Genre vs. literary fiction

An interesting article in the January 2008 issue of The Writer pointed out that genre authors dominate the best-seller lists, while literary authors rarely show up on them. I’ve often said as much to my students.

The article argues that “commercial success isn’t a curse, nor obscurity a perverse badge of honor.” That’s true, of course. But inveighing against literary snobbery seems to me less important than what this “false dichotomy between art and commerce,” as it is labeled by the article’s author (Chuck Leddy), portends for the literary novel. In a publishing industry that has seen nearly all of its old-line houses absorbed into big corporations concerned mainly with return on the investment dollar, the literary novel has become the stepchild at the family reunion. I shudder to think what damage is being dealt to literature by this near-exclusive emphasis on profit in publishing.

Virtually any writer shopping a manuscript around these days has seen how nearly impenetrable Publishers Row has become over, say, the past 20 years. Publisher after publisher has stopped accepting submissions and even queries, opting for agented material only, and gradually even agents have adopted the same policy. Those agents still inviting queries often limit the author to a synopsis only and/or the first few pages of a manscript, seldom more than a chapter, often as few as five pages. No seasoned writer needs to be told that this approach to auditioning new novels (not new talent, mind you, but novels) is worse than useless, borders on insult, and is downright cynical. And in case you somehow missed that point, they usually advise that you won’t hear from them at all unless they’re interested in your submission, and they sometimes add that they routinely accept no more than one percent of all submissions.

Think what that means for the literary novel! Think snowball in hell and you’ll have a good idea. Think further and you’ll realize that novels like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby almost certainly could not find a mainstream publisher today, or even an agent — not least because you also can’t find editors like Maxwell Perkins in Publishers Row these days.

But here’s something worth remembering: Though reviewed favorably when first published, in 1925, Gatsby didn’t sell well at all. Both Fitzgerald and Perkins, his editor, were very disappointed.

Today, however, Gatsby is considered by many to be The Great American Novel. And today, nearly a century later, it’s still selling!

I wonder how the commercial hits of 1925 are doing these days.



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