Are You Trashy or a Snob?
December 10, 2020 § 18 Comments
Girl, are you literary fiction? Because you’re beautiful and I keep waiting for you to do something.
Literary writing is often thought of as character-driven and high-falutin’ but slow-moving. Commercial writing, particularly genre fiction, is seen as plot-driven, faster-paced, and often (wrongly) characterized as easy to write and poorly written.
Is your book snobby or trashy? Your answer determines not only your publication opportunities, but who your readers and writing community are, and what bridges you’ll build to connect with them.
What exactly do you love about your favorite books? Beautiful sentences? They gave you a deeper understanding of the human condition? Or do you more enjoy a relaxed read that only demands you show up to be entertained? Literary and commercial writing both pull you into the author’s created world; both put you in someone else’s shoes. But literary writing makes you work a little harder, read more carefully for meaning. Commercial writing’s power is in events so fascinating, you forget the language itself, and invest in the characters, hoping they get it together—solve the mystery, disarm the bomb, fight the ghost, stop fighting each other—before the end of the book.
Think about your writing goals:
Do you want to draw attention to a larger issue as told through your personal experience? How many people should know about this problem? More than 10000, you probably want to write commercially.
Are you writing genre fiction? Almost certainly commercial.
Does your memoir read like speaking to a friend? Probably commercial unless you naturally have a very elevated voice.
Are you practicing making beautiful sentences, phrasing each word carefully on the page with attention to rhythm and structure? Probably literary.
Does most of your action happen inside the narrator’s head, or in “small” locations like a kitchen or a family home? Likely literary.
Are you pursuing an unusual structure, like a memoir made of a collection of fragments? Literary readers want the challenge of assembling those pieces.
Once you’ve got an idea of whether you’re literary or commercial, what do you DO with that information?
- Literary writers are more likely to be able to query a literary or university press without an agent.
- Commercial writers have a better chance of Big-Five publication, but will need an agent.
- For commercial writers in particular genres, self-publishing can be profitable.
- Both commercial and literary writers can land book deals from “hot essays”— topical pieces that grab public attention beyond the publication’s normal readership. Literary writers are more likely to be discovered in a literary journal or sophisticated mass-media publication like Harper’s or The Atlantic. Commercial writers are more likely to get attention in respected newspapers, women’s magazines like Marie Claire and Glamour, and online publications like Vox and Buzzfeed.
- Literary writers gain traction from attending conferences, MFA programs, and winning literary magazine competitions and prestigious residencies like Yaddo, Hedgebrook or The Macdowell Colony.
- Commercial writers are boosted by social-media engagement, mailing lists and regular mass-media publication.
- Commercial writers are boosted by becoming known experts on particular topics. (Become an expert by reading and researching; become known as an expert by actively sharing knowledge.)
The Actual Writing Part:
- When you’re improving your writing, read books you’d like to be shelved next to. Read them more than once.
- First read: enjoy the book!
- Second read: what’s the author doing technically in the voice, structure and story of the book? Can you see their writing choices on the page?
- Are you doing the same things in your work? Are you learning to do them better?
If you’re a literary writer, your number-one responsibility is to write an amazing book. Then help your book sell by committing to publishing in literary journals or prestigious mass media (it’s a long game!). Connect with other literary writers (including your workshop teachers). Actively improve your writing by taking classes if you can afford it, and/or rigorously analyzing books to learn how to do what they do, in your own voice and style. You’re going to need to be as good as the worst book you’ve ever bought, and ideally a lot better.
Commercial writers? You’ve got a lot to do. Genre fiction writers need a compelling book with a great concept and then a slog through the query trenches or a solid self-publishing plan. Commercial memoirists need platform. As you write, cultivate your audience. Who needs to hear what you have to say? Where are they? Engage in those communities. Ideally, by the time your memoir is finished, you’ll have fans so in love with your words, they can’t wait to buy your book for more.
Crossovers—often called “upmarket” or “book club”—books are a thing, too. Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel both have bodies of very literary work that reads (and sells) like commercial fiction. And of course, all writers need a strong understanding of plot and structure, and how to hook readers from the first page.
Literary writing is usually more beautiful at the sentence level—but literary writers must work hard to sustain reader interest through a quieter plot. Commercial writing is often more interestingly plotted—but commercial writers must still show quality writing sentence by sentence.
Neither path is superior. But choosing one will help you make other writing-career choices. Writing and publishing are time-consuming and overwhelming. Actively picking your path will be a smoother walk—with the companions you need along the way, and your readers waiting at your destination.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
I am sorry to see writing divided up in this way. Perhaps the pandemic has made me particularly sensitive to divisions, even well-documented divisions such as this. [I see what you mean and I’m sure you are right, but…] The books I most love do everything: offer me life wisdom, require me to think, pull me through a story that is compelling and with people I care about, and force me to linger over beautifully presented and meaningful images and compelling language.
On the other hand, books written merely to sell? Pfft!
How can you tell when a book is only written to sell? Because even genre writers pumping out a title a month want to entertain and uplift people. I’ve seen business/self help books meant to serve as a calling card for the author, but even then they have a desire to help their clients…
But I hear your point, and much of this broad-stroke overview for me comes from seeing writers with a literary bent spending their time worrying about social media instead of focusing hard on craft—and commercial authors feeling like “I want to sell books” is a shameful goal.
When someone tells you they are only interested in whatever sells (people have), that’s a tipoff. Is it shameful to care only about sales? I did not say that, only that I do care about and do not want to read most such books.
Art has obligations, imo. It is only my opinion.
[Allison, you know I love your posts. This one too.]
And I love your responses! Thanks for making me think more deeply ❤
Funny thing, just before reading this stimulating and useful article I queries a literary agent for a novel. I told her “I consider everything I now write to be some sort of literary fiction without necessarily calling it that.” And I feel the same way about categories and genres, created for the convenience of publishers, not writers.
In my query I called my novel upmarket contemporary (women’s) crime fiction, hoping not to be pigeonholed as quickly as usual. Sure I want to sell it, but I’m not about to let some publisher’s editor bowdlerize its charm.
One of the best things I’ve done, as a memoirist of the literary bent, is spend time learning the basic beats of story structure. What does a reader need to know to stay interested? When does that major turn kick in? The conflict? The secondary conflict? How do I keep throwing in those obstacles?
It’s all there in my life story. How I structure it on the page is how I’m trying to keep a reader engaged like commercial writing, but allowed to linger and think like literary writing.
It’s powerful to understand both, which you do Allison, and which I’m grateful for 🙂
That’s a powerful practice, and it shows in your work!
It may be powerful, but it also falls in line with a (time-tested, I admit) Aristotelian rubric of how a story must proceed to succeed. Given how closely the publishing and movie industries hew to their bowdlerized conception of Aristotle’s concept of story, we writers forget that it is just one rubric among many others. See Jane Allison’s book “Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative,” Catapult, 2018, to understand what I mean. I strongly feel that too many authors write with blinders on just to achieve commercial success, and hope that Amy does not stifle her voice just to save someone else’s cat.
Thank you for this…have printed it off and will reread.
What attracted me to your piece was not the title but the photograph, I recently took a photo of a very similar crossroad and installed it into a piece I wrote. I had to look twice to recognize it as a different photo. This similarity and your article pushed me a little further towards taking steps down one path or another.
This is something else, off topic, but The Atlantic reported yesterday how Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson has been concerned for years that “the big houses dominated certain publishing categories, such as literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, and how they could prevail over the supply and printing chains—and the attorneys came back to me with numbers and research backing that up. My interrogators even seemed to understand the thing that most of us in the book business are too shy to say, because it sounds a bit holier than thou: Talking about books isn’t talking about just a retail marketplace, but also the marketplace of ideas—of art, free speech, and, yes, damn it, democracy itself.”
Yes, I have changed the subject and blogs are not conversations, but in these pandemic times, don’t you wish they were, that we could sit around and hash all this out together?
I’ve gotta look that article up! And I agree 100% on all counts. Let’s converse as much as we can.
Allison, this is helpful, because I answered the questions differently than I thought I would. Hashing out literary versus commercial in this way feels like it is providing some clarity, and, with it, perhaps liberation. Thanks.
I’m so glad to hear that!!
My test of a book worth reading is the simple question, “what is it about?” If somebody can provide a satisfactory answer to that question other than simply holding up the book, waving it in front of you and saying “this is what it’s about – you have to read it yourself” then I tend to look elsewhere. The test of any art is that it somehow manages to explain the unexplainable.
So, yeah. Put me down as a snob.
I love this article. Want to write as if am seeing the people around me.
Love the lively conversation here. I found this bit particularly helpful: “Commercial memoirists need platform. As you write, cultivate your audience. Who needs to hear what you have to say? Where are they? Engage in those communities. Ideally, by the time your memoir is finished, you’ll have fans so in love with your words, they can’t wait to buy your book for more.”
Who and where. I need to think about that.
Thank you, Allison. Timely and provocative advice. This one’s a keeper. I write (and aspire to) literary essays. Your post helps me sort out where I need to go and what to do to get there.