshelf so that you can read your comparison titles accordingly.

Figuring out thriller vs. mystery vs. suspense vs. urban fantasy vs. supernatural vs. horror can be difficult, I know. In these cases, it’s best to just choose the closest and let a professional decide the best way they can sell it. But the line between literary and commercial isn’t as vague. You shouldn’t claim your book is literary fiction if it isn’t. For one, it’s rare you’ll find an agent who looks for literary fiction and commercial fiction with the same fervor, if they take on both at all. You don’t want to get a rejection based on a mislabel. Secondly, literary fiction can be quite different from commercial fiction, and not learning the difference can reflect a lack of research on your part.

The common argument, however, is that all books are technically literary. Right? Well, yes and no. Saying all books are literary is like saying all Young Adult novels are about characters under 25. Young is young, right!? Except, no. YA is for teens. Young is not just “young.” Like literary vs. commercial fiction, the genre labels can be misleading, which is why it’s important to know what they mean.

If you’re unsure about which you’ve written, here’s a quick definition of each:

Literary fiction: The focus is on character arc, themes (often existential), and the use of language. I like to compare literary fiction authors to runway designers. The general public isn’t mean to wear the clothes models display on the runway. They exist to impress the other designers and show the fashion industry what they can do. Literary writing is a lot like that, but on a more accessible level. Many dismiss literary fiction as “too artsy” and “books without a plot,” but this isn’t true. At least not most of the time. The plot is there; it’s just incidental. Literary fiction is meant to make the reader reflect, and the author will almost always prefer a clever turn of phrase over plot development.

Commercial fiction: If you write genre fiction, you are likely writing commercial fiction. There is also “literary genre” fiction, such as people like David Mitchell, Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn, etc. Meaning their use of language is equal to their attention to genre conventions. For the purpose of this blog post, let’s pretend that when I say “genre” in place of “commercial,” I’m talking about the ones that aren’t literary or “crossover” hits. I’m referring more to the ones that only fans of that genre know to look for, and usually come in a nice convenient mass market-sized package. [There is also “upmarket” commercial fiction, which I’ll get to later.] Unlike literary fiction, genre fiction is written with a wide audience in mind (aka “commercial”) and always focuses on plot. There is still character development in genre fiction, but it is not as necessary. Characters get idiosyncratic quirks, clever dialogue, and often learn something new about life or themselves by the end. The difference is that their traits are only skin deep. The reader stays with them in the present. Rarely do we see a character’s past unless there is something pertinent to the plot back there. Genre fiction has a Point A and a Point B, and very little stands in the way of telling that story.

An agent or editor will rarely prefer you play with these formats, especially if you’re a debut author trying to find (and build) your audience. If you’re writing a plot-driven genre novel that adheres to a sci-fi, romance, or thriller structure, don’t try to load it with literary devices and huge character back-stories that aren’t relevant to the plot. It won’t impress an agent if you have a super literary genre novel. It will more likely confuse us and make your book harder to sell.

“Upmarket” fiction is where things get tricky. Readers don’t know that word and don’t care, and there’s never a reason to pitch your book as “upmarket” if it doesn’t fall within a specific genre, but if you ever hear an industry person asking for “upmarket,” we mean the type of books that straddle a literary/commercial line. Books like The Help, Water for Elephants, Eat, Pray, Love, and authors like Nick Hornby, Ann Patchet, and Tom Perrotta are considered “upmarket.” Their concepts and uses of language appeal to a wider audience, but they have a slightly more sophisticated style than traditional genre fiction, and touch on themes and emotions that go deeper than the plot. Contemporary/realistic (a.k.a. “genre-less” fiction), “women’s fiction,” or other books your book club suggests are most likely “upmarket.”

With debut authors, I think the main source of uncertainty tends to come from what they set out to write vs. what they actually write. Genre fiction is written with a clear purpose. The author has an idea and writes a story to accomplish their goal. Literary fiction can be more accidental. A writer may start with an idea, and then discover along the way that they don’t want to write about that anymore. They’ve fallen for their character’s personal tale or the images they want to evoke within the reader. If the writing ends up falling somewhere in the middle, then it might be considered “upmarket.” Or, it could mean it needs more focus one way or the other.

What’s important to remember is that none of these types of fiction is better than the other. It’s all about personal preference, based on what you like to read and how you write. If an agent doesn’t represent a certain genre, it doesn’t mean he or she think it’s bad. It just means you’re better off with someone else. Be aware that a genre label can influence an agent, but be honest about what your genre is. It wastes everyone’s time – most importantly, yours – if you try to guess what you think agents want. We want books we can fall in love with that fall under in genres and styles we represent, whether they’re young adult, adult genre fiction, or literary to a Proustian degree. That’s all.

Never a Bride

Last week, Jennifer Weiner pointed out the very real gender bias that exists when it comes to book reviews and author coverage. In short, women are not represented at the same level as men. Now, I have had problems with Ms. Weiner ever since the “Franzenfreude” debacle of 2010, in which she was quoted as saying “I don’t write literary fiction – I write books that are entertaining.” And while she admits that she and Franzen are too different, stylistically, to compare, there always seems to be an air of resentment in her voice when she talks about literary fiction. But when it comes to the unfair treatment of women in the book world, she is spot on, and I always listen to her when she has something to say about it.

I bring this up because today proved that sexism on the opposite end of the spectrum happens too. The 2012 Academy Award nominations were announced, and under Best Original Screenplay was Bridemaids.

I liked Bridesmaids. It was a comedy and it made me laugh, so therefore it was a success in my opinion. Comedies can be brilliant, as evidenced by the fact that Midnight in Paris and The Artist were also nominated in the same category. Bridesmaids, however, was not brilliant. It was good. Not great, but good. It was called the female answer to The Hangover for a reason. It was the same exact movie. 
Praising Bridemaids for its writing is Hollywood’s response to a woman being as skilled as a man when it comes to writing raunchy, juvenile comedies. Sure they make us laugh and even can be quite clever, but men behaving badly is par for the course. When women prove they can be equal, they are rewarded with the label of “better” or “artistic.” It’s telling us, Good for you! You really are as talented as men! Here’s a trophy.” 
Melissa McCarthy is also nominated, and I can see why. Without her inappropriately quirky character, the movie would have been mediocre at best, which is a testament to the power of one performance. Though I wonder if that character would have been considered as “hilarious” if she were a size 4. The role itself is one we’ve seen a million times – he’s been in every ’80s teen movie, trying to get the shy main character laid. He’s appeared in action movies and thrillers to provide comic relief. But now “he” was a “she,” and therefore more credible as part of the film’s success. I’m not saying comic relief characters don’t deserve recognition, but if I were Zach Galifianakis I’d be pissed.
This week has shown that when it comes to women in media, whether book or film or otherwise, struggles to be considered equal are still very present. When are people going to learn that we want to praised for our talent, but not when that talent is “being equal to a man?” I won’t be mad if Bridesmaids or Melissa McCarthy win, just disappointed that this will be Hollywood’s excuse for the next ten years to keep women held back, the same way giving Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman the occasional Oscar is supposed to appease African-American actors. 
I wish these actors had the guts that Jennifer Weiner has. She’s a NY Times bestselling author who refuses to simply “shut up and be grateful.” She’s able to look outside herself and see bias in the same organization that rewards her. Every writer wants to be recognized for his or her accomplishments, and everyone has the right to question the motives behind that praise. Are we making a big deal out of one woman so that we can ignore the next twenty? Or are we looking at everyone equally for what they’ve accomplished, and comparing them to others in their field accurately and fairly? 

New Title Trend

Happy 2012, everyone! (It’s not past the point where I can still say that, right?)

I’m beginning my 2012 posts the same way most writers begin their novels – with titles.

Titles matter. Sometimes a bad title can ruin a good thing (Cougartown, anyone? But more on that later.). I’ve been having a problem with titles lately. Specifically, titles of television shows. It’s not so much what they are as what they reflect on society. I’m not liking what I see. Usually when I talk about TV on the blog, it’s about something that translates to novel writing, and the title trend I’ve been seeing in the latest crop of sitcoms is no different.

I’ve spoken before about “strong female characters” and what term means to me. Surprisingly, I think TV has been getting “strong” right more often than many novels lately. There was a lull in the past decade (I blame producers who tried to find “the next Sex and the City” by missing the point of the show.) Things are far from perfect, but in recent years we’ve been reassured that characters like Mary Richards (and Rhoda!), Murphy Brown, and Roseanne actually mattered. Women have come a long way. We get to be in charge of our sexuality, choose our own destinies, and have dragon tattoos (but more on that later). We get characters like Alicia from The Good Wife, Leslie from Parks & Recreation, and Caroline from The Vampire Diaries.

So if I’m so happy with the way women are finally starting to be portrayed, what’s my problem? Men are my problem.

Don’t mistake my italics for an emphasis on “men.” I like men, as most feminists do. My problem with Men are the titles the word keeps appearing in. It’s talked about less, but men suffer from sexism on TV, in movies, and in books too. The difference is that most of the better characters are written for men, so the good often outweighs the bad, and the sexism isn’t always as noticeable. But apparently someone over at ABC noticed and wants something to be done about it. Only instead of creating better characters for women, they’re leveling the playing field by creating worse characters for men.

ABC seems to be leading the Man Revolution, beginning with its already-canceled Man Up and Tim Allen’s return to TV, Last Man Standing. Both shows are about men taking their gender back. From whom, you ask? Apparently women, liberals, and gay/intellectual/vegan/hipsters who are not considered “real men.”  

Man Up is about friends who need to grow up, but can’t seem to shake their college lifestyle. It’s a typical boys will be boys character trope that we’re used to seeing in small doses, usually through a supporting character in an ensemble cast. Not to be outdone, CBS had the good sense to kill its new show How to be a Gentleman before it spread, yet is holding on tight to the wizened patriarch of all Men shows, Two and a Half Men. Like Man Up, both of these shows feature men in their 30s and 40s behaving like boys. It’s all fast cars, hot babes, no ambition, and zero self-reflection. On the other side of the “man” spectrum is Last Man Standing, in which Tim Allen has sacrificed his manhood by living in the same house as his wife and daughters, and now needs to return to his manly, undomesticated roots.

ABC’s crowning achievement this year might be their mid-season replacement, Work It, a remake of Bosom Buddies, which should tell you all you need to know. But to elaborate, this is a 2012 sitcom with a premise that was tacky and outdated even in 1980. Two men – extra macho-looking for comedic effect – decide the only way they can get jobs is by dressing up as women. Hilarity, weak premises, and sexism ensue. From the previews, the men look as convincing as women as the Wayans Brothers looked in White Girls. Not only do they neglect shaving and general upkeep even though they are passing as women, but they only wear shoulder-padded pantsuits that I can only assume ABC still had laying around from Bosom Buddies. It’s offensive to men as much as it is women. There is no equivalent to these men in real life, and the level of immaturity and stupidity they celebrate is insulting.

But I digress. Back to Men.

I described these shows in case you hadn’t heard of them, but what it boils down to is that every man featured on these shows wishes for simpler times (for men) when gender roles were defined and all men were created equal, with the same interests, thoughts, education level, and goals. While each show features men in arrested development, they still get to proudly wave their Man title high. And yet, every magazine cover, news article, and end-of-year round-up has been about women (“finally”) being recognized as equals in comedy.

We got to see Bridesmaids… and, um… If you’re waiting for me to name another well-received all-female comedy made in the past year (or ten), then you’ll have to wait until Bridesmaids 2 comes out. Our “Year in Comedy” consisted of one movie, and two new sitcoms, New Girl and 2 Broke Girls.

Notice the immediate shift in title choices. The irony, of course, is that while Men get to celebrate their lack of growth, the Girl shows feature young women trying to make it on their own as adults. Admittedly, New Woman doesn’t have the same cache, but even teen heroines Buffy, Clarissa, Veronica, and Alex Mack got to at least have their names in their titles. (Oh, this year we also got Whitney, which did for female empowerment what its ad campaign did to get me to watch the show.)

Once women are old enough to be taken seriously in the real world, television and media find new ways to infantilize them. Isn’t it so darn cute how those Girls are single and independent and trying to live in a man’s world? Someday they’ll make 3/4 of what those Men do. Then maybe when they outgrow their youthful optimism they can move to Cougartown or become a Good Wife or if they really snap under the pressure, remain a Girl, but ones covered with dragon tattoos. I suppose it’s too much to think they’ll ever be called Women though, right?

Since two of these Man shows have been canceled already, I have some hope that this trend won’t last. I hope that writers will stop thinking that the type of humor that worked 30 years ago is still relevant today, and that the most critically acclaimed shows on TV right now are the ones that challenge gender stereotypes and create non-archetypal characters. And mostly I hope that you, the novel writers, won’t let this trend infect your work.

(Parting exercise: Type in “wife” into the Amazon search bar under Books. Scroll through the bestsellers and acclaimed novels that tell stories of women overshadowed by powerful men. Then type in “husband.”)