Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m gloating today — three regular blog readers have let me know that they have been named finalists in this year’s PNWA literary contest. All three in major categories, no less. Not all wanted to be congratulated here, so I am holding off on specifics, but really, I couldn’t be more tickled.
And if there are more of you out there with good news, please let me know! I love being able to report that hard work and talent are being recognized.
Back to work. Yesterday, I unearthed the spectre of books that might theoretically belong in one category, but might be placed for non-content reasons in another. Since (as I pointed out yesterday) female authors are often surprised find their work labeled as women’s fiction by their agents, I thought that I should revisit the issue again today to show that there might be very good marketing reasons for reclassification — and that in many instances, either category can be justified.
The marketing reasons are simple: as I mentioned yesterday, women’s fiction is the single best-selling category, year after year after year. Selling how well, you ask? Well, of the five best-selling novels of the 20th century, three of them would now most likely be marketed as women’s fiction — but if sales are any indication (and they are), these books are as mainstream as mainstream can get.
I’m going to show you the first fifty words (the limit of fair use) of each, to show you how thin the line between mainstream and women’s fiction can be. See if you can guess what they are from these openings, and who their target market would be. In ascending order of sales, here is the first:
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it…
I’m assuming that you guessed at the first word that it was the best-selling novel in America for more than 20 years, GONE WITH THE WIND. But judging just from this opening, how would you categorize it? Women’s fiction? Mainstream? Romance?
See why agents and editors like to be told what the category is on the title page? It’s often hard to tell. On to the next:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he…
Wild guesses? Hint: when they made it into a movie, the script transformed this first-person narrative from the point of view of a little girl into being primarily the story of her father.
It’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; your high school English teacher probably told you it was literary fiction. But if you had to categorize this on those first 50 words alone, though, would you place it there? Or would it be women’s fiction, because it’s a coming-of-age story told by a girl? (And from these first few lines, who is the protagonist?)
Not so easy, is it? Okay, one more:
Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay. In northern New England, Indian summer puts up a scarlet-tipped hand to hold…
Anyone? Would it help if I told you the critics nicknamed the author Pandora in blue jeans? Or that the mainstream press hailed this 1957 book’s success in as the end of literature?
It’s PEYTON PLACE — but if you did not know that, how would you categorize it for pitching and querying purposes?
My point, of course, is that book categories are not always cut-and-dried; ultimately, the book’s category is going to be a matter for discussion between you, your agent, and potentially your editor as well. (A MILLION LITTLE PIECES was, if memory serves, dubbed fiction by its author and agent; the publishing house, I’m told, made the decision to release it as a memoir.) So you’re not necessarily going to be stuck with your choice forever.
Be flexible — and choose the category that seems most likely to serve your book best at the agent-finding stage.
“But Anne,” I hear the literary-minded amongst you crying out, “what if my work genuinely IS literary fiction? Should I lie and say it’s something else, in order to make it seem more marketable in my pitch or query letter?”
Whoa, Sparky — no need to go that far that fast. Before you make any rash decisions, I would advise making absolutely sure that the book IS literary fiction.
While that may seem like a strange statement — after all, no one goes around challenging writers of mysteries to prove their chops — the fact is, the vast majority of books pitched or queried with a literary label are not. Without reading all of their work — which, as we saw above, is really the only way to categorize any book properly — it’s impossible to tell whether a book so pitched honestly is experimenting with new directions in style and construction (which is not a bad definition of literary fiction), or if its author merely want to convey that they believe their work is well-written.
The latter, as I mentioned yesterday, tends to fall upon the ears of agents and editors like the buzzing of housefly: persistent and attention-grabbing, yes, but ultimately not a pet you’re likely to bring home with you to cuddle.
But there’s something very sexy in the label literary fiction being applied to one’s own work, though, isn’t there? Let’s be honest about it: most of us like to think our writing has literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. It definitely sounds cool when you say at parties, “Oh, I write literary fiction,” as opposed to that stuff that sells in the millions.
Listen sometime to how people use the term at writers’ conferences; it’s almost a synonym for high-quality, especially amongst those who believe that most successful mainstream books are not very good. To these folks, the label says loud and clear that they haven’t sold out their talent; they are more than content to cultivate a small but devoted readership, without sullying their keyboards with all of that sordid commercial appeal. Quite the counter-culture roués, they are, with their goatees and bongos and poetry readings in basements.
Having been raised by parents who actually WERE beatnik artists, I feel eminently qualified to give a salient little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for your books. The literary fiction market is consistently very, very small, so small that many excellent published writers do not make a living at it.
Which brings me back to my point from yesterday: labeling your work as literary will NOT necessarily make it more marketable in the industry’s eyes, but less. Think very carefully about your desired target market before you label your work. If you really think it has broad appeal, label it as mainstream.
If I am hammering on this point with unusual vigor, because so many aspiring writers believe all really good fiction is literary. That’s just not true: there is excellent writing out there in every category. To set the needle on that broken record yet again: these are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk — and you in the wrong pitch meeting.
So why don’t the pros simply listen to pitches and suggest alternative labeling, as I did above? Because, as I said, the only way to tell for sure whether a book is literary fiction is from the writing — and that would require investing far, far more time in a book than either hearing a pitch or reading a query letter.
Also, literary is the least-defined major category; I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give me a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like the Supreme Court’s famous definition of pornography, they can’t tell us precisely what it is, but apparently they know it when they see it.
Or so they claim. Ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers on each book.
How would I categorize these three? Well, none of these crossover books would be well enough known for all of us to have a discussion about them if they hadn’t been mainstream successes. So my instinct would be to label them all as mainstream, in retrospect. I don’t know if I would have been that wise, though, before they hit the big time.
If you find yourself in a serious quandary over whether your book is sufficiently literary to need to be marketed as literary fiction, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class?
I’m completely serious about this. If the subject matter or plot is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary; categorize it by content. If you can honestly picture an upper-division undergraduate seminar spending a few hours discussing your symbolism and word choices, it probably is, and should be labeled as such.
The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant; industry professionals use it — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. Especially the semicolons. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market.
Or you should disable the colon/semicolon button on your keyboard.
Don’t believe me? Spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, wandering from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. Seeing a lot of semicolons in novels that aren’t literary?
Almost certainly not — and here’s why: mainstream fiction assumes a roughly tenth-grade reading level; literary fiction assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction and fantasy being the major exceptions), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.
Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because we writers LOVE fancy punctuation, don’t we? Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should consider getting rid of them entirely.
Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.
And yes, Virginia, I DO use a lot of fancy-pants punctuation here in this blog. I am writing for an audience composed entirely of writers, so I can use all of the punctuation I please. Heck, I can even use an emdash if I want to—take that, standard format!
Next time, I shall discuss the another building block to your pitch: identifying your target market. For those of you out there who thought that I was just going to cut to the chase and head right for the pitch proper: keep your shirts on. Or don’t, if you’re trying to get a suntan. But either way, be patient, because following me through all of these interim steps will ultimately help you construct a stronger pitch.
Keep up the good work!