According to one source of the origin of the universe, within the first few days, Adam, the only human in existence, gave names to all the animals. What language he was speaking isn’t clear, but I think it might have been Yiddish. Quite a while later, the Swedish scientist Linneaus decided that he would name everything alive, such as Mus musculus (mouse), or Ficus carica (fig tree), using his double Latin names. And then in the late 1960s/early 1970s, even rock-n-roll started to get various names, like bubblegum, heavy metal, glam rock, and so on.
It’s human nature to name things, and people who like books have had at it. They’ve come up with names for different types of literature, and we even have a name for the names: genres. Good old Wikipedia lists more than 20 genres just for fiction, such as mystery, western, fantasy, horror, humor, etc. If you go on to the “subgenres” you can loose interest scrolling down the page, they have so many.
One of the difficulties with genres, however, is that many works of fiction don’t really fit into anything. Thus we have the “genre” (this is real, I didn’t make this up) of “literary fiction”. Aside from being a pretentious and incredibly vague name, it is also very common. And the kind of writing I do falls into that category.
Many literary agents specifically say they will represent literary fiction. When it comes to what that is, however, it’s not rare to see sentences like “I want great books by skilled writers” (as opposed to the other kind). Here are some modern examples of literary fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Life of Pi by Yan Martel, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.
This week I found an interview with four literary agents, which I read part of. As they described the process of looking for an agent, of getting published, and of how they see the publishing field at the moment, I found myself slumping into a lethargic depression. One of the points they seemed to make is how difficult it is to publish literary fiction, one person describing it as “impossible”. How much was that intended as exaggeration?
I would also say to anyone who listens that it’s impossible to get a literary agent, at least if you write literary fiction. I was once recommended to an agent by another writer. Over and over I hear (and even read in that same interview I just mentioned) that a recommendation is the golden key to open the door. In my case, however, the agent looked at what I sent her, then wrote me and said, “It’s too hard to sell this kind of book.” Yeah, it’s a literary novel.
Was it easier when Mark Twain was first writing a novel? Could a writer at the time of Edith Wharton assume that if you had talent and worked hard, you would eventually be published? Perhaps the situation is much worse now than it used to be. All of the novels I named above have been very popular, in some cases extremely popular, and there are others. Why, then, is it so difficult to publish a literary novel?
In the broadest sense, every society needs art. The more the art flourishes, the healthier the society. I personally think there could be no such thing as too much artistic expression. I’d like to see murals and sculpture and public art everywhere you look in every city and town. Such art would be like oxygen for the spirit.
One aspect of art that a society needs is literature. Humans have always used language to tell stories and entertain, which is fine in the written form (such as romance novels or spy thrillers). We also must have books that explore what it means to be human, or we will be a philosophically shallow, spiritually hungry people. We cannot thrive without the kind of books that have been labeled literary novels.
So even if the agents don’t want them, even if it is impossible to sell them, I’m going to write them.