It is funny how the meanings of things change, and with the change, a whole cascade of other meanings change.
Critics have quoted a ‘tsunami of crap’ as coming from the new self-publishing authors; defenders have responded with versions of Sturgeon’s Law: ‘90% of indie/SP/SF/… is crap, but 90% of everything is crap.’
The percentage varies according to the viewpoint and attitude of the critic.
Is literary the new mainstream?
But I digress from the point I wanted to make, and which I’ve mentioned before: that the category my writing used to fit into naturally, mainstream commercial fiction – set in the present or near past, with realistic settings, dealing with current human problems – has disappeared, leaving me with no category to put my non-genre fiction in – except General Fiction.
General Fiction covers too much ground, and makes no implications of complexity or quality.
Those of us in this position who aim for complexity and quality are thus, perforce, labeling ourselves ‘Literary Fiction.’
And ‘literary fiction’ is now considered a genre, much like science fiction or paranormal romance or mystery/thriller.
Who are the ‘literary’ writers?
Which puts me in an odd position of ‘competing’ with the likes of Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie – who are highly literate types of the kind who publish in literary magazines and are pushed by literary small publishers and not expected, necessarily, to sell much. But who may aspire to Nobel prizes in Literature, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Or with the likes of Donna Tartt and The Goldfinch, a ‘literary’ anomaly in that it sold millions of copies.
I feel like an impostor when compared with what I used to assume were the literary writers. I feel less of an impostor when compared with the books that have done the same as mine, crowding into the literary category, but not necessarily supported by the MFA or the professorship in English Literature which used to be de rigeur, credentials I don’t have.
What the ‘real’ traditional practitioners of literary fiction think of this travesty, I can only imagine. It was hard enough competing against all those MFA graduates for the limited number of poorly-paying slots in literary magazines with tiny distribution but with prestige, and now they have to compete with all those upstarts who should have been weeded out firmly by the editors at the publishing houses who were known for publishing literary works.
Possibly, I am reversing an earlier unfortunate trend, in which authors such as Charlotte Brontë wrote ‘a novel’ such as Jane Eyre, which has now become a ‘literary’ classic. They used what they knew: an education in the classics, including Greek and Latin, would have been natural for a parson’s children; their writing reflected who they were, what they’d read, how their world was organized. They were not aiming for ‘literary’ – but simply wrote with the care and knowledge that would be common to their position in society and their level of education.
That education would have been based on reading widely; there may lie the root of my comfort with the idea of classifying my writing as, among other things, literary. My youth was spent reading everything I could get my hands on – including much of what is now considered literary canon.
I found, though, that I did not like a lot of the more modern work. I read Toni Morrison and The Color Purple and Seize the Day and hated their preciousness in focusing on language to the exclusion of plot and characters I could identify with (yes, that makes me a heathen). I read Down and Out in Paris and London, which I liked, but can’t get past page one of Ulysses.
Categories change; we change with them
So I’ve decided not to worry about impostor syndrome and calling myself literary, and assume that the category is broadened, by necessity, to accept us johnnies-come-lately who actually may be hewing to the earlier, classical meaning of novelist – one who writes stories – without going so far as to kick the others off the high end of the island (those who write stories I can’t read because they seem to be missing the ‘story’ part).
De gustibus non est disputandum (no accounting for taste). There’s room for all of us, and, in this day of algorithms, we must make some accommodation for others so we may all be found at Amazon.
We indie literaries probably escape the notice of those who are firmly in the publishing grasp of the real literary publishers, anyway. But I’ve stopped worrying about being an impostor – because I care about the results.