September 5, 2011

the purpose of books

Last week, my husband and I had a conversation about the purpose of books.

When I was in college, I was surrounded by those literary snobs who believed that commercial fiction was utter garbage. I still remember their snickers.

Oh, you write fantasy? Ha! You’ll never find success writing genre fiction.

This came from professor and student alike.

These people honestly believed that there was no value in commercial fiction. They believed that fantasy, science-fiction, romance, mysteries, etc. did not deserve to be labeled “literature”. And maybe they were right. Literature is a bunch of plot-less, purple prose, in my opinion. The author is more interested in the sound and arrangement of words than character or plot development. The day that someone refers to my work as “literature” is the day that I’ve failed as a writer.

This so-called “literary fiction” is nothing more than a writer in love with his own words. You can argue with me all you want. You can wax endlessly about the metaphysical symbolism that permeates these stories. You can tell me how the author intended for this or that. You can tell me that writing is an art, that ultimately, it’s for the writer.

And that’s where I say that you’re wrong.

Writing, no matter how you try to paint it, is a business. Unless you never intend to sell a book in your life, then every word that you put on the page is another step toward publication. Publication is part of a professional industry, whether you intend to self-publish or traditionally publish. Writing is the means to an end: the book. A product.

In the end, even literary fiction is commercial fiction. If you’re selling it, it’s commercial.

Yes, writing is an art. Yes, writing can be for the benefit of the author. It can contain symbolism, metaphysical monkey-doo, author intention and commentary and beautiful prose. But a book, no matter what kind, must do one thing:


Now, which sounds more entertaining: a poetic, introspective romp through a mid-life crisis, not so subtly a reflection of the author’s own problems, OR the story of a time-travelling archaeologist who steals artifacts from the past, sets up dig sites to “discover” these artifacts in the present,  all the while meeting historical figures and visiting lost civilizations? (You can’t steal that last one. That’s mine… unless it’s already been written, which would make me very sad.) If you chose the former, I sigh and shake my head in your general direction. I don’t see how that can be interesting at all. YET, to some, mostly those in academia, that sort of thing is considered “literature” because it’s “art”, while time-travel adventure tales are considered drivel, when it could be just as beautifully written.

Whether one is better than the other is not the point I’m trying to make here. Some people like literary fiction. I don’t. Saying that it isn’t a legitimate form of fiction would be like me saying that science-fiction books are the only books worth reading. Anything else is manure. I don’t believe that. To each man, his own genre. Some people find literary fiction entertaining. They like the purple prose. I am not one of those people. I like action, characterization, romance, and mystery. If you can give me all that in one book, I’ll love you forever.

Yes, I have a bias against literary fiction, just because most of the people that write it are academic snobs who love to hear themselves speak. You know that person at the party that only talks about himself and how amazing he is? That guy took up 90% of the writing community at my university. The other 10% were super awesome, and we had great adventures involving sno-cones, long discussions in the writing labs about Godzilla, and we often met under the nerdy cloak of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. Like I said: super awesome. (Wow. I went a little off topic there. Shout out to friends!)

While I’m biased, I don’t think that literature or literary fiction isn’t legitimate. It is. Someone spent hours upon hours of time and energy creating that book. It may not be a book that I want to read, but someone, somewhere does want to read it, and they’ll love it. It’s not any better or worse than genre fiction. It’s just different. It’s snobbish to denigrate a genre or category of books just because you think that your genre reigns supreme. No matter the genre.

The point is: no matter what you’re writing, if you plan to seek publication, then you need to entertain your audience. If your audience is other literary, academic snobs (No offense… oh, wait. If this offended anyone, they stopped reading long ago), then by all means, fill your story with as much poetic prose and pointless tangents as you possibly can. If your audience wants epic space battles, give them epic space battles. You need to give them what they want so that they’ll continue to read your books.

When I wrote my steampunk novel, I had a specific audience in mind: geeky, science-loving girls who also love a good romance. I personally know like three people that fit this bill, me included, but I’m confident that this specific audience will enjoy my book. My creative writing professor, my sister, and my neighbor’s book club may not. It’s obviously my hope that more than my fellow geeky girls will enjoy it, but I’ll be happy if only the geeky girls love it. They’re the ones I wrote the book for.

When you’re writing, even if you say that you’re writing for yourself, have an audience in mind. Yes, the steampunk novel that I wrote was for me, but it was also for other people like me. If you’re writing the novel for yourself, what category of people do you fit into? Will those people enjoy a book like yours? Who would?

So I ask you, dear fellow writers, who do you write for? What category of reader do you fit into? Do you believe a book should entertain first and ascend to some symbolic metaphysical level second? Or do you think that a reader’s opinion doesn’t matter so long as you got your point or moral across?


  1. Oh, wonderful post! I kept shouting "yes, yes, yes" as I read it. I guess it's the difference between being a writer and a storyteller. I fall into the second camp. Heck, not a camp, but a full-fledged dwelling with stone ramparts!

  2. Another person who agrees with you! I'm bored by stories that are just about people learning things about themselves by talking a lot. I want battles, intrigue, mystery, explosions, robots, magic, and anything else that gets me to keep turning pages. But I'm pleased to see more literary fiction authors taking on genre tropes, because I've enjoyed (most) books in that vein that I've read, and I've seen most others be well-received.

    Definitely agree about knowing your audience, though, and am just as frustrated with the snobbery against genre writers. Really, is it that bad of us to have fun and sell? The snobbery's one of the reasons I'm very hesitant to attend any formal writing workshops or classes, because I'm afraid of running into those types.

    As for your questions at the end? I write for geeks who like laughing, and for people who like their tropes a little sporked and twisted. Books definitely need to entertain first, be metaphoric second, or if I've even picked them up, I'm likely to stop reading. I like my symbolism and messages subtle.

  3. I wasn't sure if I knew where you were going until this:

    "Yes, writing is an art. Yes, writing can be for the benefit of the author. It can contain symbolism, metaphysical monkey-doo, author intention and commentary and beautiful prose. But a book, no matter what kind, must do one thing:


    There, I was done and in total agreement. And yes, I would find the adventure very fun. By the way, I look forward to hearing your progress as you work that tale into a fantastic novel.

  4. I like both. I went to school for writing as well. Perhaps I was surrounded by a different group of people, but I was always encouraged in my fantasy and scifi writing - it's what I turned in for critiques and final projects. Both types of writing are art forms - they are crafts that an author continuously hones and refines, never calling anything perfect because to do so would declare him or herself exactly what he or she despises. I think it's everyone's free right to like what they want...and well, I like both. And I've read plenty of books where the two come together perfectly.

  5. Hmm...I'll just take this as a personal attack. :P Just kidding...but I'm certainly a literary fiction writer.

  6. Oh hey! I found this interesting article and thought of you. It was really informative...and well, welcoming, if you ask me. Take a look and see what you think:

  7. BookGeek, I think it's fantastic that the two sides of the fiction world are coming together. Like I said, literary fiction isn't bad... it's just not my cup of tea. I love well-written fiction. But I also love plot. That's all I really ask. If literary writers want to juice up their beautiful writing with a little action, that's fine by me. Thanks for including the link!

    Marcus, :P

  8. This is the first time I've commented, but this post struck a chord.

    As you know, I'm a genre writer (slightly different genres, but whatevs). I had a professor that didn't want us to write genre in our intro class, but we could in Fiction Workshop. So, at least he was somewhat encouraging, even if he did write literary fiction.

    I'm thinking the prof that discouraged your genre writing was my advisor. If so, that's weird because he liked my chupacabra story. Then again, he vaguely compared it to Shirley Jackson's work, and she was a literary gal.

    I guess the literary snobs think genre fiction is supposed to be dumb, and a lot of time it is. I point out Neil Gaiman to the contrary, though. He writes literary genre fiction. It has all the pretty words and the deep ideas along with the weird stuff.

    To me, writing is about telling stories. I try to do it as simply as possible. If I happen to think of a really deep and awesome idea, then that's a bonus. Like you, I write the stories I want to read. Reading is an escape for me, and maybe it sounds simplistic, but I had enough heavy reading in college.

    Good Lord, I wrote a book...

  9. Ha! I've been through the MFA puppy mill and they will tell you that commercial fiction is garbage. They want to be answering the big questions, plunging into the soul. They don't see that there is actually value in the relaxing, the escape. Not to mention sci fi and fantasy that often does tackle some of the big questions of our times.

    But success? Oh success is much easier in genre! Literary fiction is an extremely difficult sell, though when it does do well it really takes off in a big way.