Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.
This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient. This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.
So of course, I Googled that shit right up.
And of course, it’s not shit at all.
It’s a beautiful essay. It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous. There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast. But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be. The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit. Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.
And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it. But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.
I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market. Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.
So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.
Enter the clumsy semantic.
And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic. But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.” My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars. Everyone in their world knows them.
But you know what about commercial fiction writers? Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers? They give back (to their fans). I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference). I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.
I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently. She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student. Even readers of literary fiction.
It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes. And oh yeah: book deals. They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them. In eighteen months.
Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time. Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention. Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.
What’s the deal?
The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it. If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction. I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.
But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important. It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.
For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised. I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing. It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.
I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about. In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular. It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.
So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.
I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people. But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.
Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform. I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it. And that will happen without additional effort.
But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it. Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.
Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA: Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).