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?