Serious Fiction and Legitlit: Creating a Hybrid Home

28 January 2013

From Jennie Coughlin:

Print vs. Ebook

Traditional vs. Indie

Genre vs. Literary

Serious vs. Fluff?

Critics, readers and writers all like debating about fiction and where it’s going. One interesting sidelight to the Traditional/Indie debate has been the discussion about what works in print versus in ebook. Some genres are hugely popular in ebooks. Erotica leads the way — no covers to hide from people while reading in public — but romance, supernatural and other popular genres also do well in ebooks. Meanwhile, literary fiction doesn’t. Unless it’s popular literary fiction — akin to what Don Maass has dubbed 21st Century Fiction — and then it does well in both print and ebooks.

Blogger and critic Porter Anderson has been talking recently about the rise in “shirtless” fiction — romance, romance and more romance. For Porter, it’s akin to the 25-cent paperbacks people can buy by the bag at library book sales and used book stores. Easily read, easily discarded. He’s been pushing what he’s calling #legitlit and #seriousfiction — stories that make you think. Is that literary fiction? That might depend on who you ask.

Read the rest here- Interesting.  Welcome to Exeter.

Julia Barrett

Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Beautiful Writing, Bestsellers, Big Publishing, Books in General, Ebooks, Romance, The Business of Writing

50 Comments to “Serious Fiction and Legitlit: Creating a Hybrid Home”

  1. I agree with the author here. I think there is room for a middle-ground genre between genre fiction and literary fiction. Books that are more serious and throught-provoking, but are not as concerned with the poetry of language.

    I could be wrong, but I think it used to be called Fiction. Maybe they’ll come up with another term.

    There’s a part of me that says: “No, not another genre!” but actually, I think clarifying a genre makes it easier for the reader to find what they are looking for. And, with unlimited shelf space, why not get more specific? It will help with discoverability.

    • Thanks, Mira. With the switch to digital and the necessity of categorizing books by genre, there really isn’t a good home beyond “literary” for books that aren’t a specific genre. I’ve had that issue with both of my books. And an increasing number of books – since the advent of legitimate self-publishing and the growing number of small presses – don’t really fit a genre. But most of us wouldn’t classify our work as literary either. That’s the gap I think needs to be filled. It does seem like most of the books in that category aren’t fluffy, so the “serious writing” and #legitlit tags work as well as anything.

      • I understand the need for further definition, as the genre labels currently out there don’t fit a lot of books coming out now. But, I do object to the twitter tags.

        “Serious writing” or “#seriousfiction”? Well, sorry, but anyone who is serious about their writing or reading applies to that label. To apply it to a certain grouping of books is in essence saying the rest aren’t ‘serious.’ I know it’s not necessarily meant that way, but that’s how it will come across to a bunch of people, and some of them are going to view it as insulting to their preferred reading/writing.

        “#legitlit” or “legitimate literature”? What? These books are more ‘legitimate’ than other books? This label suffers from the same problems of “#seriousfiction”. Perhaps coming across as even more insulting. Ouch.

        Fine, come up with another label for a genre that isn’t being recognized right now. I have no issues with that at all. By all means do it, but come up with different wording than the above. All it does is perpetuate and heat up the “Genre vs. Literary” arguments, and I’m so tired of those.

        We’re all writers, after all.

    • Hi, Mira. I do like that word… fiction. Really nails it.

    • I’ve heard contemporary fiction used as a genre quite a bit lately.

    • I thought the term agents and editors have been using for a literary book with commercial appeal is ‘upmarket fiction.’ I’ve heard that for a few years now.

      • I don’t think that’s a marketable term. I think Barnes and Noble, at least, recognized that most of these terms don’t appeal to many readers. Though I agree it has less of a stigma than the other terms.

  2. Boomer Lit

    And yet, here is another genre that might make sense? I just joined the group this morning so I’m not sure yet.

  3. I think this is looking at it all the wrong way. “Serious” and “Fluff” aren’t really types of fiction. They are opposite ends of a spectrum that exists within every genre. EVERY genre (yes, EVERY) has serious fiction and every genre has fluff and every genre has everything that comes in between those two extremes as well.

    • Sarah, if you read the entire post, the serious/fluff distinction wasn’t really the point – hence the question mark. Porter might see things that way. I just see a gap where those of us who don’t write genre fiction get lumped into literary even if we don’t fit well there. I’m not attacking genre, though a lot of people seem to think I am.

  4. Genre fiction has always accepted more literary styles of writing and intellectual thought.

    The problem comes in those proponents of literary fiction who think everyone who doesn’t write literary fiction is just not as good. They will never accept genre fiction as being as good as literary fiction.

    I also think that writing good concise fiction with high reader engagement can take as much skill as writing flowery prose that appeals to critics.

    This always makes me think of the movie Hugo. I was so freakin’ bored watching in parts of that movie, but the critics lauded how amazing it was. All I could think was “Five minute shots of Sascha Baron Cohen’s nose didn’t really make the statement they intended.” I didn’t see one critic mention those epically long, dreadfully boring close ups, and the need for editing. What critics praise may be exactly what they abhor elsewhere, just because it has a different title or theme.

    Much of it is just a game of who yells “I’m better than you” the loudest.

    • Thank you for saying what I’ve been terrified to say! 😉

    • Heh. I watched Hugo recently with my kids. The younger two were too bored to pay attention the whole time. The oldest made it all the way through and liked it well enough, but has never asked to watch it again. (That’s how you know a kid really liked a movie. They want to watch it over and over again for a while until the next one they fall in love with.) Personally, I was astounded by how uninteresting it was. It didn’t feel like a kids movie at all. More like art house fair for pretentious adults. If that’s what “serious” fiction is then no thank you.

      • I loved every second of Hugo. It’s a love-letter to film. My son (21) loathed it. To each their own.

        The book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, is truly innovative, so I’m a bit confused how it’s being conflated here with ‘serious’ fiction.

    • Lynn, I’m not opposed to genre fiction — far from it. Most of the books I own/read are genre. But genres have general guidelines for content.

      My books have mobsters, but aren’t mystery, crime or thriller. The protagonist is gay, but it’s not a LGBT book – that element is pretty incidental to the overall story. There’s no romance. No supernatural elements. It just doesn’t fit in any category but literary, and yet the literary folks sneer at it because it has mobsters, plot, etc.

      There are more and more of those books as publishing loses its grip on gatekeeping and forcing rewrites to fit their standards (see the Indie Reader piece on LGBT characters in non-LGBT stories), which means more and more of us with no home. I’d be happy to call my book genre if it was. And I know others who have similar dilemmas. If you’ve got a better answer, I’d like to hear it. This was mine.

      • Posted “contemporary fiction” up above. That is a section in my bookstore where most of the more recent critically acclaimed litfic sits.

        I think better terms could be used than “serious fiction” or “legit fiction”, because those are still terms that indicate some sort of elitist hierarchy. I spoke with someone recently who asserted that everybody writing genre should writing literary genre fiction, and if they didn’t, they couldn’t be as good as those who didn’t use the same style. Unfortunately, it has a hierarchy connotation, and until you find a better term, it will continue to do so.

  5. I take a literary approach to fluff. Nobody likes me….

    • I do too, Camille.
      I hate boxes even more when they have a judgement of quality attached. And yes, I get that genre helps readers find books, but I can’t help but thinking while everyone discusses genre, that tag words do a much better job and really will probably (eventually, I know, I know, not tomorrow) do a great job of replacing genre at least in the digital world. Though you can search print books via tags just as easily.
      Why worry if a book is technically YA or New Adult when I can search for a “vampire, romance, scifi, with an adult protagonist,” and find a list of suitable books with a click?
      Or an “intellectual WW1 murder mystery social commentary?”
      Or a?
      There are still categories, sure, but the more of those the merrier and hey, lets put books in more than one while we’re at it. Shelf space isn’t an option, and if you ask me, too many genres can confuse more than enlighten. In particular when a book is only placed in one.
      My perfect scifi read might be hiding in YA or in “Upmarket” or somewhere else entirely. If it isn’t tagged right in the search engines, will I still find it?

      • For me, it really is fluff — I love archetypes and tropes. But I don’t use them as a short cut, I use them for their own sake (which is, in many ways, the literary approach). Which means I’m almost always out of step with what is current in any particular genre.

        For the next year or so, I’m going to concentrate on a different group in Twitter and other places. Instead of seeking out people in my genre, I’m seeking out people who love OLD TV shows and movies and such. I think it’s closer to my sensibility, even if many of them are not big time book buyers.

  6. Here’s my theory about why literary fiction sells better in print than in ebooks: some buyers aren’t buying it to read, but to display on their shelves.

    • That is what is called signaling. People do it with lots of stuff (cars, houses, clothes, etc.). I’m not talking about conspicuous consumption, although that is one form of signaling, but things like a guy wearing a hat. That makes a statement.

      For signaling to be an effective marketing strategy, there has to be a community that understands the signal. If my pants are droopy, it means something different (as a 52 y/o pasty white male I could only be saying that I am plumber) than if someone of a different ethnic group or gender does it.

      One of the laments of the Porter Anderson’s of the world is that people aren’t listening to them and ebooks aren’t good for signaling.

      • “One of the laments of the Porter Anderson’s of the world is that people aren’t listening to them and ebooks aren’t good for signaling.”

        Agreed with most of what you have to say, except for this, for two reasons (well one reason for each point):

        I’ll start with the second first: ebooks aren’t good for signaling. Okay, but HASHTAGS are good for signaling. They are fabulously excellent for signalling in the way that he is using them — for in group / out group identification. Which leads me to the other point….

        People aren’t listening to the Porter Andersons of the world: Mmmmmm, I don’t know. The problem here is that “people” aren’t a single group. The question is which people are and which aren’t listening. I certainly listen to him. He has a following, and others like him have followings. And as with any “tribe adherence” signal, there will probably be a bunch of them thrown out there before any particular ones stick. I suspect the ones he is proposing won’t stick.

        The problem I see for what he’s doing is the same I saw for people who were trying to build a “brand” out of the word “indie.” On KDP there was a huge push for a while for indie authors to identify themselves as such and to tag every book that was indie and band together into a solid front in every possible way. The problem was that “indie” didn’t mean anything to anyone except writers. There was no style or school of thought in common. So mostly it was detrimental to communicating with the readers.

        What Porter Anderson is looking to do is something like the SF New Wave from around the sixties — take a trashed genre and revive it into something serious. It wasn’t a marketing ploy, or branding, it was a school of writing.

        A school of writing does mean something to the reader as well as too the writer. The key is clarity in your “signaling” terms. If he wants to differentiate himself from “literary” then for goodness sakes, don’t use “Serious Fiction.” That’s what “Literary” MEANS to most people.

        On the other hand, if he is actually talking about literary fiction (but non-experimental, what an agent I knew called “literary accessable”) then Serious Fiction is actually a good term, because it’s more descriptive. Both the readers and the writers know what it means, and (since “literary fiction” is also a kind of genre with category requirements) it takes the category requirements out of it.

        (So I guess I do see that one sticking — for literary accessable fiction — after all.)

    • Amy – that’s a good point! 🙂

  7. I think generally we’re all confused about genre. Actually most of us are confused about how to answer any “What is X?” question. Just google “Aristotle Four Causes” to see what I mean. Let’s talk about “Romance” and “Literary Fiction” for a minute.

    One way to talk about “Romance” is to discuss what makes a story fit the genre. The component parts of a romance novel. Then you can have heated arguments about whether HEA is necessary or how much sex can you have before it is erotica, etc. But at least you have something to talk about.

    A different way to talk about “Romance” is to discuss its function. What is the purpose of a romance novel? Your answer can be anything from entertainment, maintenance of a rigid social order, or female empowerment, but there is a focus to the discussion.

    I don’t think it is really possible to talk about literary fiction in the sense of defining the component parts. People who try to talk about literary fiction in this way tend to end up veering into the “purpose” discussion or a form of self-referentialism (literary fiction is whatever “we” say it is, a form of canon).

    A genre is only useful to me if it tells me what to expect. That’s why certain genres do better in the abundant world of ebooks. Readers know what to expect from romance or science fiction or fantasy or cozy mystery or whatever. Literary fiction is like a box of chocolates, if boxes of chocolates often contained Brussels sprouts.

    • Literary fiction is like a box of chocolates, if boxes of chocolates often contained Brussels sprouts.

      I am going to print this out and tape it to my wall. Right after I clean up the cookie crumbs I spontaneously spit all over my keyboard! LOL!

      • :: spraying crumbs here too ::


        Literary fiction is like a box of chocolates, if boxes of chocolates often contained Brussels sprouts.

        What a fabulous line, William!

      • Brussel sprouts would make me leave Literary fiction forever.

        It’s bad enough already that so many chocolates turn out to be filled with strawberry jam, apricot jam, and double yuck – spit-spit-spit – cherries.

    • I agree with the brussel sprout analogy some of the time, William. Lately I’ve read a few books I consider literary fiction that are artisan chocolates. Really good artisan chocolates.

    • I know I’m jumping on the bandwagon, but the brussel sprout analogy in just so perfect, William.

    • Love the brussel sprouts line! The folks I know who are in favor of this hybrid category — Roz Morris is one person who gets lumped into the group with me – are storytellers. It seems like too little literary fiction involves telling stories. So if you’re a storyteller who doesn’t tell a story that fits into a genre, where do you go? How do you find a category on Amazon people can drill down to? Maybe contemporary fiction works. But when I was picking categories on CreateSpace, that wasn’t one of my options. There’s no BIASC code for it. Contemporary Women is a BIASC category. But not Contemporary.

    • *giggles and giggles and quotes that for all time*

  8. I am still not entirely certain, by the by, what the purpose of this non-genre genre is.

    That is, what useful information does it provide the prospective purchaser of a work?

    It appears to be a diagnosis of exclusion, as the medical types say. It tells you nothing about what the work IS: it only tells you what it is NOT. Which is to say, it is not anything in particular.

    Now, perhaps I am being simplistic here. But are there really so many readers who go into their search for new reading material saying, “I don’t know what I want: I just know I don’t want that. Or that. Or that. Definitely not that. Maybe… no, not that either. If it’s a that, I don’t want it. Give me something that’s not a that.” as to make it useful?

    And, assuming I am wrong and we need this genre of non-genre, why can’t we just call it, as suggested, “Fiction?” Granted that genre fiction is also fiction and so the language purists might be all a-tizzied, it seems like if you labeled it “fiction” and nothing else, people would get the idea that it wasn’t classified under any of the specific types, and we’d all be happy.

    • Marc, I think the biggest issue with that is as more and more browsing and searching becomes digital, it all runs off of categories. Fiction is an umbrella category, so if you look there, you get all fiction even if you don’t want erotica or sci fi or thrillers. You have to drill down. That means there needs to be a category to drill down to.

      • The database administrator in me says “where genre = NULL” but I doubt that many authors will want to say they write “NULL fiction” – even if they understand what I mean.

  9. Literary fiction is largely about style. Genre fiction is primarily plot driven. As Norman Spinrad once said, bestsellers are all about their own plots. Occasionally you’ll get a genre writer with a wonderful grasp of character and style, like Chandler or John D. or Ross McDonald, but they’re rare.

    • When people say things like that, do they honestly not understand how insulting it sounds?

    • This definition drives me crazy, too. Yes, I agree that literary is about the style. However, Genre fiction? It can be plot driven, character driven, all sorts of driven. So, that last part is not right.

      • Well, Peter did equate character with style, but most of the time when people say genre is “plot driven” and literary fiction is “style driven” they mean what you just defined. Character-driven is in the same category as plot-driven in that it’s substance, not style.

        Think of it this way: genre fiction is about substance and content — it’s about the story. Literary fiction is about the writer’s virtuosity. These are not mutually exclusive, and there is a huge cross-over.

        Where I disagree with Peter is where he says that virtuosity is rare in the genre writer. The truth is, the technical excellence — the control of voice and style and symbology — of you average pulp hack tends to be stronger than your average literary writer. It’s just that nobody ever hears of your “average” literary writer. So we tend to compare average hacks against extraordinary literary folks.

        Furthermore, in many genres, those who have no virtuosity at all may still do well. So we’re very often comparing the poorest genre writer with the most extraordinary literary folks.

        Some genres are more restrictive than others (or go through more restrictive phases in commercial publishing) and that can keep the experimentation down. But some genres, especially when they are in a pulp boom, can offer some amazing and wild new things. Where do you think either of the MacDonalds learned their stuff, or even Chandler? The actual new ground was broken by anonymous hacks writing under multiple pseudonyms. Some, like Hammett, became known, but so many didn’t.

      • And in the course of saying that, I didn’t say what I meant to say at all:

        I meant to say that just because the authors are using every kind of tool in the world, doesn’t mean that the genre isn’t driven by certain things.

        Which is why I think what Peter said is valid at it’s base.

    • Romance is virtually 100% character driven. I’ll refrain from saying some of the ruder things that come to mind. I’ll simply refer folks back to Marc’s statement.

  10. I call it “mundane fiction.” You’re not allowed to have adventures, excitement, or really cool things, but you are allowed to have mundane conversations.

    Then there’s “simile fiction.” Nothing ever actually happens, but everything is like something else, except when it’s a metaphor.

    There’s also “mundane college professor romance fiction” and “mundane college professor erotica,” both of which are written by creative writing professors for creative writing professors.

    • Mundane fiction it is. The nominations are closed. The motion is carried by general acclaim.

    • Are you aware that the term “mundane” is used by science fiction fans to refer to the non-sff world? So it already refers to genres like romance and mystery that don’t have a paranormal element.

      However, I don’t think fans would object to narrowing the use to mean “mainstream.” (It’s kind of like “muggle” in meaning, really.)

  11. Perhaps it’s just that some folks’ literary hierarchy doesn’t match the sales charts.

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