Is labeling mainstream novels literary counterproductive?


Amazon tries; it really does.

To satisfy its customers, to make searching for what they want easy (easier), to supply it efficiently.

By revolution I mean both also that things turned around – 180° – from where they were, sort of, before.

Because before this all happened, ‘literary’ was a separate category in bookstores.

And literary meant a number of things:

  • Difficult to read, requiring great attention
  • Small in scope – One DAY in the life of Ivan Denisovich
  • Elitist
  • Using difficult flowery language
  • Very detailed – a navel closely observed and described
  • Slow and languid
  • Somehow not for everyone
  • Requiring a large SAT vocabulary
  • For people with an MA in English or Literature
  • Suitable proof for a doctorate
  • A credential for teaching English or Literature
  • With a limited audience
  • Special
  • Art
  • Cliched
  • Maybe French or translated from Italian or Russian
  • Not commercial
  • Often not ending anywhere near happily

Add or subtract from my list what comes into your head when you hear ‘literary novel.’ Please feel free to mention them in a comment.

What’s the revolution, you ask?

That ‘literary’ now means ‘traditionally published good stuff’ on Amazon, and is seen as almost the exclusive purview of, you guessed it, the traditional publishers large and small.

The books that are vetted by agents and editors at publishing companies (excluding the celebrity stuff), and are therefore both ‘better’ and ‘not for the hoi polloi.’

The other similar term is ‘historical,’ which is a little fuzzier and often about WWII, sometimes about WWI or the American Civil War.

Because the term ‘mainstream’ disappeared, and is not the same as ‘contemporary,’ which can be attached to, say, a Romance and a worldview: ‘Contemporary Christian Romance’ is a searchable thing.

It is considered presumptuous to label your own work ‘classic.’

And ‘General Fiction’ is not a category, but a garbage can.

‘Psychological’ is filling the empty slot somewhat – almost all novels for grownups are psychological, but is confounded by ‘thriller,’ ‘horror’, and ‘women’s fiction.’ With, of course, nothing actually labeled ‘fiction for men.’

It used to be possible to find mainstream fiction by looking for ‘a novel’ on the cover. No more. It now means only ‘book of at least 50 pages.’

It doesn’t matter for mainstream because

I’m convinced readers of mainstream fiction who use Amazon come there to find a good price on something they’ve already decided to buy.

I don’t think they search on Amazon. Not beyond maybe being attracted by something similar being offered by the ‘also read’ bots. There is just too much stuff.

They get their recommendations elsewhere – book critics (who rarely do SPAs*), reviews in the few places which still have book sections (print journalism has taken a lot of hits lately, too), and the publicity material put out for their best-selling authors by the traditional publishers (other authors get bupkis from traditional publishers – return on investment isn’t worth it).

So the market is saturated and sopped up by the same few titles which keep those offices in Manhattan open for the publishers (and their unpaid interns).

I’m hoping for virality. It can make the huge difference to a start – and then the writing must maintain the quality so that future books, even if widely spaces, are eagerly awaited.

Feel free to help kick that off – if you like mainstream fiction.

Don’t let ‘the system’ keep producing same old, same old – and then complain you can’t find anything you like to read.


Thank you for listening to the daily rant. Now, if I could just manage to do it daily! 🙂

Oh, and the answer to the title question is yes: ‘Literary’ has too many negative and restrictive connotations in the minds of too many readers.

‘Literary’ is not a good substitute for such terms as mainstream, ‘big book’, epic, blockbuster, or commercial novel. It isn’t the same. Even when the intent is to make it a synonym with ‘well written.’

IMNVHO (In my not very humble opinion,)


Final note: Pride’s Children: PURGATORY is taking part today and for the next few days at a promotion at HelloBooks – which has many other wonderful bargains for serious readers of General Fiction (its category) and many other genres.


*SPAs = self-published authors, sometimes known as indies or independent authors


21 thoughts on “Is labeling mainstream novels literary counterproductive?

  1. Pingback: Robert’s Roundup #27 (Feb 2022) | Idiotprogrammer

  2. jvtripioauthor

    I was surprised when you pointed out there was no “fiction for men” category. Unless I’m wrong, even up to this day, isn’t most published fiction out there ‘written by men”?? Not sure what to make of it all. Thanks!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Welcome, Jerry V. And best success with your novels.

      Most fiction ‘out there’ IS written by men; but most fiction is also bought and read by women.

      Most of the higher posts in traditional publishing companies are occupied by men.

      It’s as if men had decided long ago that ‘man’ was the default version for ‘human,’ or more likely, ‘human that matters.’ 🙂

      It’s just the same that there is an assumption in medicine that ‘patient’ is a male – heaven forbid research being done on the variable creature known as ‘female,’ with her constantly changing hormone cycles.

      And up until relatively recently, politician = man, university president and/or company CEO = man, etc.

      So much so that it was news when they weren’t – as it is new now when they are not even heterosexual.

      It gets wearying – I was the only female Nuclear Engineering graduate student in my cohort at U. Wisconsin-Madison, and not welcomed into study groups.

      Default = men is actually neglecting over 50% of the human race.

      Lots of these disparities – we need to get around some of them. And we especially need women not to feel the only way they can be taken seriously in mainstream fiction is if they use initials or a male pseudonym.

      What you make of it, with your book purchasing dollars, determines what will be available to you when you look for the next book.

      I’m glad women have always pushed back, but it is harder than it should be, and doesn’t only affect the male/female divide.

      And don’t get me started on disabled vs. able-bodied (20% vs. 80%, roughly, of the population) – which I’m also tackling (male image) in my fiction.

      Not too angry about any of it – just trying not to let it box me in.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jvtripioauthor

        Thanks for the thought-provoking reply. We have had the same family doctor for over 20 years, and I am still taken back how often people assume she is a man. Keep grinding away. It will help!


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Sorry – you caught me on a chatty day!

          Assumptions can be life-threatening. Especially when someone isn’t a a fit state to advocate for themselves.

          I’m glad you have a woman physician. Did you know – recent factoid – that women have a higher death rate when operated on by male surgeons? Statistically significant difference. Huh.


  3. acflory

    lol – literary is synonymous with ‘the kiss of death’ to most readers under the age of about 35 or 40. They were forced to read ‘literary books’ at school, which pretty much put them off reading for life. Now they dislike reading anything longer than a blog post and prefer to listen to fiction rather than reading it. We, on the other hand, grew up reading literary books for pleasure, and the books we write hard back to that earlier era. We try to ‘capture the reader in the very first sentence’ but it doesn’t feel right somehow. As a result, best sellers are determined by the under 40s.
    I suspect all of our writing is too…literary. 😦


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thank you. You get my point.

      However, I’m not sure how the under 40s find their reading – genre search on Amazon?

      Those aren’t my potential readers – at least not the primary ones. I want more of the ones I have, so maybe I should ask them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. acflory

        I know I do a genre search when I’m desperate, but 99% of the time I’ll go with a recommendation from someone whose style or reviews I trust.
        I’d love more of my same as well. If you find them, please tell me how you did it. 🙂


  4. joey

    I read it all, but of course, literature is generally a better read, because depth. I do not browse on Amazon. I get recommendations from people I know, and I search. More often, used book store.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Here’s where I ask – have you read IT? It’s about to be followed with another big fat deep continuation.

      I was pretty sure that’s how people use Amazon for this kind of books. Thanks for the confirmation.

      I think literary is a good term, but was worrying about the mindset of readers. Oddly enough, if the comparison is Romance, I don’t like it – and my worst reviews (the couple of them) seem to be from people who somehow expected a Romance, and didn’t get it.

      Given that the description is much more complex, they shouldn’t, but there’s a tendency to blame the author when a book isn’t satisfactory. I simply assume a mismatch and go find something else to read; I don’t write a review that says ‘this book is crappy but you might like it.’ That just feels odd. It may have something to do with the feeling of time lost, never to be regained and an admirable/stubborn insistence on finishing what they started.

      Me: throw against the wall, move on, don’t bother to do more than read the last chapter or so to see if it got better, and say, “there are readers for every book.”


  5. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Have you ever used Publishers Rocket, a program designed to help authors find keywords and categories that their books fit in. If you haven’t heard of or used Publishers Rocket, I think you’d be surprised at how many categories have “literary” in them. Other than that, PR is a great tool to find the best categories for your novels to help the “right” readers find them.

    Traditional publishers only have a small number of genres to classify books under. Amazon has hundreds and probably thousands of listings for genres and sub genres, so many that Dave Chesson came up with a program to help authors narrow the list down, a list that supposed to match specific readers to an author’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thanks. I have Publisher’s Rocket, use it.

      I’m trying to speak as a reader here, and how the term hits me – and therefore may hit other people like me (my potential audience).

      Ask readers whether they buy literary novels and how they find them; listen carefully to what they say.

      PR hasn’t been much help yet, but I own it, so I continue to use it when I’m in that part of marketing.

      I’m not in the majority – which means bulk methods are not necessarily successful for me.

      As I say, I’ll get there – probably when I have more product.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I have ONE novel out. In 21 years. Fortunately for me, the next will be out soon, and I’ll publish the short story prequel at the same time, and have THREE things on my Amazon page. Wheee!

          You do what you can – that is you, your brand. What YOUR fans wait for.

          Which is why I work hard to make it worthwhile – I’ll never produce a long list of books.

          It’s a complicated mix of time, desire, effort, and needing to eat.

          Liked by 1 person

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