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« Free Reads -- City Journal | Main | Free Reads -- Phillip De Vous on Portland »

July 23, 2003

Free Reads -- Alexander Zaitchik on Romance Writers

Friedrich --

One of the many cuckoo notions college lit studies left me with was that the people who write literary fiction (instead of pop or genre fiction, let alone do any other kind of writing -- TV, self-help, technical advice...) do so because they're better writers, and maybe better people too. Not a matter of preference or choice, in other words, but an inevitable consequence of brainpower, taste, discernment and talent. Imagine my surprise when I met dumb literary writers and smart genre writers, and when I discovered the important role that family money (as well as networking and connections) plays in the literary world. Imagine my further surprise when I discovered that I often like genre writers as people more than I like literary writers.

The mystery and crime-writing scene, for example, has got nothing to apologize for where brains are concerned. Neither has the romance-writing scene, which, the few times I looked into it, I found to be full of tough, smart, industrious gals doing their best to deliver some pleasure for your entertainment buck. Like many ex-English-lit types who spend time in or close to the publishing world, I wound up with 'way less respect for the lit celebs than I once expected to have, and 'way more for the low-key pros.

So I was pleased to run across a good NY Press story by Alexander Zaitchek (with help from Adam Bulger) about the romance-writing scene. It's remarkably unsnarky, and full of up-to-date information and surprises -- romances have become popular in France, for instance.

Sample passage:

The biggest romance subgenre at the moment—and the one taken most seriously outside of romance fandom—is chick-lit, and Jennifer Crusie is one of its rising stars. As the RWA faithful ate strawberry cheesecake, Crusie delivered the conference’s keynote address, in which she recounted her flight from academia.

"I’m an intellectual damn it," she remembers thinking. "I’m not gonna write a cheeseball romance."

But write one she did. And she’s damn proud of it.

"The world doesn’t need any more writers, it needs storytellers." At this, the crowd of storytellers erupted in cheers.

Hey, I've read a Jennifer Cruisie book. I enjoyed it.

Zaitchik's piece is here.



posted by Michael at July 23, 2003


Okay, it's clear; I'm an idiot. Whaaa! But I still don't understand the apparently common phrase, "literary fiction." Huh??? Is literary fiction written with a pretentious attitude or something? Ha! Well, surely not. Do literary fiction writers not just, "tell a story," when they write?

Could you try NOT to explain this by example. If you just cite some book titles, I may not have read them and I still won't understand. I'm honestly confused. I mean, strictly speaking, what makes fiction, "literary fiction?"

Posted by: laurel on July 24, 2003 9:51 AM

It's in the "Literature" section of the bookstore, instead of in the Mystery, Romance, or Science Fiction/Fantasy section.

(You might think I'm joking, but I'm not.)

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 24, 2003 11:31 AM

So...I guess there's no such thing as a literary mystery, a literary romance or...literary science fiction.

Can anyone flesh this out more for me? Is there a post already written on this somewhere?

You don't want to add more do you Will?

Posted by: laurel on July 24, 2003 1:35 PM

Laurel -- A huge, huge question!! From what little I know, it has partly to do with modernism, when something called "literary fiction" broke off from mere fiction and storytelling. Movies had something to do with this too -- they offer storytelling in such an easy-to-get package that arty writing types started thinking, sheesh, what can we sell? What have we got to offer? So they came up with "writing." The novel as linguistic construct, in other words -- emphasis off storytelling and character, emphasis on the construction of the book as book. Kind of like what happened in painting once photography came in. Photography took care of accurately rendering the visual universe, which was part of what painting had done before. So some painters, feeling in a bind, tried to figure out what they might better sell. They came up with painting-per-se, not representation but the act of putting paint on the canvas. So Faulkner equals Picasso, sort of.

This persisted over time and came to define serious vs. unserious fiction writing. Serious fiction was "about the writing." Unserious fiction writing attended to the traditional basics -- story, characters, involvement, suspense, etc. The genres -- romance, mystery, etc -- grew and developed largely in the unserious wing of the fiction house, while the serious writers attended to serious things, like building huge constructs of words.

All this got frozen into place when databases and computers came along, which is Will's good point. A publisher or a bookstore owner who relies on a computer has to put a book in some category or other -- that's how databases work. So now we have mysteries, westerns, sci-fi, literature, etc -- all those as categories. What's usually meant when someone in publishing talks about a work of "literary fiction" is that the book is highbrowed, high-minded, and relates more to the tradition of modernism than it does to any storytelling tradition. It ain't merely storytelling, in other words. The writing is supposedly what really counts. Although this definition has been gummed up a bit in the last decade by the lit world's emphasis on race and sex -- literary writing these days often has to do with identity.

And you're right, there are lots of overlaps. John le Carre ("Smiley's People," etc) writes literary spy novels -- which means there's some writin' on display. James Lee Burke writes literary detective novels -- again, there's some writin' on display. Usually what's meant, though, as far as I can tell is that these are genre, story-centered books that "literary" people can bring themselves to read.

Personally, I think it's a crock, and that it's always been a crock, and I'm hopeful that we're in the midst right now of watching the hierarchy crumble. I like some lit-fiction myself, but I don't for a moment buy the idea that it's (by mere virtue of being literary) intrinsically better than any other kind of fiction. I'm betting that its status is changing -- for a century, it's stood atop all other forms of fiction writing, it's been what fiction aspires to be. These days, it's becoming clear that it's just a genre (or at least a category) like any other. You might be in the mood for a western, or you might be in the mood for something multicultural and literary...

Are you much of a lit-fict reader yourself? Is there much of it you enjoy?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2003 1:59 PM

I agree with Michael and Will. It's all about categorizing them for bookstores, reviewers, bestseller lists etc. though my guess is that it's gone a little farther and there are publishers who now specialize in publishing sci fi or mystery or romance or general fiction.

The phenomenon I find interesting is the Book Club book--Oprah's Book Club comes to mind. Book Club fiction seems designed to give a target group of people something to talk about. And they give you handy little guides in the back in case you are too dim to pick up on what's going on in the book. I find the whole thing slightly insulting.

Posted by: Deb on July 24, 2003 4:20 PM

Hey, us "too dim" people like those little guides! Cut us some slack here, okay? We want to be able to go to cocktail parties and have something to say, okay?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 24, 2003 5:43 PM

Gosh, Friedrich, I was thinking more of going to a book club with presumably slightly well read folks and having to make an intelligent, coherent comment on a book. Not going to cocktail parties, getting slightly sloshed and rambling on and on about what you just read. You just keep reading those questions for discussion! Sorry!

Posted by: Deb on July 24, 2003 6:05 PM

Hey Michael, thanks for the info.

In what category is Frazier's "Cold Mountain?" Is it a love story, genre fiction, lit fiction? I didn't use to read much fiction, favoring non-fiction typically. But now I'm dating a man who clearly needs to employ a librarian to catalog his ridiculously book-stuffed house. I think he's going to ply me with a never ending supply of "good" fiction and...much alcohol. Ha!

Posted by: laurel on July 25, 2003 8:36 AM

Laurel, I'd put Cold Mountain in the lit fic section of his library--that whole Ulysses theme running in the background is what did it for me. Just like Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" is lit fic because you really have to know Lear to appreciate how clever she is in setting it on an Iowa pig farm. Plus, it comes with reader guides in the back--or at least the newer imprints of it does. That's always a clue.

Posted by: Deb on July 25, 2003 10:05 AM

I'm with Deb -- lit-fict, middlebrow (ie., potential bestseller, likely to be covered by mainstream books press) division. And really, as Will says, by this point it's come down to where it's displayed in the bookstore. Are you reading the book? Enjoying it? I thought it was perfectly OK -- better than passable but nothing I'd ever urge on a friend...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2003 11:02 AM

There is indeed a small amount of "literary science fiction". Doris Lessing has written some ("Shikasta" primarily; which was a long, difficult read; you wouldn't get most of it without a fairly deep background in a lot of things, starting with the Bible and lots of mysticism). She's unarguably part of the lit. set (there is a "Doris Lessing Studies" magazine now of all things!)

Posted by: David Mercer on July 25, 2003 2:38 PM

From what I've been able to figure out, genre fiction not only less well written, but is plot-driven, while literary fiction is character-driven. When a genre piece is well written, with well developed characters it is said to "transcend the genre".

That said, there is a lot of so-called literary fiction out there that has been published for god-knows-what reason that is about neither plot nor character, but about style. No story is told. They sometimes win awards, but no one reads them.

Noah Lukeman just published a book on PLOT, a sequel to his "The First Five Pages" that does a better job of explaining how a GOOD story is told than anything else I've read - and in my quest to write the G.A.N. (Great American Novel) I've read a lot of them.


Posted by: Rebecca Richfield on October 7, 2003 11:09 AM

I just read a piece by Ziatchik in which he quotes author Douglas Valentine. Valentine purports that the operation on which Bob Kerrey led his SEAL Platoon into a village and wiped out all the women and children was a planned act. Valentine hints that the Phoenix program had something to do with this. In reality, the decision was made by Kerrey to 'waste them all' after he couldn't decide just what to do. Dead men, women and children, tell no tales, I guess. Valentine, in his book THE PHOENIX PROGRAM, quotes a 'SEAL' named Elton Manzione. This guy, Manzione, never was a SEAL and that has been proven over and over. Valentine will not own up to this fact. It is 'academics' like this guy who rewrite history and then get quoted in colleges and throughout literature as being speakers of the gospel. Let's try and keep the facts straight. This is also one of the reasons I try to encourage REAL combatants to write books and get the stuff on paper for history. If they don't some lying scumbag will. Then it will be an official part of our 'history.'

Posted by: Steven L. Waterman on December 17, 2003 11:39 AM

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