Thursday, May 14, 2009

GENRE HEADACHES (Literary vs. Mainstream)

Recently I’ve discovered that I ‘sold out’ a few years ago, meaning I sacrificed meaning and richness in my writing for hooks, twists, and action. I’m not sure if anyone else is currently having this problem, but it’s a pretty huge and sad revelation. It seems the deeper I get into a character’s head, the further I get away from the linear storyline. Or, the faster I tell the story, the less I get into a character’s head.

Now I know what the typical remedy is. It’s in about 10,432 How-to books. “The trick, Patrick, is to find a balance between the two. Have your characters develop during the action. Show, don’t tell.”

Yeah, thanks, and I’ll get out of debt by playing the lottery too.

To be a literary writer, in my personal opinion, you must have connections, you must love the style of writing, and you must provide the potential for insight with almost every single paragraph or page. Is it medicine? Well, to hook, twist and action folk, it probably is. To be literary means you have decided to self-realize your own books without believing that, after every page, you are closer to a book deal. As a result, a literary writer must must must must must have connections, hence, the huge rise in popularity for M.F.A programs. Their struggle for notoriety and respectability can only be rewarded if they suffer in front of someone very very important, and grow on them, until their prose starts singing. Does that make them more of a purist or more of an artist? Definitely not. Give two people a brick, and they will each do something different. Whatever they do, that is their art. One might throw it through a window and cause panic, while the other might brush across the surface slowly, taking in the texture.

I have personal experience with this, I believe (God I hate sounding confident and/or absolute, but just give me this one paragraph). I was a literary writer who desperately wanted an audience. I read classics, or books that were at least trying to be classics, but instead of finding a Master’s program fit for a literary writer, I instead graduated from an M.A. program specializing in popular fiction. Thus, after running through the gauntlet of ‘make your sentences more active’, ‘you need a hook’, ‘why is your character feeling that way, make them more real’, ‘no one will publish a first-novel over 100,000 words, let alone one which is not a specific genre’, ‘you need a love interest’, ‘longer fight scenes’, ‘you solved the mystery too quickly’…….after all that, I came out of there split down the middle, and I’ve been writing what I call ‘Litstream’ novels ever since…

I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re a Litstream writer out there, and you’re getting rejection letters such as ‘weird mix of fantasy and reality’, or ‘Great book, I just can’t sell it’, you’re not alone. I’m sure this is the case with other authors who write in a different genre, such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc…and feel slightly trapped by their own formulas. Even literary writers deal with their own constraints.

But Litstream? =). Well, we tend to write whatever we feel like writing, and must therefore brace ourselves for whatever the business feels like doing. A small (large?) consequence when dealing with such tremendous freedom.


  1. Interesting post Patrick. I have exactly the opposite problem, but feel like I am heading in the same direction as you. My first couple of books were very much genre fiction, high tech thrillers with vague characters. I have tried to move away from that by reading some of "the classics" and see what I could pull from them.

    I have no problem coming up with a twisted plot, lots of car crashes, and stuff blowing up, but really getting into a character's head, I have to work at it.

    I tried to read Vonnegut, Heller, Rand, and lots of others. I did learn some things, but it was also like a form of torture sometimes as some of the prose droned on for page after page on the same point, or topic.

    I think attention spans were considerably longer at the time those books were written. I think that prevailing views were quite different and that to really understand the value and shock that some of the classics invoked, you had to be there.

    I think books that copy the style of some of the classics will be very difficult to sell in the current market. The readers of my genre may or may not appreciate better characters, but I do and that is why I work so hard at it.

    I think that in the end you have to write what you like and damn the consequences. The more you listen to one critic or another about how it should be like this, or should be like that, you water down the essence of what you were trying to accomplish.

    Stay the course and full speed ahead Patrick.

  2. This is an excellent post, thank you! It's nice to know I can call my work Litstream. Because that's exactly what I'm trying to do. I'm not sure if it's working, how or how long I'll have to slave away to get it to work right, but I'll keep trying.

    My later work seems to be leaning more towards mainstream, but I have a feeling that the reason I'm hating it right now is because it needs to lean more towards literary. We have to remain true to our voices. And if that happens to be Litstream, as you put it, then so be it! Even if it's harder to get published.

  3. Here's what comes to mind, with the problem we all face: How to write, be true to ourselves, and be a good story teller.

    I think that your natural stength is in writing characters that are in depth. Your characters feel real, and they sound real. So, what do you do when you have a strength? Do you play to it all the time or do you work on the opposite of that strength? What if you are a right-handed basketball player who refuses to learn how to shoot with your left hand? That would greatly reduce your scoring capability. Learn to shoot with both hands and you will be hard to stop!

    I think that your latest book does strike a good balance between action and depth, or what you might call genre fiction and literary fiction.

    I suppose that self awareness is what we gain in the end, even if it is a painful process.

    I'm looking forward to seeing how your book turns out after the latest round of edits.

  4. beautiful post & thought-provoking, for sure. it feels twisted, you know, trying to balance this thing that drives us, this art aching to be crafted, and what the world, literary or no, expects. Know the formula, then break it. I understand that...embrace it even...but it's rather claustrophobic to actually live in the box.

    it was absolutely awesome meeting you -- you totally rock! :)


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