And this above all things: label your book correctly

Last week, I talked a good deal about the risks that writers of literary fiction and others who play with the standard structures and usages of the language take in submitting their unusual work to agencies and editors. While I’m on the subject, this is probably a good time to revisit a very common writerly prejudice about literary fiction. To whit:

It is commonly believed that all good writing is literary, and that referring to one’s own work as literary is synonymous with saying that it is well written. Neither of these propositions is true.

Literary fiction is a marketing category, just as fantasy or historical romance are marketing categories. It refers to the 3-4% of the fiction market designed to be read by readers with college educations (or at any rate, large vocabularies), a high tolerance for introspection, and no inherent distrust of high falutin’ punctuation frills like the semicolon. The beauty of the writing is a major part of the point of the book, and character development trumps plot, generally speaking.

So when a writer walks up to an agent or editor at a conference and says something like, “It’s a thriller, but it’s written like literary fiction,” it does not translate as, “Gee, this is a really well-written thriller,” but as, “This writer doesn’t know the market.” It’s almost as great a faux pas as when an author speaks of his own work as a “fiction novel” (all novels are fictional) or “a nonfiction memoir” (all memoirs are nonfiction). It’s an admission that the writer isn’t very familiar with the lingo of the trade.

And we all know how fond agents and editors are of explaining the nuances of the industry to up-and-coming writers.

But sounding like a neophyte is not the only reason to avoid muddying your category distinction by adding the literary label as if it were the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Why, the average agent will think upon being told that a genre work is literary, doesn’t this writer write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving or paying attention to the query in front of me?

See the problem? Calling non-literary work literary sounds a bit sheepish, as if you were saying that given your druthers, you would be writing literary fiction instead of what you have in fact written. If you want to write literary fiction, fine: I hope you win a Nobel Prize. However, if you write in a genre, you should be proud of the fact, not apologetic — if not for your own sake, then for the sake of the impression you will make when you pitch it. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre? There’s a lot of beautifully-written SF and fantasy out there — it’s just written within the confines of the genre.

So the quicker you can shake the unfortunately pervasive rumor that a genre label automatically translates in professional minds into writing less polished than other fiction, the better. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are indicators of where a book will sit in a bookstore; they’re not value judgments. Simple logic would dictate that an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER than just as FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.

This is not to say that agents do not sometimes tag their clients’ work with, “but it reads like literary fiction” or “it’s on the mainstream-literary cusp,” if they feel this is a selling point for a particular book. But remember those signs on roller coasters that say, “You must be this tall to ride the Ultra-Mega Flume of Doom,” that made you so angry as a kid? In the industry, there are invisible signs reading, “You must be with this important an agency to blur publishing categories.”

Really. Just as editors are conditioned to regard an author who calls twice per week to talk about promotional opportunities a pest, but an author whose agent calls just as often with exactly the same information a joy, they respond better to certain phrases when agents say them.

During the big-break-seeking period of a writer’s career, the more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly; that, in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can reject it almost immediately.

Think of it as your little Christmas present to them. And to yourself: why waste your already-overburdened time catering to someone who doesn’t handle what you write?

I learned the hard way just how category-minded folks in the industry can be. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be assigned for a conference critique to an editor who did not handle either. I was disappointed, of course, but I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.

What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was yet another double Scotch.

In retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been droolingly grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like my protagonist) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre. Dear.

I learned something very important from this exchange: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic; the thriller editor and I could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish. To his mind, every way in which my work deviated from what he wanted to publish was a black mark against my novel. Books outside a publishing professional’s area of expertise might as well be poorly written; in his mind, no other kinds of books are marketable.

Just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging you again and again to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE you meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor is now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that later bought my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covers in part my years teaching in a university. Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago?

So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.

In other words, to thine own genre be true; if you’re good at what you do, there’s no need it tart your work up with extravagant claims. Let your excellent writing speak for itself. And keep up the good work!

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