I was on a panel at a book festival recently. There were four of us behind a table in a windowless room, novelists all, and one of the first questions from the audience was, “How would you define literary fiction?” It was a fair question—the title of the panel contained the phrase “Writers of Literary Fiction”—but all four of us responded with variations on “I don’t know.”
I think everyone’s a little confused about this. A few days before I took the train to Albany to sit on a literary fiction panel, I’d received the happy news that my first novel, Last Night in Montreal, is among the finalists for ForeWord Magazine’s 2009 Book of the Year in the General Fiction category. They also have a Literary Fiction category, which I’m not in.
I was puzzled by what the difference is between literary and general fiction, and a Google query got me practically nowhere. One website defined general fiction as follows: “The story must be readable—it must have a traditional plot arc and be relatively plot- and character-driven. Controversy is welcome, but it is not presented in as nuanced a way as in literary fiction.” Which is insulting to both literary fiction writers (by implication unreadable) and general fiction writers (who aren’t, apparently, particularly nuanced.)
So I turned, as I often do in moments of doubt, to Twitter. (I’ll confess that this is a questionable strategy, but I find that Twitter’s good for crowd-sourcing.) “Can anyone,” I asked my two thousand or so followers, “give me a good definition of the difference between Literary and General fiction?”
No one really could. Half of my followers are either automated spambots or people who are just trying to sell me something, but a great many of them are very intelligent and interesting people who talk about books all day, so I was surprised by this. A few people misread “general” as “genre” and patronizingly explained what genre fiction is. A couple of people told me that general fiction is genre fiction that doesn’t fit into a genre, which is confusing—because if it doesn’t fit into a genre, then how is it genre fiction? Unless it’s somehow multi-genre fiction, like maybe a YA detective story/historical romance/western with zombies, set in outer space? When we say that general fiction is genre fiction that doesn’t fit into a genre, are we really just saying that it’s literary fiction, but with a stronger emphasis on plot? This seems unfair to the books that are habitually categorized as literary fiction, many of which are very tightly plotted.
But back to Albany, and the awkward quiet that followed the “How would you define literary fiction?” question. After a moment one of my fellow panelists took the mike and offered a thoughtful response about literary fiction perhaps being defined as fiction in which language itself is the most important thing, which I thought was as good a definition as any, but at moments like that I’m always reminded me of a particular Academy Awards presentation I saw a few years back. Some actor was presenting the award for film editing. “All audiences really care about,” he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “is what comes next.”
Plot, in other words, if we transpose that idea into fiction. I don’t think that plot is all readers care about, just to be clear, but I think it’s important. I think that the most beautiful text ever written will go absolutely nowhere without an engine to drive it. What I want is to write fiction as literary and as nuanced as anything out there, but to do it with the strongest possible plotting and narrative drive.
It took some time to sell my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. I don’t think my agent likes it when I mention this, but it’s no reflection on her abilities—it just happens that it’s a very difficult market for first novels, especially first novels by completely unknown writers whose entire previous publishing history consists of a single poem published in a British Columbia anthology in the mid-90’s, and it wasn’t the easiest book to sell. Last Night in Montreal is difficult to categorize: it’s something of a criminal mystery, but it’s also a love story, and it’s also about dead languages, circuses, Quebec’s language politics, and the fragility of family. Several rejection letters alluded to this: “It would be difficult,” an editor wrote, “to find a way to market fiction that attempts to straddle both the literary and genre markets.”
It was a maddening letter, in the way that all “I loved it, but…” rejection letters are somewhat maddening, and at the time I would’ve vastly preferred a publishing contract. But even so, it made me a little happy. I felt that I’d succeeded in what I was trying to do. Last Night in Montreal has a private detective in it, but that doesn’t seem to me like a good reason for it to be anything less than literary.
On websites that sell books I’ve seen Last Night in Montreal logged under a baffling array of categories—Women’s Fiction, Literary Fiction, Thrillers, and Suspense. I think it’s probably all of the above. My second novel, The Singer’s Gun, walks a similar line. It’s a very different story, although some of the themes—immigration, love, betrayal, the contortions of family—are similar. The Singer’s Gun is a story about a man trying to lead an honorable life; his family is corrupt and his prospects limited, until he forges a Harvard diploma and reinvents himself as a successful water systems consultant. But a life built on a lie is terribly vulnerable, and as the book opens, it’s beginning to come undone.
I’ve seen it catalogued variously as Literary Fiction, Crime Fiction, Suspense, and World Literature (which I think just alludes to the fact that I hold citizenship in two countries.) The confusion of categories raises an interesting question: can books wherein language is of the utmost importance (in other words, the books we call literary fiction) still be driven by plot? I think they can. I think they probably should.