Serious Fiction and #LegitLit: Creating a Hybrid Home

Print vs. Ebook

Traditional vs. Indie

Genre vs. Literary

Serious vs. Fluff?

Critics, readers and writers all like debating about fiction and where it’s going. One interesting sidelight to the Traditional/Indie debate has been the discussion about what works in print versus in ebook. Some genres are hugely popular in ebooks. Erotica leads the way — no covers to hide from people while reading in public — but romance, supernatural and other popular genres also do well in ebooks. Meanwhile, literary fiction doesn’t. Unless it’s popular literary fiction — akin to what Don Maass has dubbed 21st Century Fiction — and then it does well in both print and ebooks.

Blogger and critic Porter Anderson has been talking recently about the rise in “shirtless” fiction — romance, romance and more romance. For Porter, it’s akin to the 25-cent paperbacks people can buy by the bag at library book sales and used book stores. Easily read, easily discarded. He’s been pushing what he’s calling #legitlit and #seriousfiction — stories that make you think. Is that literary fiction? That might depend on who you ask.

My books always end up tagged as literary — despite the Irish mob’s presence — because they aren’t genre. I was talking with Mollie Cox Bryan in person for the first time this weekend at a book signing, and she had thought my new book (All That Is Necessary) was a mystery. Logical assumption, given the body count, but wrong. I’d like to think the Exeter books fall into Porter’s Legit Lit category: books that make you think and make you go deeper than the surface.

It’s an interesting distinction, and one Calen Spindler and I touched on briefly in a recent Facebook discussion about writing. She made a comment about writing pure entertainment, and then came back later to say that as much as she jokes about that, she does try and weave serious themes through her work.

I’m not sure I try to so much as that’s what comes out of my brain. For me, telling a layered story with strong characters is key. When a friend recommended Doris Lessing’s books to me recently, he said she’s one of his favorite authors because, “She’s one of those authors that makes me not want to read another book for a long time because there’s always a lot to absorb and reflect upon.” While my books don’t belong in the same breath as Lessing’s, that idea of providing a lot for a reader to absorb and reflect upon is probably the best expression I’ve heard for what I try to do when I tell stories. And I think it’s maybe the best way I can think of to define Porter’s concept of “serious fiction.”

Those books that have enough depth and meaning that we find ourselves reflecting on the book, the characters and the story in the hours, days and weeks that follow, those are serious fiction, or #legitlit. There’s nothing in that definition that excludes books that fall into a genre category. Calen’s writing, in fact, is supernatural. To go back to Don Maass’ idea of 21st Century Fiction, the books he’s talking about are the ones that take the best from the genre and literary worlds. That puts them into the serious fiction category almost by definition, and yet many can be commercial successes.

Those aren’t easy books to write. To make them easy to read, or at least engaging enough to pull readers along through the story, takes a certain skill as a writer. That’s one reason I like Porter’s “serious fiction” and #legitlit descriptions more than literary. Literary often involves playing with language in ways that are artistically pleasing, but perhaps veer too far into experimental for most people. And genre has taken on a connotation that is the opposite of serious fiction. More and more there are books out there that don’t fall into either category. If more people adopt the “serious fiction” category, maybe we can start to build a new genre.

21 Comments on “Serious Fiction and #LegitLit: Creating a Hybrid Home”

  1. Romance and SFF fans were the first to embrace ebooks. When I first discovered ebooks, circa ’98 ish, there were very few publishers, and indeed, fewer hardware platforms. This was pre Palm Pilot, and I think the only viable ebook reading hardware was the first gen Rocket Reader, which was later bought out by TV Guide.

    In any event, romances aren’t exactly candy lit. They’re not your mama’s formulaic Harlequins. In every romantic subgenre (including erotic) there are a great many standout books. In fact, Princeton University has used some erotic romance titles (Joey W. Hill’s Natural Law, for certain) in a course they teach. While romance, as with other genre fiction, is usually considered more accessible to the mass than literary fiction, I don’t think they’re greater or lesser than any specific genre. There is good and bad in every realm of publishing.

    The trick is in finding the audience for literary fic, since literary can mean so many things to so many people. Its broader than, say political thrillers, cozy mystery, or historical romance.

    Ultimately it all comes down to unforgettable characters, both for the writer and the reader.

    1. JG: Not saying they were’t – just that erotica is a genre that does particularly well, likely because covers can’t be seen. 😉

      Porter’s the one decrying the rise in romances and calling for #legitlit in response. I’ve got plenty of Nora Roberts on my shelves, so I’m not dissing romance – or any other genre. Some of the mysteries on my shelves are pure fluffy escapism. Some get fairly heavy – Sara Paretsky and Andrew Greeley come to mind.

      My issue is more with the way literary and genre are a dichotomy, despite an increasing number of books that aren’t really either. Literary has become to mean a level of playing with language and form that often interferes with telling a good story. The genres have traditionally been the places for storytellers, but as more and more of us can publish without being bound by those strict categories, we’re falling outside of everything. And the argument over on Passive Voice Blog in comments today that we should just be happy to be “fiction” with no further subdivision reflects a lack of understanding of how the categories function as organizers in the digital world.

      If you have a supernatural romance, do you shelve it in romance? Paranormal? Both? Well, eventually they ended up with hybrid categories for the more popular ones. But at some point, you had to choose. Some might pick romance. Some might pick supernatural. This hybrid category, whatever it is, doesn’t preclude somebody from thinking their work is also an existing genre. Nora Roberts often has mysteries in her novels, but she chooses to put them in the mystery category. Andrew Greeley has religious themes in his work, but he often shelves them as mysteries. The ones that don’t get shelved there? I’ve found them in the romance section, in the best-seller section, in the religious fiction section… Depends on who was doing the shelving that day as best I can tell.

      The challenge is that there’s a gap between the genre/literary divide. I’ve got mobsters, gay characters and a chunk of the book taking place in the past. It’s not crime/mystery/thriller. It’s not LGBT. It’s not historical (and probably also not truly contemporary). It’s something. It’s just not anything neat and tidy. And I can think of several other authors who have work that falls in the same gap. I’m just starting a discussion about where we belong in this new world.

  2. Thanks for the thought provoking and hopeful article. And I like the quote you mention re: Doris Lessing – “She’s one of those authors that makes me not want to read another book for a long time because there’s always a lot to absorb and reflect upon.”
    It’s what I want from books.

    1. Thanks! I can’t take credit for the quote – a friend was recommending Lessing’s books and that was his reasoning. But it stuck with me because it’s such a great way of expressing that depth great novels can provide.

      There’s room for writers to go deep, and readers to find those books, now that self-publishing has removed the requirement that a publisher deem a book to be commercially successful before offering a contract. Roz Morris is a great example of that. Publishers turned her book down because they didn’t think they could sell it, so she decided to prove them wrong — and did. The changes in the publishing industry open up the door for more of us to do just that.

  3. Thanks Jennie. Roz is a lit-warrior, I admire what she’s doing. And Porter is difficult to avoid. I appreciate his balanced presentations of what’s going on in the publishing world.
    I lacked the time to write until a few years ago, and must now decide how to move forward – having completed a first novel, and being absorbed in writing a sequel. I had a degree of fame in my earlier lives, but am hopeless at blowing my own trumpet, I won’t even attempt to sell my work to publishers, so unless I find an agent (there’s a small hope), I’ll have to challenge myself to self-publish.
    For someone with a rich life- experience, like yourself, once you dive into the mythology of fiction it becomes a vocation 🙂 Go for it!

  4. I began in lit fic. Now it’s simply one more genre. The best books, regardless of genre and delivery system, are well-written character driven stories that ask questions greater than– when will he remover his shirt or or remove hers Yes, I write romance, but as my husband says it’s intelligent romance.
    Why? Simple. It sells. I wrote lit fic for years and sold nothing. Now that I’m selling both with small epubs and as a self-pubber, I’m returning to my true love, lit fic. Some success has given me permission to return to my roots – because it no longer matter if a mainstream publisher picks up my work. I can publish it myself.

    1. Julia, I think you’ve hit on the reason this is something we’re talking about. When traditional publishing set the rules, they could force authors to push their books into a neat cubbyhole in exchange for publication. Just look at the number of authors, especially in YA, who have been told they need to straighten gay characters before they can get a book published.

      I would have had to make ATIN a mystery to get it published by a traditional publisher, and I would have been stuck with Dan as the protagonist for the rest of the series — and probably forced to turn Chris into Christine. Now that we have other options, I can write the story I want to write and let it stand and fall on its merits. I just have to figure out which of several ill-fitting categories is the best one to use for it.

      1. Yup. I’ve always been an anarchist at heart. You are so right. One publisher told me I’m not ready for prime time because I’m not branded, as in… I don’t write the same story over and over again. She’s correct. It is true I write what I want, in a variety of sub-genres. I’m happier that way, and I’m never bored.
        The other really cool thing about self-pubbing is this – when I have personal stuff going on, as I’ve had lately with my father developing a sudden serious illness, I don’t have to worry. I’m setting my own deadlines. I love it!

  5. I would consider myself in the “serious fiction” category as well, despite the fact that I write horror-fantasy. I am concerned above all with exploring themes and fleshing out interesting characters. It’s kind of frustrating, actually, because I often find that I have very little in common with other genre writers, but of course the literary types often look down their nose at me since I’m writing books with fairies and monsters in them. C’est la vie.

    But, anyway, interesting distinction. With so many other changes sweeping across the industry, who knows where this one might develop?

    1. Like I said above, I think there’s room for this to be a category writers can take or leave. If you think horror’s the best fit, you can put it there. Or in fantasy. Or in this #legitlit category, regardless of the name that evolves. Literary’s reputation as MFA elitists who are snooty about anything with a plot and narrative drive is part of the issue. There’s no longer a home for storytellers who don’t have murder, sex, vampires or an 18th-century setting. (I exaggerate, but you get my point.) I’d argue literary could stay as a home and the “literary” books should move into something called “experimental,” but that’s probably doomed. At least #legitlit leaves room for the books that might have been literary in an earlier age – To Kill a Mockingbird – to eventually become the type of book we think of when we think literary.

  6. “More and more there are books out there that don’t fall into either category. If more people adopt the “serious fiction” category, maybe we can start to build a new genre.”

    Unfortunately, I think a category called “serious fiction” will also turn off readers. I sincerely wish we could stop making judgments on books because they belong to a category. As others have said, there are a number of “issue books” or “serious books” in romance, in mystery/thrillers, and definitely in SF and Fantasy. Yet, if you were to put those books in a category called “serious fiction” the regular readers in the genre categories wouldn’t touch it.

    I personally choose to write my serious fiction in genre for two reasons: 1) I want to reach the average reader with my themes because I believe the intellectual reader already understands them and looks for them; and 2) The tropes of genre allow me to provide a comfortable home for most people to explore difficult themes.

    For me, the difficulty in writing genre books that cross boundaries into serious fiction is not in finding readers. It is in finding agents or publishers who believe that a genre book with serious themes can sell. Fortunately, there are enough small presses who are willing to take a chance.

    1. Maggie, I’m open to ideas for a name. We already have cross-genre books, and there’s no reason a book that fits into this and into mystery or horror couldn’t be put wherever the author/publisher prefers. But some of us tell stories that aren’t mysteries or romances or LGBT or time travel, etc., etc. Still, we’re too focused on the storytelling to fit with the literary folks. Don Maass has proven with his 21st Century Fiction argument that people can and will read those books. They just don’t have a bucket at Amazon to drop them into. I don’t care what the bucket’s called, but I’d like there to be one. Porter’s tags have come the closest of anything I’ve seen.

  7. Trying to define fiction that has depth isn’t a new problem, although I agree it’s getting worse. Oscar Wilde described “The Importance of Being Ernest” as “trivial entertainment for serious people.”. When you write entertaining fiction that deals with serious themes, how do you signal to those “serious people” that this is what they’re looking for?

    As I said on Porter’s blogpost, I don’t like the word “serious” because a lot of people will take that to mean “no humor”, and some of our best literary novelists are also great humorists.

    I grew up reading literary fiction and it’s my comfort zone, so my rom-com mysteries have a lot more in common with writers of tart comic literary fiction like Angela Thirkell, Muriel Spark and Fay Weldon than they do with James Patterson or any of the high-body-count genre mystery writers. But my work is still under the umbrella of “mystery.”

    So what do I call it? Right now I’m trying “Janet Evanovich for English Majors”. We’ll see how that goes…

    1. LOL! Anne, I like that genre. 🙂 And I think you make good points about the drawbacks of “serious” as the tag. Don Maass’ “21st Century” doesn’t work either. Does that mean a book from 1999 can’t qualify?

      Sounds like you could have made the choice to go romance with your genre, but you didn’t. That’s the type of choice that leaves room for authors to pick this hybrid category or an existing genre. Each author will make a different choice for different reasons. It’s the yarnspinners who don’t fit a genre that are struggling. We’re neither fish nor fowl.

      I don’t know what we call it, but the number of people who have commented on the various sites seems to indicate there really is this gap some of us storytellers are seeing. I’d be happy for the storytellers like Roz Morris and Terri Giuliano Long and myself to retake literary as an option and relegate the prose poets and backward-sideways-upside-down narrative folks to experimental. I just don’t think it will happen.

      1. Jennie–I think this is a great idea: “relegate the prose poets and backward-sideways-upside-down narrative folks to ‘experimental'”. It sounds as if you’re talking about the kind of fiction Margaret Atwood writes. And Barbara Kingsolver. They’re usually shelved in “women’s fiction.”

        Traditional literary fiction can sneak into YA., too. Catherine Ryan Hyde, who wrote Pay it Forward, can only get her YA fiction published in the US. In the UK, her adult fiction hits the bestseller lists. But it’s considered “too literary” for US adults by US publishers.

        However, when she self-published the books in the US, they went to the top of the charts. Same kind of books as she publishes with Knopf, but with slightly older protags. The problem isn’t with the readers, but the industry.

    2. Just bouncing in here (I’m everywhere, I know) to say that I think it may not help us to search for what to call an actual “new” genre — or to search for a new genre designation. We have so many genre designations now (as the Book Country genre map showed us) that it’s sort of like trying to name all the European football teams and their leagues.

      I think what I’m trying to do (which doesn’t mean it has to be what you guys are trying to do, lol) is figure out a way I can signal to somebody that I’ve found legitimate literary elements (#legitlit) or what I call serious intent (#seriouswriting) — and I know your qualm there, Anne — wherever I find it. Regardless of genre.

      In the Ether for Authors just out this week, for example, at Publishing Perspectives, I have this lovely thing Dave Morris did in London in which he stared down people who might dismiss Jane Austen as mere “chick lit” or “romance,” by running an extensive, killer passage from Pride and Prejudice. All you have to do is read that and know that you could easily put #legitlit and/or #seriouswriting on that material because, regardless of how others might classify it, it fulfills these expectations we all seem to actually pretty much agree on — some meaning, some powerful command of language and storytelling technique, something richer in terms of what’s being attempted, in other words, than the mere entertainment you have in the grocery bag full of 25-cents books.

      One of my more recent examples of this is Hugh Howey’s Wool series. This guy is better than the “dystopian” genre (or sci-fi or fantasy or whatever). His work ennobles the genre and really has a great deal to offer. There are #legitlit elements to what he’s doing, but I don’t want to create a new genre-basket to dump him into if dystopian is where he wants to spend his talent.

      So that’s just to clarify — and it’s my vote only, of course. I think we’re making a mistake if we try to actually set up a “new genre” made of other things and ask people to deal with it. We’re almost as genre-heavy as we are erotic-romance heavy, and people are going to bitch and moan forever if we try to force them to deal with another genre. This “new adult” label they’re trying to put onto upper-aged YA is a good one to watch … driving people crazy to have to think of yet another genre (especially one that looks like “not applicable” or NA when they abbreviate it, lol).

      So there’s my 15 or 20 cents, lol.

      1. Porter–As I said to Jennie above. I think we do need to reclaim “literary” from the Barthelme crowd. Let them segregate themselves. Literary doesn’t have to mean obscure, gimmicky, and self-absorbed. We should be able to make room for the new Atwoods and Kingsolvers. .

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