Is literary fiction a category or a quality?

you write areDO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Do you even have a choice?

I’m not sure exactly why, but I have found every single one of my careful decisions, made during five years of deliberations and reading the blogs, questioned lately.

  • Cover
  • Pricing
  • Style and voice
  • Book length
  • Category
  • Marketing

By people who know better, know what they like, know what I need and should be using.

Okay, in some cases I actually asked. So I deserve what I got for insecurity.

But none of it has helped: I have not been able to nod wisely and say, “Thank you – that’s just what I needed.” Too stubborn. Too pigheaded. Too ME.

So I trundle on, and have the nerve to enjoy it.

Note to myself from a while back:

“It seems ‘literary’ is going to have to be my Amazon category – the other ones just don’t work for me.

Emphasize the characterization and the loving detailing of the thoughts of the three main characters, and maybe I’ll sell more.”

I’ve been fighting this. Choosing my style of writing and my voice keeps getting me in trouble with the ‘cognoscenti’ (new post on the Pride’s Children site on editors who don’t get it, but feel free to pronounce sentence anyway – and yes, the pun is intentional).

‘Literary’ can be pretentious.

Literary goes from sublime to ridiculous as a category. Many, many books have a literary quality which goes far above and beyond the words needed to simply tell the story. I would put such classics as Dune into the literary quality category – and definitely leave Dan Brown’s books out.

‘Literary’ can interfere with plot, slowing down a story to the proverbial snail’s pace to admire the local flora and fauna. With pretty words and swooping sentences. When I find myself skimming, and then skipping, large chunks of description with no greater point than ‘close observation,’ I know I’ve run into the kind I don’t like. Your mileage may vary.

The kicker: how to categorize your fiction on Amazon so readers can find it?

Literary is, of what’s offered as a genre, the closest. ‘General fiction’ could be anything.

And yet what I’m NOT full of is literary allusions, and I don’t need my readers to have a MFA degree to be able to read my writing. You may skip the more literary epigraphs at the beginnings of my chapters with relative impunity, though they’re put there for a reason. When my negative reviewer (so far) wrote in her review, “The number of quotations before each chapter was overkill – for the most part they only made sense to me after the chapter had been read.” – I did a fist pump, because that is the exact reason they are the way they are. She didn’t like it – her prerogative – but like everything else I do, it was INTENTIONAL.

I’m going to get excoriated for pretentiousness if I claim to write literary indie, and want to make a small corner for myself in literary writing, but the truth is that I was brought up (by myself) reading the classics – because that is what was available.

When I taught myself to write, I spent a lot of time with quality teachers such as Sol Stein, to learn how to give a sentence or a phrase the nuance that goes beyond writing fast.

This doesn’t mean the thesaurus is my best friend, because if most of your readers don’t understand your language, what’s the point?

Keeping this up:

For Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD, I don’t seem to be doing anything different this time around. It was a long time between finishing Book 1 (PURGATORY), and being ready to revise the rough draft of Book 2 (NETHERWORLD) – almost exactly a year – but the new scenes are coming back to the same process as if I had never stopped.

This is good, because I want the trilogy to feel as ‘of a piece.’ Pride’s Children was planned as a unit, and if I had been a faster writer, would have been published as one. A very long one. But I think CreateSpace has a limit to how fat a trade paperback can be, and the three volumes in one binding would not have been a possibility.

But I have not, cannot, and will not change my voice and style – I don’t have that kind of energy or self-control. It is what it is.

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20 thoughts on “Is literary fiction a category or a quality?

  1. Lily White LeFevre

    Nor should you try to change your voice or your style! They have been developed over a lifetime and are uniquely yours. Why be a second rate version of someone else when you can be a first rate version of you and all that jazz.

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  2. Janna G. Noelle

    Personally, when I think of literary, I consider it a genre – one that contains many of the genre conventions you mentioned: artistic use of language; slow, somewhat contained plots (as opposed to epic and sweeping); a strong focus on the internal landscape of the character and atmosphere and the human condition in general. Literary is the genre that is best respected in the world of writers and readers yet not necessarily the one that boasts the greatest number of writers and readers, perhaps because literary is often inaccessible to the average person.

    I think its possible for a book of any genre to contain literary elements, just as literary writing can also contain genre elements (e.g. Margaret Atwood), but to me, literary is definitely its own thing.

    You know your book best, so you should categorize it as you see fit. You’ll never please everyone, and as you say, the reason you went indie is just so you can have full creative control.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You’ve put your finger on the exact problem: literary is perceived as ‘opposed to epic and sweeping.’

      There IS no ‘epic and sweeping’ category left in the genre-fied categories. I refuse to grant that distinction to Women’s Fiction – that is not how I see that particular category.

      Having full creative control also means, ‘The buck stops here.’

      Not complaining – but I’m very curious to see how it all works out. I hope ‘epic and sweeping’ and mainstream doesn’t end up ONLY the province of the big publishers.

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      1. Janna G. Noelle

        Well, there is epic fantasy, but I suspect this isn’t what you’re going for.

        I think literary is perceived as opposite to epic and sweeping because most literary fiction just isn’t epic and sweeping. Those aren’t the conventions of the genre and generally not what its readers are looking for. They’re looking to experience a deep, subdued study of the human condition, not the sort of adventure that would make for a great TV series on HBO or Starz.

        A lot of writers dislike genres and find them limiting, but for readers, I do think they’re essential for helping them find the type of book they’re looking for. I just finished reading an amazing book: it was fantasy and also a sort of dark, magical fairy tale – beautifully written yet with lots of action as well. If I was looking for more just like it, I would look under fantasy and fairy tale. Even though the writing style was of the caliber of a literary novel IMO, it would never occur to me to look under literary for similar titles.

        I’m no expert in this. My sense is it’s best to categorize one’s book where someone would most logically look to find it, regardless of the inherent limitations of existing genre types. If that means literary, than literary it is; if not, then categorizing alongside comp titles is probably helpful.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          ‘Epic,’ ‘commercial,’ ‘mainstream,’ ‘general fiction,’ are all labels applied to what I think I’m writing, but only ‘general fiction’ is a (very imprecise) category on Amazon.

          You will find vampires and Romances in the category, along with memoirs (?) and mysteries.

          If there are enough of us writing in this niche-which-shouldn’t-be-a-niche, maybe they’ll give us a name we like.

          I’m not writing in the fantasy genre, not as most people understand it – possibly in the ‘improbable’ genre; but then so is Dan Brown.

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        2. Janna G. Noelle

          maybe they’ll give us a name we like.
          It’s entirely possible; that’s how New Adult came about.

          But rather than creating a new label, what Amazon really needs to do is clean up the ones it already has. The problem is that in the ongoing quest to boost their discoverability, many authors have put their books in categories where they don’t belong and muddied the pool for everyone else as a result. As you say, vampires, Romance, memoir, and mystery all found in “general fiction”. GF isn’t an even remotely logical place I’d look for any of those genres.

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Exactly. If I find vampires in General Fiction, it annoys me rather than somehow signals that THIS vampire story is better than the ones in the vampire categories.

          And makes me stop looking sooner, because every time you check a book, you have to spend a little bit of your time figuring out whether it has any interest for you. The more duds (which is the problem with finding lots of scam books in a category), the less useful the category is for finding what you really want.

          Now, from what I read, people who search categories are in the minority, and most people don’t really use the search function for find reading material, being more likely to come from a review on a blog or a recommendation from NPR or a magazine. So maybe not too important, but still, not tidy for those who do use Search.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      A lot of people like stories that I would not consider well-enough written to be able to read.

      As a reader, I’d like a plot with my literary quality stories, please, and a decent writing quality with my well-plotted or fast-paced stories.

      Unfortunately, as a writer, I wish these things didn’t take so darn long to aim for!

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  3. Jennifer

    In an ideal world, you’d be able to write and not worry about labelling your work for marketing purposes. I wish we lived in an ideal world. I agree that your work is more lit fic, but I hate the need for labels. Why? Because words have such different meanings to those that read them. If someone says ‘romance’ to me, I tend to think ‘bodice-ripper’. Which is not always appropriate or fair, especially as I tend to ignore labels generally. Discoverability on Amazon is such a big issue for so many authors. There’s so much dross there, competing for dollars and attention. It’s a challenge for those of us looking for good books to read, and it’s one of the reasons I review: to let people know what I’ve found worth reading, and why. I wish I could be sure that ‘good writing looks after itself’. I wish the scammers and the fake reviewers could be weeded out (is eradicated too strong?).

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      No. Roasting on the spit would be appropriate. I read a lot of your reviews, but have rather limited energy right now, and several books already awaiting attention.

      The depth to which politicians and criminals and scammers (also criminals) go to is frightening – and expensive.

      ‘Romance’ includes a number of conventions which you don’t adhere to to your peril; not just the bodice-ripper covers, but a bunch of other things – pov is done a particular way, for example – just don’t work for me. Not that long ago, ‘A romance’ meant ‘a novel.’ Things change.

      I know I am shooting myself in the foot with certain potential readers by pricing; I am perfectly aware of what is allowed to indies. I’ve seen other people do it – cling stubbornly to prices which are too high (some are vanity published and have no control over the price), and they don’t sell many books. I revisit all these things periodically (okay, it’s only been out a few months, but I’ve been thinking about these things for literally half a decade), think of the future, plan many short sales at 0.99 if necessary, but I am also exquisitely sensitive to how the traditional publishers price – and I think I’m going to find more readers who like my writing among their readers than among those who are reading indie Romances by the ton.

      And THOSE readers see 4.99 – and immediately think ‘indie’ and ‘not for me.’ But those readers are also more likely to understand why I refer to Dorothy L. Sayers and include quotations from the Book of Job. I’m walking a tightrope: Amazon has made it quite clear that I shouldn’t go over 9.99. I wonder if the traditional publishers who price at 11.99-17.99 for ebooks are subject to the same royalty structure.

      It would help a lot if I had more energy – but I also know I would NOT be writing THIS story were I not who I am and where I am – so it’s a moot point. If I’m lucky, my strategies will work. I don’t expect to be lucky; I hope I can do the right things to improve my chances a bit.

      Meanwhile, I write more books, listen to what people tell me (and occasionally get my hackles up – I’m not ignorant, I’m choosing), and keep my ears open.

      Discoverability is a bear.

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  4. Widdershins

    Octavia Butler had this wonderful quote which seems appropriate here … ‘So be it! See to it!’ 😀

    Not having got this far in my self-pubbing adventures yet, are there multiple categories you (well, not you, but you know what I mean) can use, or are they hierarchical?

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You get two categories and 7 keywords or key phrases. It is hard picking them appropriately – I need to revisit mine. There are ways to test possible keywords first, the easiest being to take your keywords and put them into Amazon to see how they fare – what books they pull up – and adjust accordingly.

      Some words have been ruined by association – you type in what seems a perfectly logical word, and find that it has been used extensively in non-fiction. I tried ‘disability literature’ – seeking other novels with disabled characters – and got mainly expensive textbooks on disability, not fiction at all.

      Another way is to look at the categories a book you think is comparable to yours has.

      There are lots of posts, some software, and books on choosing keywords.

      My problem: all of this searching takes a lot of time – and must be done with a functional brain. It competes with my writing for my good time.

      The other thing is that you learn which categories have been corrupted by people putting their books in inappropriate categories on purpose, because there are too many books in the correct category. So far, since Amazon doesn’t publish most of the books there, and they aren’t vetted by humans, you usually get the categories and keywords you pick.

      There are posts out there on how to get yourself into more categories – but it involves playing with the system, and may or may not result in stable categories.

      Why want to be in a particular category? Because you get more exposure on the search lists.

      It used to be bookstores and publishers picked all this for you, possibly with more uniformity, and you were stuck with what they chose for you.

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  5. Catana

    I’ve seen books that are in multiple categories, including some science fiction in Literature as well as Science Fiction and Fantasy. Use every category that fits, even the ones you don’t like and don’t fit your concept of the book. Asking for advice can get you all sorts of weird stuff, including some that’s entirely off the mark. But you never know when some small detail will light up the synapses. And maybe some of those suggestions will fit perfectly somewhere in the future.

    I do believe your price is likely cutting down your sales, especially since people will be looking at it in relation to two more upcoming novels and thinking that’s too much to spend. But I hope no one has chewed you out about it. It’s your hard work and your choice. If people buy it in spite of the price, that says something about the quality and how you’ve presented it — so success in spite of breaking the “rules.”

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Three of the last four have chewed me out on price. One literally said, “I agree that there are a lot of poor quality, identikit romances on the market, but you are doing thousands of superb authors a disservice by believing that you should charge 2-5 times as much as they do.”

      When I wrote back that I am NOT writing Romance, but competing with mainstream literary writers whose publishers charge a lot MORE, I got this: “I wasn’t referring to romance novelists particularly, but to the many varied authors out there, many of whom have written complex, literary novels that are highly regarded.

      If your book has as much merit as you believe it has – and pride in your work is a positive thing – you won’t persuade people by sticking a price tag on it, but by getting it in front of people and letting the book speak for itself.

      Many of the greatest novels of all time are available for less than £1.”

      And again, I disagree. I am NOT competing with the classics, or discounted backlist novels from current literary and mainstream authors.

      When I go to the best or top seller lists, I can instantly identify the indies by price. And title. There are a few. I don’t want their tribe; I want the readers who want what the best-sellers offer. And EXPECT to pay for it.

      Will I ever get them? Dunno. But I definitely won’t by making myself easy to spot and ignore. This is what I’m trying to do. It is not what most indies are trying to do. Therefore, I have to not use their strategies – which work for them, and their buyers. Whenever I see a proud comment, “I never pay more than 2.99/3.99/4.99 for a book,” I know that reader probably won’t like mine, EVEN IF I put it up at that price.

      I could easily have split PURGATORY into two books, slapped two covers on, and put them up one after the other. But my gut said that was WRONG – for me. If I have to revisit that strategy when the whole trilogy is written, and completely fails to take off, I will: cut it up into 7 parts, put a new cover on each, set the first to permafree or 0.99, the rest a bit more, and HOPE it works. It is not my first or second choice of how to proceed, and I’m not sure it would even work. But I would try. Or I would write other books and not worry about it.

      Each writer must trust her gut, like her conscience, and educate both of them. We are not interchangeable widgets.

      To finish: “varied authors out there, many of whom have written complex, literary novels that are highly regarded” are NOT indie. I have not seen the ‘INDIE complex literary novels’ – and if they are out there, they are not selling well.

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      1. Catana

        I really hate the idea that everything you do has to somehow reflect the “fact” that you’re in competition with everyone else. And that you are personally responsible for your book’s effect on other writers. That argument probably has some formal name. It’s like the accusation that if you’re a woman and you don’t vote for Hillary, you’re betraying your sex. The complainant also overstates, by thousands, just how much your book is likely to impact on other authors. We who will probably remain relatively obscure actually have more freedom to do what is right for us rather than let ourselves be guided by what others think is the right thing to do. So maybe you’re stubborn. Or maybe you’re standing firm on what you intend and what you want to accomplish.

        I have no doubt there are indie writers with complex literary novels, but they’re probably few and far between. And, as you said, most of them aren’t doing too well.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          1) Definitely stubborn here. Takes one to recognize one, eh?

          2) There is a niche there for an indie with a complex literary novel to become the darling of, well, somebody. I want that niche. At least I know what I want.

          3) I’m more epic commercial mainstream than literary – but you know how well THAT is going to go. Inventing your own category is so fraught. I’ll stick with literary – as the closest I can think of to what I want.

          Thanks for commenting: I look forward to your take.

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  6. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    I just want to call it mainstream. They won’t let me. ‘General fiction’ is a category stuffed with, well, general fiction – and doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

    Keeping up with my nibbling away at all this may eventually help; I am compelled to keep trying by the very lack of fit into ‘Romance’ or ‘Women’s Fiction.’

    Some of my most ardent readers are men – love you, guys!

    Now I go back to burying my head in the writing, which is where I belong.

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  7. juliabarrett

    Yeah, you’re more lit fic but then not much works in terms of discoverability on Amazon. You could categorize your book as women’s fiction or lit fic or romance. Except it’s more than romance. It’s just that visibility on Amazon is poor for everyone, except the scammers and the porners, that is.

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