Friday, May 20, 2016

So, would you like to shoot the other foot too?

A recent query included this line:
My ego would love to tell you that this is pure, unadulterated literary fiction, but if I’m being realistic, it’s probably much more commercial (although my ego would also like to add that there’s definitely at least one or two very deep literary elements present). 
I'm going to give the query writer the benefit of the doubt: he didn't actually intend to insult me, or my clients who write commercial fiction.

And maybe I'm just being too prickly.
That's always a valid choice since I am by nature crabby, prickly and easily annoyed.

But the problem is: he's querying me for a novel and this is probably the least effective thing to say about a book you want me to read. Well, there's "fiction novel" but I stop reading when I see that.

"My ego wants this to be literary fiction" implies your ego would be ruffled were it to be called commercial. I don't need a degree in logic to understand you mean commercial is somehow lesser.

Yea well, fuck that noise.

Honest to godiva, do you think I sneer at commercial fiction? The kind that makes money and sells a lot?  Man oh man, you need to look at my list again.

And even the agents who specialize in more literary fiction don't exactly turn up their noses and refuse the lovely lolly when their books sell well.

Your take away from this: if you think commercial fiction is beneath you, self-publish.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

As my husband often says, you can't fix stupid.

french sojourn said...

When my book is done, even someone like you may like it.


Lisa Bodenheim said...

First I laughed at the heading for today's column. Then I said ouch.

And I think I'm not going to say anything further for the moment. I need more caffeine and intelligence when I'm around the QOTKU!

AJ Blythe said...

Reminds me of an article published here about George Clooney "pimping" himself to coffee makers:

“I don’t give a shit,” Clooney continued (as a nearby Charlize Theron smiled uncomfortably). “And people will go, ‘Oh, that’s a sellout!’ You know what? Fuck you!”

CynthiaMc said...

Hmmm...would I like to have millions of people all over the world reading my books?

Yes. Yes I would.

Would I care if some literary writer criticized me?

Maybe a little. I'm sensitive.

But if I'm writing full time from my beach house, I might be able to get over it.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

"That's always a valid choice since I am by nature crabby, prickly and easily annoyed." This is something I have to stop and consider regularly. Is it a problem, or am I the problem? I might be getting better in some areas. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I do get frothy when people refer to one genre as "lesser" than another. While I may not read romance, I can still see the appeal. Maybe only some mysteries are to my taste, but there's no denying both the tradition and the appeal of the genre. And I absolutely read, write, and breath scifi and fantasy, and refuse to believe and purport that genre writing is in some way "lesser". And all of it across the board can and does contain "deep literary elements."

And what is it with thinly veiled insults (if not outright ones) in query letters? This week I've seen a couple agents mention it on Twitter.

Craig said...

Oh Hell yes. I read to be entertained most of the time. Because of that I write to entertain others. If I wished to be castigated by a writer who thinks they understand the English language better than I, I will take an English class.

A lot of the books I close before I finish are those that try to stick my nose into the Literary angle of writing. I will admit that the English language gives me trouble at times but it doesn't give me that much trouble.

Colin Smith said...

My ego would love to tell you I write as well as Stephen King, Karen Slaughter, Jeff Somers, Gary Corby, Julie Weathers, and Donna Everhart. But then my ego needs to get a grip and be happy with whatever talent I've been given! :)

Can I also just say that such value judgments make my skin crawl. You get it all the time in the arts, because art is so very subjective. Is Mozart "better" than McCartney? Is DaVinci "better" than Picasso? Is Austen "better" than Pratchett? What constitutes "better"? What is the purpose of art? Is it to make you feel smarter, or to entertain? To make you look good to your friends, or to challenge your thinking and presuppositions? Is it about your credentials or expression? Literary and commercial fiction both fulfill these functions, just in different ways and, maybe, on different levels. But just because someone prefers literary fiction, that doesn't make them a better person. And just because someone writes commercial fiction, that doesn't make them a lesser writer.

But all y'all know this. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

If some stick up his butt literary critic called my writing amateurish and plebeian and unworthy of scholarly attention because it was "commercial" and on the best sellers list- seriously I wouldn't give a rat's ass about the "literary" quality of my work. I would be spinning tales for a living. That's where I want to be.

I am making plenty of mistakes getting myself there, but so far, I have only shot out one foot. With a little nudge from the Reef, maybe the other one will stay in tact. Lord, am I tired. Going to get some coffee. It's too damn early to annoy a shark.

Colin Smith said...

Oh, that was the other thing I was going to say:

A crabby shark? Now there's a genetic experiment... ;)

SiSi said...

When I was in graduate school waaaay back in the day, one of the biggest insults my classmates could give a book was to say "it was a good read, but it isn't really literature." Drove me crazy. I understand there's a difference between "literary" and "commercial" but they'd all better be a good read!

It's sad that OP thinks being commercial is somehow a step down from real writing. And of course it's inconceivable that anyone querying you would share this even if s/he did believe it!

Donnaeve said...

Sometimes literary fiction reeks of an elitist or snooty attitude, or is that just me?

I'm not sure why some writers want to wedge their work into this category. It's like declaring "I'm a member of Mensa." Well super duper, but can I ask, you making money from that?

I like some literary fiction, yet, similar to listening to a very long and extended solo by a lead guitarist where all the other musicians are patiently waiting for him to get on with it so they can join in again, some lit fiction (IMO) can be irritating. The endless brain dump. The perpetual thoughts in a character's head, page after page after page.


Donnaeve said...

Ha, Colin, you!

And just the other day, I was thinking, I wish I could be as funny and witty as Colin.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Ha! I appreciate (British understatement; actually, I print-out-and-frame) your comment. However, if you think I'm funny and witty, you have lost credibility with my kids. Well, maybe not my son. He mocks my humor, but he laughs at it all the same. What was the one I got him with the other day? Oh yes, after Jesus is betrayed, Peter turns to John and says, "We should have known, with a name like Judas!"

nightsmusic said...

Donnaeve, I gave up my mensa membership long ago. It costs too much and all most of the members get from it is a stick up their did I mention I need more coffee?

I haven't read literary fiction since high school since I'm no longer forced to read same. Why people feel the need to be shoved into that hole is beyond me. But either way, why as an agent, would I want a client that does nothing but insult my intelligence? OY!

Adib Khorram said...

It seems to me like this querier has been reading a few too many clickbait articles about the state of publishing.

Over the last year or two there have been plenty of doom-and-gloom articles, like the one about how THE GOLDFINCH was suddenly NOT literary fiction because it was selling well among women (despite the Pulitzer). Or the one bemoaning how "all YA was about threesomes." Actually, there have been several annoyingly denigrating articles and interviews about YA lately, but the threesomes one is probably the most hilariously wrong.

Granted, maybe this has always been the case, and it's just that I've been paying more attention to these things over the last few years.

And clearly it's early for me too because I feel like I'm using way more adverbs than normal. Sorry, everyone.

DeadSpiderEye said...

If you're going to do deep, serious and thoughtful you don't want to be bandying labels about, that's what literary is in this context. If someone asks about All quite on the Western Front, you don't say, 'Yeah, it's--literary, man'. Nope, you tell 'em it's about the personal reality of mechanised warfare, that juxtaposes the hypocrisy of nationalistic sentiment and fervent patriotism, with the privations of the ordinary fighting man. That's if your literary aspirations are genuine, you could just be trying to appeal to the Granta and contemporary art school set, as a means to further your career. Which in such case, is what I would tell the agent.

Scott G said...

Ooooooh. I love it when Janet uses the 'f' word in one of her posts. Means things have been brewing for a while and she just has to let it out. Good for you Janet! Honestly, I don't care what genre others might call my work. If I thought I wrote crime fiction and others called it sci-fi/paranormal, and it was a best seller? Don't care.

Ashley Turcotte said...

This reminds me of one Thanksgiving, when I told my family about the MS I'd just finished. An aunt turned up her nose at my love of genre fiction (as she had been since I started writing as a teenager), and asked, "Why don't you try writing a REAL book?"

As if genre fiction or kidlit or whatever else are somehow fake. So I'm devoting my life to...what? Nothing? All those hours, all those words, don't even count somehow?

If writing something people will enjoy reading is a crime, break out the handcuffs. I'm a repeat offender, and utterly unrepentant.

Kregger said...

Ah yes.
A failed attempt of back-handed humor.
Two gun shots followed by coital harmonics.
The sweet sound of a screen door swatting snookum's posterior.
And spring is in the air.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Ashley, I had same experience with certain segments of my family. I started writing very young. Read widely and loved genre fiction- mystery, fantasy, sciFi, all of it. These family members told me I was wasting my energy, and that I would never make any money or be taken seriously writing about dragons and Cowboys as if that was the only motivation for doing anything. All those family members are dead now. I am sure it is only a coincidence.

I agree with Donna- there is something uppity in the attitude of the query writer. I think true "literary" fiction does not require the label. If you have to tell someone a book is great literature, then it's not. Great writing, in my estimation, is accessible and will speak to a wide array of readers. It may even be, gasp, commercial.

Harry Potter did not sell so well because it was "commercial". It sold well because it appealed to something universal in humanity. Tons of writers have written boy wizard stories, but it was Rowling's literary prowess that made her story sing across continents and generations.

Colin- crabby shark - that will keep me giggling all day.

AJ Blythe said...

OT... Does anyone else here follow I *love* her work and this post totally sums up Janet's "kicking your asterisk" post.

While OT, did y'all know that my today (your tomorrow) is World Whisky Day =) So Cheers! Santé! Prost! Skål! Bottoms up!

Sherry Howard said...

I'm a pragmatist. Putting aside the boot-in-the-ass issues pointed out, why would anybody include that in a query letter?

Shaunna said...

Like all of us here at the reef, I've read widely in many genres. For my college English classes, I read literary fiction. Outside, I read science fiction, fantasy, commercial, YA, picture books (yes, even before I had kids), you name it. It has always bothered me, however, that pundits put a wall between genre fiction, as if to say that genre fiction can't have literary elements, can't make you think more deeply about anything besides if Bella is going to choose Edward or Jacob.

That wall tries to lower genre fiction, but it also has the unintended consequence of defining literary fiction as writing without a plot. Ha! So if a writer wants to bring that gap, how to go about doing it? And how to go about querying it? Do you call it commercial fiction with literary elements? Literary fiction with commercial appeal? Do you stick with one or the other? Does it even matter at that point?

For some reason, our WASP canon makers have populated the canon with literary fiction that depresses. Anna Karinena steps in front of a train, Kate Chopin's heroin (what was her name?) wades out into the ocean, Madame Bovary (does she take poison?) kills herself. I could go on, as I'm sure my fellow reefers could, too.

What if you want to write a novel that has a plot but also addresses deeper questions about humanity but also ends with a wedding instead of a funeral? We even praise Shakespeare's tragedies over his comedies, for heaven's sake. Are our lit professors trying to get all of us on Prozac? And is there any way we, as humble writers, can change that? Can we cross that boundary into literary and bring plot, suspense, and entertainment with us?

Sorry to go off on everyone, but this post contains an element I've pondered for a long time. I'd love to know what my fellow reef dwellers think.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Now that I have more caffeine in me..
Is it possible (not having seen the rest of the query which might tell a lot about this person's personality) that this querier is insecure about their writing skills and that is showing up in a sideways arrogance? As Janet wrote, she's giving him the benefit of the doubt that s/he didn't intend to be intentionally insulting. But all that to say the Shark probably doesn't wish to deal with that type of insecurity anymore than she wishes to deal with schnobbery.

World whisky day? I thought it was just in Scotland. A friend is celebrating on the Isle of Islay. Drats. My stomach isn't up to alcohol.

Dena Pawling said...

When I read Animal Farm in high school, I understood it as a story about farm animals, and the pigs were not very nice. Class discussion did NOT help. My English teacher sent me to my guidance counselor, who spent an hour explaining the book to me before I finally understood it. My counselor decided that instead of failing me in that class, I should be “re-routed”. I tutored ESL students instead of finishing the class. This made my high school years MUCH more enjoyable.

I don't write subtle. Most of the time I don't understand subtle. Sometimes I don't understand subtle even after someone has attempted to explained it.

But several times I've received comments that my stories made someone laugh.

Do I want to write stories that people don't read or don't understand? No.

Do I want to write stories that people read, and that make them laugh? Yep.

Does anyone here think EL James cares all that much that people don't think she writes well?

Variety is what makes life interesting. There are different books for different readers. One is not better than the other, they are just different.

Julie Weathers said...


"My ego would love to tell you I write as well as Stephen King, Karen Slaughter, Jeff Somers, Gary Corby, Julie Weathers, and Donna Everhart." That's very flattering, and I appreciate you putting me in such stellar company, but I think you're doing yourself a disservice. You are so talented and funny.

I was a member of Mensa for a while. I only joined so I could get the card and whenever my ex told me how stupid I was I could ask him, "Oh really? I have a card saying I'm not stupid, do you?" I stayed in the organization for a while because I enjoyed the newsletter that had interesting puzzles, but for the most part the members seemed like elitist jerks aside from one cowboy who wrote funny stories. Every time I saw that reminder to wear your little owl pin so other members would know who you were, I got irked.

Egos are us apparently.

A woman on Books and Writers started a fire storm last year by declaring that if you didn't write literature in the vein of Virginia Woolf, if you were a genre writer, you could never be a great writer. In order to do that, the government should support delicate writers, great ones like young Virginia Woolfs, because they were too delicate to work and write. They needed a room of their own and solitude to create masterpieces. Real life might be all right for hack genre writers, but real writers needed to be supported and publishers should be forced to publish a certain percent of literature whether it makes money or not.

Well, with a great many award-winning and best-seller genre writers amongst the fold, you can imagine how this went over. Not surprisingly, aspiring literary writers thought it was a fabulous idea. They could get $50,000 a year to sit back and ply their feathered quills, untouched by the unwashed masses of genre writers and be guaranteed of a sale when they completed their masterpiece.

Phalanxes were formed, shields locked, spears at the ready. The battle was on. There really is nothing more deadly than well-armed writers engaged in a battle of wits.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of a moment in Castle, specifically the face Castle made as his mother said this:

"Never mind them! Harper Lee only wrote one book! You've written dozens! ...Of course, hers was literature...."

He appeared torn between suicide and homicide, in fact.

nightsmusic said...

Lucia, I loved that episode!

Lisa, I have on my calendar that World Whisky Day is tomorrow :(

I didn't like Animal Farm, didn't like Lord of the Flies (LOATHED would be a better word) so maybe I'm not cut out for "literature" but I do know what entertains, makes me laugh, cry and really care about the characters. I didn't care about any in either of the books I mentioned, but boy, did I love Charlotte and her Web!

Write what you love, what's in your heart, what makes you care.

Ashes said...

Dont get me wrong, I hate redundancy. But I recently came to understand where (I think) the gross misuse of terms which is "fiction novel" comes from.

Allow me to put on my reader hat for a second and discard all knowledge of publishing.

Bookstores and libraries often have a 'Fiction' section. A section they don't call 'novels', because, I assume, there are novels in other sections too. My library, for example shelves novels in four sections: Young Adult, Romance, Western and Fiction.

Well, it's still either 'a novel' or 'a work of fiction', you might be thinking. And you're right. But writers are often told when listing genre to think of where the book might be placed in a bookstore.

If your novel would most likely be placed in the 'fiction', or sometimes 'general fiction' section, you can see where a woodland creature would get confused.

Michael Seese said...

"It's literary fiction, but I tried to include a lot of simple words. So you shouldn't have too much trouble reading it. Will you be mailing, faxing, or hand delivering my contract? If the latter, be advised I'm not a morning person."

Claire said...

Umm. A bit of a tone fail on the part of the querier. But I have some sympathy with him/her. It's because of the popular, simplistic misconceptions of literary vs. commercial fiction that writers are reluctant to self-categorise as the former. Because to describe oneself as writing literary fiction can come across as making a qualitative statement about the value your writing, rather than a simple one of genre. So then you get this silly pussy-footing around the term, with the author simpering that "I'd like to think of this as literary fiction, but really that's not for me to say..." And then The Shark gets enraged.

I'm not sure what the answer is. Does there need to be a better term for character-driven, thoughtful mainstream fiction that doesn't fit into a particular genre? 'Cause that's a bit of a mouthful...

Julie Weathers said...

To all my Reider friends for World Whisky Day. Would that I could drink a glass with you straight and neat.:

"Fraser didn't ask but poured them both a dram of whisky, warm-smelling and smoke-tinged. There was something comfortable in drinking whisky in company, no matter how bad the whisky. Or the company, for that matter. This particular bottle was something special, and Roger was grateful, both to the bottle and its giver, for the sense of comfort that rose from the glass, beckoning him, a genie from the bottle." Diana Gabaldon Written in My Own Heart's Blood

John Davis Frain said...

I would reward you with my comment, but my ego doesn't allow me to post beside all you commoners. Had my ego not intervened, you would be reading three poetic remarks, each assembled at 100 words, discussing the literary relevance of blogging. But I'm above all that. And above you.

Meantime, will you Like me on all my social media outlets?

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I don't know why any author would put this in a query, but I've got some sympathy for this poor guy/gal. It's probably a gross oversimplification, but I've always considered literary fiction to be a novel where the main selling point is the theme or the writing itself. Not that literary fiction doesn't need all the other parts of a story - plot, engaging characters, pacing - but that all those are secondary.

So I can understand that wishing your commercial fiction book was a literary fiction book. It's basically saying, "I wish I were more of the writer that Academia has told me I should aspire to be." I wouldn't be surprised if the author has an MFA or an English degree. Does it really sound so bad to say, "I wish I wrote well enough that my words could captivate all on their own?"

That said, it's a weird thing to put in a query. Especially if you're actually marketing a book as commercial fiction.

(I also want to add that I'm totally against the idea that one genre is lesser or more plebian than another! It's ridiculous. And what's so bad about being plebian anyway?)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

John Frain, isn't it nice up here above the rest? I just love looking down on underlings...crack...split...pedestal wobbles...hole in cloud...ahhhhhhhhhh.
Damn ego, always lets me down hard.

Shaunna said...

I agree, Bethany. There's a lot of pride on both sides of the fence. Erudites looking down on genre fiction for its "poor writing quality," and plebeians railing up at literary fiction for its lack of broad appeal. Put aside that pride, and we find engaging stories from both camps. Why can't we all just get along instead of waste our energy labeling one another?

Colin Smith said...

I hesitated before posting another comment. This article already has more than 35 comments, which means it's in danger of becoming popular, which goes against my angsty desire to be a niche writer that only appeals to a gnostic few, so we can hang out in our hermitic enclaves and bemoan the ignorant masses who couldn't possibly understand the subtle nuances of our prose.

On a serious note, are we to think that you cannot explore deep issues of what it means to be human, to be alive, and to deal with social and moral issues unless you're writing literary fiction? The issues may not be as in-your-face in, say, THE SHINING, or TRICKSTER, but they're there. Maybe just presented in a way that's a bit more accessible to a lot of people.

And thank you Julie. You're very kind. :)

Brigid said...

Bethany, you hit the nail on the head. I think Janet once said that the difference between great commercial and great literary fiction is that you read great literary novels with a notebook to record beautiful sentences, but you can't put great commercial down long enough to register a sentence (so murder your darlings, lest you distract from the plot). Both of those are phenomenal traits for a book to have. It's just a different reading experience. And I might argue that it's more of a spectrum than two separate buckets.

There are commercial novels that have absolutely touched my soul, that had incredible thematic depth and skillful writing that healed something in my heart. Harry Potter was a cornerstone of my childhood—it taught me loyalty and friendship and courage at a time when nobody would play with me.
The Goblin Emperor tackles duty and forgiveness and becoming the person you want to believe you can be, by an author who loves language itself.
Elizabeth Goudge's Torminster series feels like it shares a heart with Little Women, but while it reads literary today—beautiful sentences, character-driven, slow to unfold, full of symbolism—she was repeatedly accused of sentimentalism, not Greatness.

I'm honestly not sure whether I aim commercial or literary, which is why I like the idea of a spectrum. Commercial, I suppose: a plot worth paying attention to, sentences that capture difficult feelings, characters who grow, ambiguous villains, meaning and humanity.
Also I fail, but that's beside the point.

Colin Smith said...

Discussions like this remind me of this Fry & Laurie sketch. :)

DeadSpiderEye said...

I know I might seem supercilious but it's not true, it only seems that way because I actually am superior. Those pejorative terms they sling about: pleb, hack, pot-boiler, they always strike me as ironic, I'd pay money to be a competent hack.

Anonymous said...

I think you just bit the other foot off, so this person might need a breach in the fabric of existence to swim back and change her timeline to save her feet. Then tell us where it is, please.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

My ego would love to tell you that this comment is the greatest composition ever made by man, but if I'm being realistic, it's probably only the greatest composition ever made by any of the mendicants who frequent the internet. Either way, the important thing is: the smell of my own poop delights and titillates me.

Cheryl said...

Capital-L-Literary, like Mensa, is for people who require external validation of their intelligence. Those of us who are secure in ourselves don't need either.

As if genre fiction or kidlit or whatever else are somehow fake.

I don't understand people who feel this way. No child starts out reading nosebleed literature. Few teens prefer it to genre. Hell, few adults prefer it to genre.

If you have big ideas, wouldn't you prefer to get them out to the most people, rather than a self-selected few?

I have many thoughts on why Literary writers are trying to re-invent SF, on how The Edible Woman would be categorized if it came out now, and on White Male Writers Over Forty writing about White Male Writers Over Forty*.

*I know most Literature doesn't boil down to that, but for a while there in the '90s it sure seemed like it.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Then things get more complicated! Brigid - thanks for that piece of Janet wisdom that I'd forgotten! It's much more succinct than what I was trying to get at. :) I would agree that several (if not most) of the books that have truly impacted my life are commercial fiction or fantasy.

But then you also get books like I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson that may fall under a genre (YA, in this case), but where the writing is so delicious that the plot really does feel secondary. Rebecca was also that way for me. It could probably be categorized as suspense, but the writing always makes me feel like I'm eating creamy chocolate.

And the reef is quite clever today! Faux condescension suits us all a little too well. :) Colin, that sketch made me laugh out loud!

Lucie Witt said...

People are snooty towards commercial writers? As a YA and romance writer I can't fathom such a thing (how I wish that was true).

I can see why some people feel bad for the querier and I MAYBE would if this wasn't a query to Janet. While some might hesitate to apply the literary label to their work thinking it means "exquisitely written" I don't think that was happening here. Janet clearly reps commercial fic so saying you wish your book was something else makes no sense in this context.

LynnRodz said...

I like to think my WIP is literary, but then again I like to think I'm tall, thin, and young. Three strikes and I'm out! Or is that four?

Craig said...

Oh no, I used to like you LynRodz. You are shaking my foundation here.

Is this also about how boring Literary can be? I have whole acres I can fertilize with what I have seen and heard spouting about that. All those people who edit endlessly to make it perfect in Literary terms and don't notice that they have edited the magic out of it.

BJ Muntain said...

I had SOOOOOO much to say on this topic. I wrote it all out. Then I opened another notepad window and started again.

'Literary' used to apply to all writing. That's what 'literary' means. But in the last 50 years or so, it's become quite elitist. Maybe that's because most people can read now, so the 'elites' have to have something else to hold over others' heads.

Dave Langford puts out a science fiction/fantasy newsletter every month. In it, he gives examples seen in (mostly British) media of 'How the world sees us'. There are a LOT of examples of, "My work isn't science fiction/fantasy, even if it does include an alien or magic. My work has THEMES. My work is an allegory for life today." So, obviously, these writers haven't read a lot of SF or fantasy, since that's exactly what SF and fantasy is: a way of showing the world what it really is in a way that makes it palatable.

As for what to call it in a query letter: Don't. Don't say commercial. Don't say literary. Just tell the agent what the story is about, and if it has an actual genre, give that. Literary is NOT a genre. Literary is a STYLE. You don't talk about style in a query letter. You show it.

Lennon Faris said...

I'm guessing that the querier knows just fine how 'hot' commercial fiction is and was actually trying to convey that the novel had the valued qualities of both. He just didn't take a step back and really listen to the words coming out of his mouth before he hit send.

Can't say I feel much sympathy, though. This sort of thing may happen in conversations and be forgiven, but a written document?

Maybe another takeaway is, don't cross the line between admirably confident and annoyingly cocky. It may work in a romance novel but it won't make a business deal.

Julie Weathers said...

So there we were, wandering around being special, and beautiful, and literary. Note, I am not anti-literary and no literary authors were harmed in the making of this video.

Julie Weathers said...

Before I forget, y'all need to go to Janet's twitter feed. Query Shark is mentioned in a flow chart of what to do before you query. If I knew how to link to tweets I would, but I don't.

Colin Smith said...

It should be said, and so I'll say it, that there's nothing wrong with preferring "Literary Fiction." No shame at all. No need to hide your Chopin, Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald when the vicar comes to visit. (Maybe your Nabokov, though.) It's your preference. If that's what scratches your itch, sates your palate, hits your spot, then have at it! Go for it! Consider yourself free to enjoy those novels. And those of us who prefer our literary faire on the more popular level will consume that which we enjoy. And some may indeed dip into both bowls with equal satisfaction. Such is the joy of living in a free society where the buffet is long, broad, and dense, and is open 24/7, even on weekends.

OK. I said it. :)

Steve Stubbs said...

My ego told me that query line was a classic case of tell, don’t show. I would have phrased your last line differently: “Let his ego publish the thing and I will pass.”

Just sign me,
A Devotee of the Commercial Fiction Novel

Karen McCoy said...

Fry and Laurie! Thank you, Colin. This made my morning.

And yeah, what Steve said. A talking ego is always a bad sign. The goal is to get the ego to shut up once in a while.

Claire said...

Capital-L-Literary, like Mensa, is for people who require external validation of their intelligence. Those of us who are secure in ourselves don't need either.

Ooh, that's a little harsh, Cheryl! Most of what I like to read would be classed as literary fiction; I don't choose it just so people on the train think I'm smart...

Shaunna said...

Third and final comment of the day. After thinking about this for hours, I've got the following takeaway (based on reading everyone else's comments). Genre fiction can have prose that makes you cry, but "literary page turner" is an oxymoron. Better to query as commercial and let your writing speak for itself.

Theresa said...

I'm glad the Shark didn't have her teeth all the way out for this query writer. It sounded to me like a clumsy attempt to convey how he sees himself as a writer. (And at least he didn't write a fiction novel.)

As an academic historian trying to break down the barrier between scholarly and popular, I'm wary of categories.

LynnRodz said...

Craig, I can still make a mean margarita. One out of five isn't bad. And don't get me bragging about my lemon tarts. Too bad Her Grace, the Duchess of Yowl isn't an agent, her ears would perk up. "Lemon tarts, did someone say lemon tarts? I want to be her agent!"

Julie, our admin from our closed FB group put that chart out. Great chart btw. We have a whole discussion going on about it because someone asked if it was necessary to read the entire archives because as she says, "There's a lot!" Several of us said, yep...Janet would be proud of our comments.

Russell Buyse said...

We have an early entrant in the weekly subheader sweepstakes: "Yea well, fuck that noise."

Joseph Snoe said...

At the conference earlier this year, the moderator read the first page of submitted manuscripts. Four agents listened and were instructed to raise their hand when they would reject the submission. Attendees were told to put the genre at the top of the page. One person denoted his or her entry as something like “Literary Romance.” Bam! Rejected before the first sentence.

Two agents jumped all over this. “How dare you call your novel Literary. It is not for you to decide that. It is for us to decide.”

I felt bad for the writer. She classified it the best she knew how.

Ironically, one of the agents gave me her card. She called herself a “Literary Agent.” I wanted to make a joke about it, but she would have been the one to decide if it was funny, and I didn’t risk it.

Julie Weathers said...

I think it might be good to consider that much of what we consider literary today was considered popular fiction when it was first published and frowned upon. Poe wasn't accepted by many.

Robert E. Lee wrote to his wife from Texas admonishing her not to let their daughters read novels which would spoil their minds and instead read only classics and poetry as was proper for young ladies. This was not an uncommon opinion.

I don't particularly care what label is slapped on a book if it captures my heart. Just don't tell me I am somehow lesser because I don't appreciate something with a certain label. I don't owe you my love. You have to earn it.

Cheryl said...

Oh, Claire, I'm not talking about reading it, I'm talking about people who get snobbish about writing it. Okay, and people who get snobbish about reading it.

If that's what you prefer, no worries. But a person who judges other people negatively for reading other genres? That's just wearing your ass for a hat.

Joseph Snoe said...

Julie W. gave us this link
So there we were, wandering around being special, and beautiful, and literary

I want to go there. A sand beach, turquoise water, long legged beauties, a beer, and a barbershop quartet. What else could you want?

Timothy Lowe said...

I guess this sort of thing is equivalent to describing what you look like to someone across the table from you at a speed dating event. Even if you do it in modest terms, you still come off as pretty stupid.

Christina Seine said...

I didn't read all the comments, so forgive me, but I read enough that we could probably roast a marshmallow next to poor Opie.

I don't see OP as intentionally snobbish. And as one who knows too well the flavor of both feet, I utterly sympathize. I can tell you from my own experience in college (especially at the post-graduate level) the ONLY thing considered worth writing was literary fiction. Sure, the unspoken code said, you could "sell out" and write commercial for (gasp) genre. I wonder sometimes if that wasn't pure job security stuff. I mean, if anybody can write a book ... even without an MFA (again, gasp), then who needs literary profs? An entire beard grooming industry could be jeopardized.

What I see Opie saying is, "I strove for literary excellence here, and - dare I say it - I think I did pretty damn good. And yet, hopefully, it's not SO beautiful that the plot does not also grip you."

Also, for the record, I never did finish that MFA. I had a bunch of awesome kids who needed me home, and I've never regretted it. But with SO much information available online now (thank you Janet) I think the only thing I really miss from those days are the writing workshops. It's hard to find good critique partners, especially if you live in the boonies, as I do.

Donnaeve said...

Actually Christina - there is no OP. (yeah, we'd be dancing around the bonfire of OP's flaming body if there were)

The post is a snippet of a query and Janet used it b/c...well. They said what they said. I do wonder OP lurking? Is OP cringing? Is OP cussing us all out for dishing out our opinions?

Personally, I don't think some of the classics mentioned could get pubbed today if no one ever heard of them. Closest might be McCarthy - but he writes about such twisted stuff, I feel the need to drink holy water after reading it.

OT: Anyone type words, then laugh b/c your hands are off by a letter or so, or your brain is just misfiring and you type a word like pubbled for published? Yeah, my brain has flat lined after editing for HOURS.

Donnaeve said...

Heeee! And... Christina, I'm chortling at your comment at my place. You're the best.

Panda in Chief said...

Huzzah! World Whiskey Day! Who knew?

Maybe the querier should have classified the work as commercial fiction "but I can spell real good and sometimes use big words."
I'm guessing (giving the querier the benefit of the doubt) that the comment had more to do with insecurity than arrogance, but still, not the kind of comment to inspire confidence for a potential agent.

As someone with an MFA (and the years in restaurant/coffee mines work to prove it) all I can say is SHOW ME THE MONEY!!! We were a pretty snotty bunch in art school, but now I'm on the Panda Satire train, and proud of it. Some people look at what I'm doing now with a raised eyebrow, but I am following where my creative heart leads me. All of what my fine art training has led me to what I'm now doing, so who am I to sneer at low versus high art?

Happy Friday, everyone!

Miles O'Neal said...

I grew up reading mainly science fiction and fantasy. Come to think of it, that's still the bulk of my reading diet. It was very much looked down upon by mainstream folk back then. Much of it still is, if to a lesser extent now.
But you know what? I don't care. Didn't then, won't ever. I'll try to help people realize what they're missing, but I won't take it personally. Such attitudes tell you far more about the other person than about you.
Go read you [approved genre]. I might read some of that, too. But mainly I'll be reading about spaceships, dragons, space aliens, and faeries. And loving every minute of it.
Strangely enough, that's what I often write, too.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read all the work of every client of Janet's, but I've read enough to know that her clients seem to have a few things in common: they're highly intelligent, write beautifully crafted sentences, have a more than passable command of the English language, are masterful storytellers. So while they might write "commercial" fiction, it's understandable that a querier might sense a higher bar of pickiness here, and might even mistake it as a preference for "literary" work. Whatever the hell that means.

I didn't see this as an insult to Janet or her clients-- perhaps the opposite.

Even so. Sheesh. It was definitely insulting and a snobby, ill-advised thing to say. It's the self-deprecating insecurity in there that leaves it one small step from being haughty. There's a difference between a big ego and a strong one.

I've heard some agents want writers to state the genre, but "literary" is not a genre. Why a writer would even attempt this kind of self-qualification in a query, or anywhere, is beyond me.

Colin and Julie: Both those videos were hilarious. Thanks for the laughter today.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Hank, I nearly peed myself.

Last year I turned a corner and found a wall of stacked books on the sidewalk. Someone must have cleaned out an attic. Half of them were in English. I selected a few gems. One is American Short Stories, by Eugene Current-Garcìa, and Walton R. Patrick, both English professors at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute. The book was printed in 1952 by Scott, Foresman and Company.

I almost sent it to the Queen, because she is the hero, but I'd have to pay international postage and I'd spent that money on salted butterscotch candy.

Every time I hear the literary-vs-genre argument I get out this book and look at the introductory chapter: The Short Story in America.

"Americans were free from England and becoming culturally self conscious." But they did not have American writers. Magazine publishers printed English (British) writers. And pirated their works.

Short stories from this period are the root of today's genres.

From the introduction:

"Ever since the Revolution the patriotic desire to establish a native literature had spurred many Americans into energetic, though largely amateurish, writing of poetry, drama, and fiction; yet, as late as 1820, their failure to impress foreign travelers and critics, who jeered at their lack of artistic and intellectual development, could be summed up in Sidney Smith's wisecrack: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?"

Then between 1820 and 1860 the American short story flourished and "hundreds of literary periodicals were founded, many of them sincerely dedicated to bringing the work of American writers before the public." The North American Review, Knickerbocker magazine, Graham's and Southern Literary Messenger. Godey's Lady's Book founded in 1830, described as "the first of the great 'slicks... had the largest circulation of any of the monthly's in 1836."

Another quote: "The mounting popularity achieved by our earliest short story writers soon raised a problem— the commercialization and standardization of literary art... Professional authors had to meet the demands of of a commercial market if they hoped to succeed financially, they had to write the kind of stories which magazine editors would buy and publish.

Here are a few of the authors: Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Herman Melville, Willa Carther, Henry James, Audora Welty, Irwin Shaw, Hemmingway, Katharine Anne Porter. Stick your finger in your nose.

So... Back in February I read seven of K'Wan's Hood Rat series. While I was overdosing on the violence and the sex, I had dinner with a friend who is a director of lyric opera. I raved about K'Wan and she raved about Moliere. She said Moliere wasn't much different, he rode around France in a wagon with a bunch of hooligans and performed in the streets. And she said Shakespeare wrote for the thugs.

Literary writers. Yowl.

Anonymous said...

Jesus H. Janet, you've occupied my Friday in a way I hadn't suspected. Damn you. I say we just cut to the chase, organize, and cut that moby dick off! (well, redirect it for our reading leisure.)

AJ Blythe said...

LynnRodz, please thank your FB group for putting out that chart ! I have printed it off and stuck it in my "must do before querying" notes. Brilliant =)

Steve Stubbs said...

Blogger Colin Smith said...

“Such value judgments make my skin crawl. ... Is Mozart "better" than McCartney?”

Good Lord, yes.

“Is DaVinci "better" than Picasso?”

Are you kidding?

“Is Austen "better" than Pratchett?”

Is that a rhetorical question?

You might as well ask if Beethoven is better than Homer & Jethro. The difference between extraordinary genius and so so is hardly subjective. I think the difference under discussion here is not between literary fiction and commercial fiction, but between literary success and literary pretension. A successful commercial author has bragging rights that an unsuccessful author of any stripe does not. Edna St, Vincent Milay was certainly a literary figure and immensely successful as well as extraordinarily talented/ The original poster had better be the reincarnation of J.-K. Huysmans or don’t even talk to me about being a literary writer. And for crying out loud, no sniffing at successful commercial writers. In other domains that is called “reverse snobbery.”

AJ Blythe said...

Apologies for what is my 4th post, but I've been mulling on this for so long I have to comment again.

Janet, what exactly defines 'literary'? I thought I knew, but after reading the comments, I'm now puzzled.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

What Shaunna said. Sooo what Shaunna said.

I don't like most literary fiction because it's so dang depressing! It's as if the anti-HEA is a genre requirement for literary fiction.

For me, the Sadly Ever After (SEA) ending is a detriment to the greatness that literary fiction could be. Personally, I think the promotion of such depression and lack of even a glimmer of hope is dangerous to the human race. Why do people insist on writing it? Don't their own souls get dragged to the nadir of human existence every time they do? If they are doing this to exorcise their own demons, then they need to find a better way of doing so. To write such darkness AND THEN HAND IT TO ANOTHER HUMAN BEING is a cruel, cruel thing to do.

Write your literary works if you want, but if it's dark and depressing to the very end, I absolutely will not read it. I'm an idealist. I've seen the human race do marvelous things. Our greatness, in spite of our darkness, is what our literary works should reflect. Sure, we can explore the shadow side of our human experience, but do not leave us there. It's a sad place and no benefit for our souls comes from that.

Go read Paulo Coelho, Brazilian author. He writes literary works with a message of hope.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I once took a grad-level writing class at university. Oh the abuse I suffered from the 'literary' writers in there! Severe, terrible abuse. Had this been any other field (science, music, etc), I would have quit and never looked back.

But I love writing escapist novels. I write the complete opposite of what those other writers were trying to write. I write books to lift the human heart and make them glad.

My dear, gentle, fellow genre authors. Take heart in that our works serve a necessary purpose in the world. We make it a better place.

Fellow author and mate of mine SKS Perry occasionally shares his fan mail (with permission) on his FB page. Some of those letters are beautiful. His work has literally saved lives.

And that makes it all worthwhile.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

My ego would like to tell you that this is a brilliant and beautiful book, but I thought I'd let my fans do that instead.

Colin Smith said...

Steve: I so disagree with you. Mozart and McCartney were/are geniuses. Different styles of music, but geniuses the same. Likewise DaVinci and Picasso, Austen and Pratchett. When one prefers a certain style, those who create within that style have an elevated status in one's eyes. However, that doesn't mean there aren't equally creative geniuses in styles one doesn't appreciate. I'm not a huge fan of Mozart. I'm more a Debussy guy. But I freely admit that Mozart was a musical genius. I also happen to believe that McCartney is worthy of being listed right next to Mozart on the musical geniuses list. And if that offends anyone, oh well. Call me an ignoramus if it makes you feel better. :)

Allison Newchurch said...

There are people of whom it may be said the only time they open their mouths is to change feet.