Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Literary thrillers

My current project is a crime thriller. Maybe. I enjoy literary and action novels and this grew through elements of both. On one hand my main original concept was an exploration of morality with a few links to religion and with some other literary-typical elements (I think?) like a self-contained character development arc as the main thread, open ending, and possibly more lyrical/descriptive style. But it's not quite a great insight or deep philosophy. On the other it's definitely got crime--on the run from assassins, an unearthed mob connection to the death of the main character's father. But I'm not sure there's enough action to be truly thrilling or to compete among the high-octane market.

Now, I'm unsure about my target audience. The term 'literary thriller' came to mind, but since the top result in a google search is an article titled 'What is a Literary Thriller, Anyway?' I imagine it's not exactly a current working category. I like my mix but I don't know, do readers fall too cleanly on each side of this? What about agents, do I need to just go for those who rep both literary and crime genre or either or what exactly? Might one genre 'trump' another here, the crime drive incidental to the character-drive or the retrospective parts just icing on the plot? Will I just end up too slow and preachy for the crime market but not intellectual enough for the literary market?

And specifically at this stage, am I just over-planning and should leave it for a query stage decision or is this something I need to consider in edits, should I rework to swing it one way or another? Am I just being pretentious and uppity in thinking that a few moral messages puts me above the other thrillers, and should go to work on raising action and building suspense and toning back the brooding? Or should I pull back on the fights go deeper into the personal reflection? Do I have way too many question marks in this email?







Literary crime (the term to google rather than "literary thriller') is very much a working category and I rep one of the best guys doing it: Lee Goodman. I also rep one of the best guys doing commercial thrillers: Patrick Lee.


The difference is pretty simple. In the case of reading Patrick Lee you almost never stop to write down a sentence cause it's beautiful.  You're too busy reading. Patrick's sentences are beautiful in that they tell a great story with no wasted words. His ideas are amazing. It's more an industrial beauty.


Lee Goodman (and Jeff Somers and Sean Ferrell), on the other hand, write books that I read with a notebook at hand to write down exquisite sentences. The enjoyment of their books is in the turn of phrase as much as it is in what happens.


Lee Child writes wonderful commercial fiction. Laura Lippman does too.


Catriona McPherson on the other hand must be read with a notebook at hand.


Whether anyone distinguishes these enormously talented writers by literary/commercial is almost immaterial. They write books people want to read.


When you describe your book, I want to run far and fast. Hearing about themes and an exploration of morality makes me hide under the duvet.


When you talk about your book, talk about the STORY. Write your query about the STORY. Let the agent figure out where you belong on the bookshelf.


It's sentences not story that makes a work literary or not. Most agents who work in crime fiction look first for good story. 





65 comments:

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Oh man, I thought I was going to get to talk about REBECCA.... (which is very much too old to use for a comp anyway)

In a recent episode of "Working with the Public is so Rewarding", a patron dressed me down fit having a particular book/author in the regular fiction section rather than our mysteries. On the cover, it said TITLE: a thriller.

"Who put that there?" She demanded.

"The publisher," I replied. We genre mark things based in subject traces (and experience and hopefully good common sense), and thrillers are not typically also traced as mystery. Though mystery books are the genre my patrons read most (aside from romance, which also does not have it's own separate section. My library has many space constraints).

Donnaeve said...

Ho boy, do I have a lot to say about the OP's comment. I get it. Completely.

I wrote a book. I wasn't sure what it was. I was aiming for suspense. Or maybe crime. Or maybe a quiet thriller. If there is one. (did I just invent a new category???)

Like you, OP, I was pretty sure "high octane" stuff wasn't in my book. I was aiming more for that slow, sinking dread a reader would have as they turned the pages. That sneaking, suspicious, creeping doubt about what my antagonist was going to do to poor Ruby Kemp. There she was. All of eighteen. Parents murdered. And there he was. Smitten with her. Their murderer. He kept showing up. He broke into her house, spied on her. Wanted a relationship. She didn't know what he'd done. She was conflicted about him.

Anyway, my "mentor" when I was writing that hair pulling novel (I had a lot of doubt about it)was Dennis Lehane. I kept MYSTIC RIVER, and LIVE BY NIGHT by my side day in and day out. I would read snippets from both while working because the man can take ONE WORD and perfectly set his character's mood/feeling into your head. One passage from MR described Davey's gut as a little "milky curdle" when his wife patted his ass. It hit the sweet spot as far as definitions go. As I reader I understood instantly in that moment what Davey was feeling.

Anyway, after reading my book, my agent said it was a "hard crime" novel. When I looked up hard crime (because I'd just learned what the hell I wrote) writers like Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange) and Donald E. Westlake showed up. Even Stephen King. Older writers like David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich. Another term used was pulp. I was like, huh? Is that what it is?

My point is, in the writing of it - I didn't know what the hell I was writing OP, just like you. I just wrote a story, and then my agent decided. Like her Majesty 'splained in her comment.

:)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Write the story first, the one you, the author want to tell. I would be wary of writing for the market directly. This might just be me, but it seems as a writer, you tell your story as you want to tell it, especially in early drafts. If it is a story you don’t enjoy telling, then something is not working. If it is a story you enjoy telling and hence reading, there will be a market for it. A good agent will help you figure it out. The writing will shine through and the bookshelves will make room.

Another thing that helps more than anything is to read as much as you possibly can, all the time. Read everything. That will help you figure out how a book gets marketed which should help in the query process. Lots of great books don’t have a clear cut fit on the bookshelves, but publishers, agents, and book sellers have a method to make it all work. That is their job. The author’s job is to write the best story he or she can tell, something that will have readers engrossed and wanting more.

This post makes my pre-caffeinated mind think of Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Minority Report). His books have a solid place in science fiction, but to me, they read more like old Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) or Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) books which are most definitely not science fiction.

In the query phase, do as Janet suggests in her query seminars, give your story’s hook first and then tell the genre as close as you can determine. Just please don’t say you have written a fiction novel lest you find out what lies beyond Carkoon. Now I must find coffee.

Colin Smith said...

Yep. Yep. Yep. I just read the first three comments and everything's been said. Just write the novel you want to write, then write the query. If your blurb sounds like a thriller, call it a thriller. If it sounds like a mystery, call it a mystery. If it sounds like lit fic, call it lit fic. Then query accordingly. Don't worry about specific genres. Love what you're writing first.

And read Lee Goodman's INDEFENSIBLE. It's every bit as good as Janet says. You can trust me on this, because I speak with an English accent. :)

What lies beyond Carkoon... that would be a cool title for a story if it wasn't my weekend... 8-\

Amanda Capper said...

What Donna said. And E.M. OH, and Janet, of course. Especially this;
"It's sentences not story that makes a work literary or not."

And words make sentences so you have a lot to worry about before on what shelf the book will be placed. 80,000 or more words.

Love Donna's reference to the curdle in the gut. When an author write something like that, something that makes me think, "Yes, I know EXACTLY what you mean by that", I run for a pen and paper every time. I obsess over it. It makes me want to hug whoever wrote it.

Make me want to hug you, and it won't matter what shelf you're on.

Amanda Capper said...

Colin, NO! No more recommending books! I've already lost the use of my legs.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

OP, you wrote, "...maybe...I think...I'm not sure...unsure...I don't know...".

Stop that.

Set the doubts aside.
Don't get caught up in questions and answers.

Now, simply write your story the way YOU want to write your story.

The rest will take care of itself in time, maybe, I think, I'm not sure, which means I'm unsure, I don't know. I'm right there with ya babe. Like I was saying...

S.D.King said...

So many Lees!

LynnRodz said...

Boy, did i have a déjà vu (or rather a déjà vécu) moment when I read today's post! Didn't we just talk about this very thing here not too long ago? Or perhaps it was on another blog...I don't know. When you reach my age, you're glad you remember anything at all.

OP, Janet and the others said it all, don't worry about it. Write what you feel you need/want to say and then let your agent decide what it is.

Donnaeve said...

S.D. King - I know! I wrote such a long comment, I left out that now, b/c the book that sold (whoop!) is Southern Fiction, if we go out with the hard crime - I've decided my pseudonym is going to be Lee Davis. Turns out Lee IS my middle name and Davis my maiden. Hey, it worked them and...

And there's LEE CHILD too!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

What Lies Beyond Carkoon, The Colin Smith Story

Genre: Kale Literary Horror

Colin Smith said...

Patrick Lee, Lee Child, Lee Goodman, Harper Lee... OK, I have a new strategy. I'm going to start writing as Lee Lee. I'll be a nytba before you know it! :)

WHAT LIES BEYOND CARKOON: THE COLIN SMITH STORY (WHOEVER HE IS) by Lee Lee (Literary Horror Suspense Thriller Fiction)

DLM said...

I had an Aunt Leelee, and we call my niece Leelee. The younger is DEFINITELY a writer (she gave me the "it's mine" look some years ago when she found out I am a writer too, it was kind of OSUM).

Colin Smith said...

Diane: She is destined for greatness. Especially if she marries into Patrick Lee (nytba)'s family. Or Patrick himself (how old is she?)... :)

DLM said...

TEN, so hesh yo mowf, Mr. Smith!!!

Colin Smith said...

Diane: oookay... so she has a few years to wait. But still. That would be a cool signature: Leelee Lee (nytmba--new york times mega-bestselling author). :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Let me see if I have this straight. We have drifted from advising our dear OP to write best story possible to simply changing his or her name to something with Lee in it? That is the key to a best seller. And we are apparently contemplating some kind of writer breeding program that also uses the name Lee as an inheritable trait. Beautiful. We are indeed beyond Carkoon now. I need more coffee.

Mark G said...

I don't think it's prose only that defines all literature. non-sexual voyeurism,the reader peeking through the blinds is a large part

Craig said...

O.P.: relax and pull yourself out of that over-categorizing phase. If it is a thriller query it as a thriller. As stated, let the story paint it. Agents who rep thrillers ask for thrillers. They do not ask for Literary-psycholgical-crime-noir Thrillers.

Clear your mind and re-read your manuscript. If it calls out thriller when you reach the end query it as a thriller.

I have written a thriller. The story starts as a mystery and the investigation proceeds until it all hits the fan. At the end it screams thriller because it has implications beyond just the few involved in the mystery.

The problem lies in writing the query. The queries I have for it, so far, make it look like a mystery. But I have to call it a thriller. The other side of the coin is that if I query it as a mystery and I get a full it might still come apart because it is definitely a thriller.

DLM said...

... as long as we don't go in the Catch-22 direction with our last name ...

As many times as I've been told how cool our surname is, I think Leelee will be fine on that count. :) And if both of us get published (and she also becomes the next Amy Poehler - because, man, that girl is FUNNY and FEARLESS), we have built in descriptive cachet with the name being Major.

Back to the regularly scheduled discussion: this letter comes back the problem ALL the letters share - confidence issues. Retreats into lacunae like this are always about something other than the question itself. RuPaul always asks, "If you don't love yourself, how in the Hell are you gonna love somebody else?" and just about every therapist and philosopher asks how we can expect anybody else to love us if we won't.

Our OP today is uncertain on so many levels. Get the story to the point where even you have no choice but to believe in it, because THAT is when it'll be so compelling others will too. TRUST it. Right now ... OP doesn't seem to trust the story nor themselves.

Get the boat seaworthy. THEN worry about getting others on board.

DLM said...

I'm obsessing on "literary" again. Not my first time ...

When it comes to the term "literary", there are just so many issues. It feels rarefied and really self-congratulatory. "I have written award bait" is what it says to me, when someone refers to their own writing as literary.

Like "YA", "literary" is not a genre, at least not in my head. It's not even a clearly definable audience category. Nothing says a historical cannot be literary, any more than sci fi can't, fantasy can't, contemporary coming-of-age can't, and on and on. So "literary" is just mush. It seems like something that should not be in a query. It's snobby and arch.

My use of language might strike some as literary, but the genre in which I write is histfic. That is what I query, sans promises about my artful and radiant wordlery. Given that 90% of queries now include some number of pages, the words will inspire their own reactions and I probably had *better* not dictate the artistic context in which they should be read, because my assurances might fail.

So. Yeah. Thriller, or crime, or mystery, or procedural or whatever. No need to add adjectives here. Pith is prime.

Dena Pawling said...


My budget and space issues don't allow me to buy all the books I want to buy. A search at my library website indicates:

Lee Goodman – Indefensible 2014, Injustice 2015 [both fiction]
Jeff Somers – The Electric Church 2007, The Digital Plague 2008 [both science fiction]
Sean Ferrell – Man in the Empty Suit 2013, I Don't Like Koala 2015 [science fiction and ONE IS AUDIO, childrens]
Patrick Lee – Deep Sky 2012, Runner 2014, Signal 2015 [paperback, fiction, fiction]

I'm soooooo glad at least one of them is available on audio. It's MUCH easier for me to get thru my audio TBR because I spend 2-3 hours each day in my car.

Kelsey Hutton said...

Hi Janet,
I think you missed an 'h' in distinguishes :)
"Whether anyone distinguises these..."

One of my favourite authors is Frances Hardinge. Her latest book, The Lie Tree, is something like a Middle Grade Victorian-era murder mystery fantasy with literary writing. It's genre-blendingly fantastic.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Diane- I am with you. Let agent/ publisher call something literary if they must. I would feel weird ascribing the term "literary" to my own work. Just me though. I write. My current work and WIP are fantasy generally so literary doesn't come in to play. All sub-genre categorization will be up to my Agent whoever that most fortunate person ends up being.

Colin Smith said...

Do you ever have moments where someone says something, then in a flash your brain has made a dozen connections, and you end up somewhere else?

OK, I just thought I'd ask. :)

Seriously, though. I read Dena's comment, and I thought: Audio books. That's a cool idea. But my car (the one given to us for those who know the story) is a 1996 Mercury Grand Marquis. It has a cassette player. No-one sells audio books on tape anymore. Except... wait... I could probably get a bunch of them cheaply because everyone else on the planet uses CD or mp3 these days! :)

So, if anyone has any audiobooks on tape they'd like to donate to my morning drive (not nearly as long as Dena's), let me know what you've got! :D

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

This is a great question.

Now I want to read Sean Ferrell and Lee Goodman. If their books are even close to Jeff Somers, I'll be in heaven. I haven't read the l'Église Électrique
by Somers but it's on my library list. You lucky dogs living it up in Carkoon, all those library books in English. What's the library like in Carkoon anyway?

Susan said...

I'm going to get myself in trouble this morning, I just know it:

Janet says: "When you describe your book, I want to run far and fast. Hearing about themes and an exploration of morality makes me hide under the duvet."

See, this is the stuff that makes me want to read the book. I love critical thinking when it comes to literature--exploring symbolism, themes, and philosophy is actually a joy for me (my junior/senior year of college I was like a kid in a candy store in class because the discussions were invigorating). This is what books do for me--they take you beyond the human experience to teach you or help you explore the life themes (love, death, faith, self, etc).

An author I know mentioned that they have a Peter Pan retelling coming out next year. I was uninterested. Then they mentioned writing the book to explore the myth of glory during WWI and now I HAVE to read that book.

That's not to say that the story itself isn't important here (and I'm not talking about queries--listen to Janet et al and leave themes out of the queries). The story and writing will always remain the most crucial element in any book.

DLM, to relate to your comment, that's what I see as the main difference between literary/commercial fiction. One isn't meant to be better than the other (and I really hate that they're compared that way, like there's some division between readers, like we're split into classes). It's just a matter of preference. I read both literary and commercial fiction, but my preference is literary because I want to analyze the crap out of it, and there's more of a conscious focus here on theme and character development as it relates to human philosophy.

Now I probably need to run away and hide under the duvet.

Colin Smith said...

Angie: The typical Carkoon library? Imagine, if you will, the perfect, most idyllic library. Shelves of your favorite books lining the walls. Bookcases standing like majestic dominoes along the floors. Chairs so soft you forget the world around you and lose yourself in the pages. Coffee and tea on tap. Open 24/7.

Now, burn the whole place down, and in its place put a rickety wooden chair, and a shelf of books made out of kale leaves with indecipherable scrawl on them. That's a Carkoon library. :)

Dena Pawling said...


Colin - buy an iPad. I check out downloadable e-audio books from my library. Now the car I usually drive has an iPad plug-in so I can listen to the book on my car's speakers, but even when I drive a different car, I can hear the audio directly from my iPad unless I'm driving in particularly noisy traffic on the LA freeway system.

I found it odd that none of those books at my library are shelved in the mystery/thriller section.

Colin Smith said...

Dena: I have an iPad. And I could use my phone. But there's something nostalgically appealing about using the tape player. And potentially cheaper. :)

DLM said...

Susan, but that's just it. I once heard of a college course on The Love Boat. ANYTHING can be analyzed. The idea that moral themes exist only in "literary" is simply bewildering to me, and still beside the point of "what is the story about?" I have been known to analyze RuPaul's Drag Race (http://dianelmajor.blogspot.com/2015/05/research-rupaul-and-affectation.html), man. I know from digging into something for themes or whatever. But being given permission and/or instruction to do so? Turns. Me. OFF. (Notice no similar posts on Ulysses on my blog ...) It's also nonsensical: people will draw from what they read what they must or want to or do not expect to draw from it, but not based on a syllabus.

You don't need to hide away, but the fact is we're discussing a business tool, and in that context Janet's response is not uncommon. Toothpaste is not sold by illustrating the science behind maintaining healthy teeth, not really - it's sold by touting how many people want to kiss the pretty person with fresh breath. In business, you market with dreams, not dream analysis.

Let the cigar be a cigar. If and when people find they see something else, that's fine, but let them do it for themselves.

Colin Smith said...

The link to Diane's blog (and after you've read the article, follow her blog--always a good read):

http://dianelmajor.blogspot.com/2015/05/research-rupaul-and-affectation.html

"In business, you market with dreams, not dream analysis." A thousand marketing professionals just jotted that one down. Great line. :)

DLM said...

Colin, thank you, and thank you some more. I should apologize for the link, that post is long, wandering, and unedited. But the point is, nobody can tell us where to find inspiration, and sometimes we'll have our breath taken away or be inflamed by things not designed to be High Art.

Donnaeve said...

A few months back I read DESCENT by Tim Johnston. Given that the topic has slightly derailed with the literary piece - this is the book I thought of as I read the comments - as well as Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER, which I already mentioned.

Here is what The Washington Post said about DESCENT, "The publisher calls “Descent” a “literary thriller.” It’s a thriller because it concerns a girl of 18 who is abducted during a family vacation in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. It’s literary because Johnston’s prose is lyrical, even poetic, to a degree rarely found in fiction, literary or otherwise."

I think, like some others have said, literary can be tacked onto any genre, and I think it simply means the author has a fresh, beautiful way of expressing common everyday life events and that they have turned the mundane into a kaleidoscope depiction of the world they've created.

Theresa said...

Susan: Yes! I share your preferences. I would've had the same reaction to the Peter Pan retelling.

But I also understand Janet (and DLM) about the business/marketing part of this. Pitch it as a great story first, then the deeper meaning will be revealed.

Susan said...

DLM: Absolutely--anything can be analyzed, which is what makes it all the more exciting. But I think the difference here is the general expectation. People pick up books by Stephen King because they want a great story that makes them scared/thrilled. They read books by Christopher Moore because they want a great story that makes them laugh. They read books by Paula McLain because they want a great story that takes them back in time. They know what to expect by these classifications.

I think the same goes for those that are classified as literary fiction--it's the expectation of a great story while exploring human nature and life's themes.

Can King, Moore, and McLain's books explore human nature/life themes as well? Of course. That just adds another layer to their story. But that's where the original post comes in--there's the added expectation of emphasis on writing style. So with literary fiction, it's the intention of exploring those themes while paying special attention to the prose.

Again, I'm not saying that literary fiction is better than other fiction. That's like saying that Sci-Fi is better than Fantasy--it's all to taste. But I do think there's a good argument for the classification to begin with, same as there are classifications for Thrillers and Romance, especially as someone who gravitates towards those works for those reasons (the same as people gravitate to Thrillers and Romance for their reasons).

Joseph Snoe said...

A side benefit of today's comments is it gave me an idea for a future protagonist's name (seriously). I have his given name (or narrowed to two similar names). I will test drive Lee as his surname and see it if sticks.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

At the risk of banishment, I have a question for Janet I want to put out here. Particularly because the word "literary" has been used today.

Over the years, of every book you have ever represented, taking into account story and writing, not necessarily sales and author fame, which do you consider the best? I mean THE BEST.

I know that's like asking which kid is your favorite, that it opens the door to client-disappointment and pissing off authors, but I'm sure there's one, even your authors look to as, "the one". You can tell me, I promise I won't tell anyone.

Okay, I'm taking my latrine cleaning supplies and heading out of Carkoon now and no Lee-names for me I'm changing my name to Jay Read.

stacy said...

I would very much like to see more hard crime written by women. Hint hint, Donnaeve. :)

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Sorry to comment off topic but today anything I says sounds like a the first belch of a toad unearthed ...

Colin, Carkoon's library sounded like a dream. It reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode. One man is left alive after some massive destruction. He finds a library and thinks he's gone to heaven. The joy on his face. Then he shatters his reading glasses.

On topic, what kind of prizes might a literary crime win? Not the pulitzer, that's too literary, right?

BJ Muntain said...

Thriller is a genre (or sub-genre, according to some).

Literary is a style.

OP said: "Am I just being pretentious and uppity in thinking that a few moral messages puts me above the other thrillers"

I think what's pretentious here is the idea that a 'literary' thriller is somehow 'above' a commercial thriller.

The 'literary-typical' elements OP mentions occur in commercial fiction, too. A lot. There are no 'literary-typical' elements. And that may be why OP is having problems deciding which way to go.

I see the OP's question as dealing with more than just 'what genre is this?' OP is asking if it would be better to make it *more* one or the other.

I don't think that's answerable without reading the novel. But you, OP, know your novel. What do you think? What do you like best about your novel? If there are parts you don't like, what are they, and why? Edit the book so it's the book *you* would buy if you found it on the shelf.

As Janet said, 'literary crime' is definitely a thing. Since 'literary' is more style than genre, there's no reason you'd need to target an agent who reps 'both literary and crime'. And as Janet always says, query widely.

EM: Last summer, at the conference in Calgary, there were a couple sessions on what's been termed 'SF noir' - and Philip K. Dick was one of the original masters they discussed. It's becoming a bit more common now. I guess Robert J. Sawyer has written one recently, too - he was on the panel.

Also EM: 'Lee' is definitely the name to go with in any crime-related novel. However, in Fantasy, it's better to change your middle name to RR, a la George RR Martin or JRR Tolkein. (Julie Weathers has already been testing this one out...)

Craig: Since thrillers are often considered a sub-genre of mystery, then you can call your work mystery, and it's still correct. If you get a full request, and the agent reads far enough to see that it gets exciting, do you really think they're going to care that you called it a mystery?

A thought for Craig: If it becomes a thriller after the mystery is solved, you could add a line something along the lines of, "When Protag McTagg finds the answer, he has to prove it quick, or he'll be the next victim." Something interesting about what happens after the crime is solved. If the 'thrill' happens *before* the crime is solved, then it's still a mystery.

Diane: LeeLee Major? Memorable. I seem to remember someone with a similar name, with only a single 'Lee'...

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Angie- I loved that episode of the Twilight Zone. It also horrified me. I do think of libraries as heaven (evil librarians aside), and I have worn glasses since the age of four. If they shattered, well...

The literary classification does confuse me as it seems subjective. Cormac McCarthy won Pulitzer for The Road so definitely literary but also post apocalyptic, dystopian fiction. Lonesome Dove seems Western fiction to me but again Pulitizer Prize winner so literary. If ever anything was Southern fiction, it's Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. I think there is always a kind of genre apart from the literary bit, and irregardless, the author should employ all his best tools to paint his or her story and project voice as best suits the story. The literary bit will sort itself out in the end. I could be wrong, after all, I am still here in Carkoon.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I wish I read BJ's comment before I posted my last comment. His explanation of literary helps.

Adele said...

"I think the same goes for those that are classified as literary fiction--it's the expectation of a great story while exploring human nature and life's themes."

Based on the literary fiction I was forced to read in university creative writing classes, I have the expectation of pretentious, narcissistic writing with no decipherable plot. That's a hard sentiment, but I wonder how many other readers think the same, and if that's the reason for the Shark's duvet-dive.

I have found authors whose sentences I savour again and again, but any themes they have are wisely hidden. It is so much more fun if I discover a theme - maybe on the third or tenth read-through - rather than have it dished out and waved under my nose, as happens all too often with authors whose writing is consciously literary.

S.D.King said...

Angie: I heard that the library episode was the most popular episode ever shown on Twilight Zone. I think the guy just needs to wander around till he finds a blown up coke bottle... but you know me, I am always looking for a solution.

Kelsey Hutton: definitely going to go find The Lie Tree.

Lee Davis (Donnaeve): Go for it! BTW, I married Stephen King, does that count for anything? OK, not that one.

Susan said...

Adele: I'm sorry that you had such a negative experience with the works your professors chose for you to read. I say this with the utmost respect because everyone is welcome to their opinion, but I think labeling all literary fiction as such is an unfair, sweeping generalization that discounts much of the fiction within that category. Having a preference is one thing because that's where personal taste and subjectivity come into play, but saying that all literary fiction is pretentious and narcissistic without a plot undermines the fact that someone does see a story in it and finds it not only interesting but valuable.

Everyone has their own interests and preferences--I'm personally not a fan of Horror or Thrillers, preferring quieter books to high-concept, but that doesn't mean the books are bad. Clearly there's a huge market/fanbase, especially on this blog--just because I'm not the audience for it doesn't mean other people aren't.

I'm not here to defend literary fiction or make anyone appreciate it. I'm just pointing out that it has its own purpose and reasons for classifications (and fanbase) just as much as Thrillers, Romance, Sci-Fi, etc.

Now I can't shake the feeling that I belong on my own island somewhere.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I already said I'm a toad today so I won't excuse myself for being one, typos and all. Oftentimes, IMO, me literary means I'll have to hold a dictionary in my other hand and reread every other paragraph. When the prose takes me out of the story it's fluff. I close the book and look for another. When my mum gave me The Elegance Of The Hedgehog and I thought I might die after the first five pages. Great voice but so painful.

I didn't know literary crime was a genre but those are the books I like best. Good story, good prose. Of all Janet's authors Jeff Somers has seven examples of the Electric Church in the libraries of Paris. OK, they are in French. But they do have a big English collection. I think I'll go request some purchases, I know an insider. The American library of Paris doesn't list any of her clients. Hint, hint.

E.M. nice header.

Going on in Toad-mode. Literary gets on my nerves, the idea that only 'literary' has redeeming values to be analyzed, pul-ease. Pop culture is trash. Persepolis, the graphic novel, it's a friggin graphic novel. Disney or Pixar don't touch classical themes?

I'll go back under my rock now.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Yes, please don't describe your book as a morality tale. If so, Janet's going to need a bigger duvet (I'll bring cupcakes.)

My book is straight up thriller. The undercurrent of loyalty, betrayal, and why even ask, you know you're going to back them, even if it kills you. Throw in an awkward love story between two people who talk a lot, overshare social media style, but hide their secret hearts.

Now do you want to read about that or do you want unsolved murders, corrupt cops, high stakes dirty law, international smuggling, and a rogue motorcycle club?

I can think of a very talented military sci-fi writer. No one will ever accuse him of being lyrical. In fact, his books drag when he tries to get all misty and allegorical. The emphasis is on hard-hitting forward-moving military-accurate action. Yet, in all of it is buried in the action is love, loyalty, duty, and the inner conflict of the warrior who has to balance violence with morality. Again, which, based on back cover text, would you want to pick up.

Tell the story. The rest will follow. Terri

Karen McCoy said...

Yes. Story. A trusted source told me that it's about STORYtelling, not StoryTELLING.

And yes. Write the novel you want to write. Ally Carter talks about this better than I ever could.

And speaking of Catriona McPherson, I highly recommend her newest book,THE CHILD GARDEN, especially with a notebook in hand!

BJ Muntain said...

I agree with both Susan and Angie.

I agree with Susan that literature is a taste, and one's opinions of 'literary' is one's opinions. I agree that a person can enjoy literary works, and that some people don't enjoy those works.

I agree with Angie that when people talk about literary as being 'better' than other styles, it bugs the crap out of me. 'Literary' isn't more intelligent, and isn't necessarily more intellectual. Not everyone who likes literary works is intelligent. Not everyone who doesn't like literary works is unintelligent. And 'literature' isn't just works written in a literary style. Literature is anything written and read.

These are two different arguments going on here. Susan is arguing for literature as a 'taste'. Angie is arguing against 'literary snobs' who say literary is better. Susan is not saying literary is better, and is therefore not a literary snob. Therefore, these are two completely different arguments.

But they both agree on one thing: Intelligent people can both like or not like literary works. Everyone has their reasons for liking or not liking such things. But that doesn't make them any less intelligent.

Donnaeve said...

Angie - snort laughing at your description of how you sound - like "the first belch of a toad unearthed."

The truth is we all sound like that out here to Ms. Janet's ears likely. Serenaded by toads is QOTKU. Oh my gosh. *wipes eyes*

Anywho - I love my hard crime novel - if I can say that and not sound like a twit. I wish I could have the time to write more of that sort of book although, again, I came close to a nervous breakdown trying to get it "right." Whatever right felt like to me.

However since the OTHER book sold, that is now the genre I need to focus on. Interestingly, at least for this conversation re: literary, it is considered upscale commercial women's fiction/Southern fiction per my editor. And so, upscale sounds less highbrow perhaps than literary but it means the same thing. (Unless QOTKU comes along and knocks me down with her dorsal fin, I'll think of it that way.)

I love all writing if it's good. Literary, or not. I've had to have a dictionary for Cormac McCarthy's SUTREE and OUTER DARK. Those didn't set well with me because his words sometimes took me out. Yet he was able to pull me back in too. I loved the depravity and darkness of his writing - especially in CHILD OF GOD. And despite that depravity, he can make you laugh even though his characters live in a blighted, stricken world of poverty, or participate in horrendous acts.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

BJ, for the record. I posted my last comment and then when reloaded found Susan had already commented.

Craig said...

If I go to the library or a bookstore I have a qualification for which book goes back when my arms are full. It contains the word Literary.

For some reason I see those as books that the Literati, in their ivory towers, have approved as being LC(Literary Correct). I can see them crossing out lines in my works because they don't match the standards. You know, kind of like when southern person sees a Yankee use y'all in singular.

B.J.: I think I have finally almost learned the technique of using a very wide brush. I might be able to stretch my query to cover where it becomes a thriller. It is thrilling before that too though. I write to entertain so tempo and pacing are big in my style. Of course, I have said that I have mastered the wide brush before.

It is not that the mystery is solved as much as they kicked over enough rocks to find a big deal is already going down. Hence the reason the for the somewhat obscure reference near the beginning of the band of people leading all of the area's cop copters through Georgia with occasional bursts of AK-47 fire.

BJ Muntain said...

That's cool, Angie. I just saw a difference of opinion - whether you two were arguing or not - and thought I'd just put out there that both of you were correct. :)

Craig: It sounds like an exciting romp. And I think that an agent will see that, whatever genre you put on it. I look forward to seeing it published!

Adele said...

Just to clarify: I did not intend to say that all literary novels are pretentious, narcissistic, and without plot. I said that was my opinion (ie, emotion rather than fact), which means that if you are going to get me to read your literary novel you have an uphill row to hoe.

I regularly enjoy many authors whose books are said to be literary. If they had been advertised as such, and perhaps filed away in a special literary section of the bookstore, I would never have found them.

What I intended to convey was: if that was my opinion then, certainly it may have been other people's opinion now. In fact I know many people who wince at the term literary, and even one writer who, when a reader said their writing was literary, said something along the lines of "You take that back". If I know people who hold these opinions, surely others do, too. That makes selling the novel just that little bit harder. I think most novelists, particularly first-timers, might not want to make it harder for their audience to find them. I also think literary is a description that is better bestowed than claimed.

kdjames.com said...

Hmmm. I'm trying to be tactful here and it's giving me a headache. Not my forte.

I was disturbed by the questioner using the phrase "above the other thrillers." Also, I'm not sure being a "literary" writer is something you ascribe to yourself. It strikes me as something other people say about your writing. So, yeah, between those two things this writer does come across as sounding a wee bit pretentious. As others have said, concentrate on telling a good story. If that means taking out the "brooding," then take it out.

Janet, really interesting definition of "literary" being in the sentences, not the story. I've never thought of it that way, but I'm not sure I completely agree. Of course, I've never tried to define it either. I'm hardly a literary scholar. Seems like it's both. Sentences and story.

When I reviewed Bill Cameron's COUNTY LINE [that's a link to the book at AMZ; go buy it], I really went back and forth about whether to say his writing was literary. It's noir, no doubt about that, but it's also the kind of writing that you just want to roll around in his words and hope some of it rubs off on you. Fantastic book. Ultimately, I decided not to mention its literary qualities. I was trying to get people to read it. I think I simply said he had an impressive command of the English language, or something similar.

Oh! Since I have the page pulled up to link it, I can tell you exactly what I said: "I highly recommend COUNTY LINE to anyone who loves a darkly compelling story with flawed yet fascinating characters and appreciates a writer who demonstrates a commanding facility with language. Not to mention a deft hand with a dedication." I said a lot more than that, that was just how I wrapped it up. Definitely another one to add to those ever-growing TBR piles. *evil grin*

Colin Smith said...

Totally off-topic, but I was reading the link Karen posted above to Ally Carter's "Letter to Baby Author Me" and I just had to quote a line:

Some people might say that making friends with these people is going to be good for your career. It isn’t. Making friends with these people is good for your life.

What this immediately made me think of was Bouchercon. Jimmy V's. That table. Terri, Patrick, Loretta, Donna, Barbara, Jim, and Janet. And then all you guys. Yes, I'm sure people would think, "Wow, with friends like that in publishing, how could you fail?" The answer: "Very easily." But that's not the point. I don't value these friends because they're good for my career. I value them, and that's all you guys too, because they're good for my life.

OK... back to the topic. Whichever one was current, anyway... :)

Susan said...

Thanks, BJ :)

To be clear, I'm not arguing with anyone, and I have a lot of respect for the people in this community. I love that we can debate and share our opinions openly. To that end, it's frustrating for me to see people disregard an entire group of work based on preconceived notions--in my view, that's just as bad as the people who say literary fiction is "better."

That's like saying I'm never going to watch anything on the History Channel because it's full of historians who are smug know-it-alls. First, that's a gross generalization. Second, that's not all the History Channel consists of. Cable channels like the Cartoon Network, the Food Channel, the Discovery Channel, etc are set up so that people looking for a specific type of programming (cartoons, food, science) can find it in one spot, but not all the shows are the same, and no one is going to like every single one.

Similarly, categories are set up for books based on points of interest. Very generally speaking, if there's a love story, it's placed in the romance category; if there's a murder mystery, it's placed with the mysteries; if there are magical elements, the book's shelved with fantasy. This is all so people can gravitate towards the books they want to read. Literary fiction is one such category for people who want the focus to be less on the plot and more on an exploration of character and human nature. It's not better. It's not worse. It's just another point of interest so people can find the book they want to read.

There are books within the literary fiction category I can't stand (Faulkner, I'm looking at you) and others I love. To discredit an entire category because of a label seems silly. To decide not to read it because of personal preference, on the other hand--ex. romance over mystery, fantasy over horror--is entirely valid.

Susan said...

Adele: I'm sorry, I hope you don't think I was attacking you for your opinions (I wasn't!). I'm just struggling to get my point across. There's a divide between readers of commercial and literary fiction that I think is unnecessary, mostly because it's so misunderstood. It's frustrating to me because there's a prejudice there that isn't seen anywhere else in fiction, and I don't think it's entirely warranted.

Karen McCoy said...

Glad to bring you back to Bouchercon, Colin (though sorry for derailing the topic).

Colin's right, though. Janet and all her blog readers are good for everyone's life--inside and out of writing.

Loving everyone's comments, especially Angie's toads.

DLM said...

Hewing strictly to the question of whether "literary" will do anything for a query: my GENERAL instinct is that it does not. Genre is a necessary datum. Literary, I feel, would be an appropriate descriptor to include if you're querying someone who has said in an interview they're looking for literary thrillers, or whose bio blurb on their site includes literary in the list.

Otherwise ... we've seen right here today the side-eye the term can induce. Right or wrong: if there's ANY risk of looking snobby or like you don't quite understand genre - or just if the term is not absolutely crucial to the fabric of the query - why would you want it in there? When in doubt, snip it out.

BJ, we don't have the S on the end. But if anyone would like to give me $6M, I will build anything you like and better than before. (Just give me time to study a little). I should note that I generally DO NOT name my relatives online, even my brother, whose identity is not at all difficult to figure out if you're my stalker. But LeeLee is a nickname only. Since we're talking about a kid here, I just wanted to point that out. I get hives about personally identifiable info online, and most keenly where it comes to my nieces.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I just jumped back into this puddle. And, well, this belching toad has little to add to the literary hop-party of today, other than, this place and this group, is better than a plump bluebottle on the tip of this amphibian's tongue.

You're right Colin, "it's good for life."

DLM said...

Somebody googled "Diane L Major" a lot yesterday, including "Brother of Diane L Major" ...

Just to clarify, since that came up here: I don't make it explicit at any point on the blog, and his real name has never appeared either. :) But a regular reader would have no trouble figuring out who he is.

I'm reeeeeealllly squicky about my personally identifiable information online, and that of the people I know.

Mindy Halleck said...

OMG! I'm cracking up reading all these comments - what group of creative, supportive and hysterical writers. Especially this one, "Colin, NO! No more recommending books! I've already lost the use of my legs." H! I understand.
I agree with most of what everyone is saying, write the story you want to write and worry about categories later. I wrote a literary thriller, but only knew that after my publisher told me and then put it in that category. I call it an accidental literary thriller. Either way, good luck. Mindy Halleck

S--H said...

(lordy, had to delete twice because it connected the wrong accounts)

'ello, OP here. I'm not sure if it's procedure for the OP to actually comment on the answers but I gotta say THANK YOU SO MUCH you've given me a good boost of confidence put a lot of my doubts to rest! "It's sentences not story that makes a work literary or not." <- I've never thought of it that way before and I love that breakdown, it clicks really well with the way I write. Thank for the literary crime recs as well, I'll deeeeeeeeeefinitely have to be doing more reading there, I think I can say I've been reading only commercial crime now that I realise the distinction.

I'm sorry for inspiring the literary debate here, eep. I understand where the negative opinions come from and hm pretentious or not I think I'm feeling now that I've been over-reaching trying to push that label. Anyway, after what's been said about crime agents looking for story first, and everyone else's perspectives about literary, I feel I'm much firmer in my direction now. And ha, I do have a story I promise. Let me get on that some more straight away!