Please join me in welcoming Elaine Drennon Little as she shares and interesting experience that many authors can relate to. I was particularly drawn to this article since all of my books are categorized as Literary Fiction, because they are primarily character-driven… but here is a new slant on the thinking.
LITERARY FICTION by Elaine Drennon Little
According to Wikipedia, that all-knowing font of wisdom we ALL refer to yet never admit,
“Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit…To be considered literary, a work usually must be “critically acclaimed” and “serious”. In practice, works of literary fiction often are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas”.
In my long and varied quest towards becoming a writer, I once signed up for a workshop in which a best-selling author, living in my state, would read an excerpt from my work, critique it, then offer tips on how to “pitch” my work to an agent. The whole aspect of this idea was to help enable me to effectively pitch my entire novel in little more time than that of an elevator ride. I had my doubts that such was possible, but I was ready and willing.
“Literary fiction,” I answered without hesitation. Yet for some reason the mere mention of the genre seemed to insult her.
“Literary, you say,” she mimicked in a voice chilled with—Sarcasm? Hurt? I wasn’t sure.
“So which is it,” she continued, “you don’t want your book to be shelved with the ones featuring kissing couples, or police badges, or anything common on the front? Or do you just want to make sure to engage only college-educated readers? Or are you more interested in being seen as an “author” that a writer of popular books?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I sat there, dumbfounded and looking stupid.
I barely remember the rest of our ten-minute talk. I do know that, walking away, I was pretty sure I’d insulted an author I’d admired for decades, and that anything she might remember about me would be something I’d rather never happened.
I went home and reread her notes and suggestions on my work, which were all very good. I kept wondering about her ideas on “literary” vs. other kinds of fiction. I googled her, then looked at her books on Amazon; most of them were categorized under “women’s fiction,” with her earlier ones labeled as “romance.”
I’d never really thought about how her books were listed; I’d read and enjoyed them all. However, after her first efforts were labeled, perhaps it was hard to break the label, no matter the content of the writing. I had nothing against either genre, but obviously, something about that label still hurt her, years and many best-sellers later.
I went to the shelf and pulled out my favorite among her writings, rereading and enjoying it far into the night.
The next day I wrote the author, thanking her for her advice the day before but also including a note about the book I’d just reread:
On a final note, I want to share one other thought that may mean nothing to you, but I feel compelled to say it anyway. The descriptive pictures and meaningful scenes I equate with Lee Smith, Pat Conroy, and Larry Brown are no more thought-provoking than yours. Your heroines may live in nicer places and wear trendier clothes than the Appalachian writers, but they laugh, cry, and ponder the human condition just as theirs do. I love your writing, and wish I had been articulate-on-my-feet enough to let you know this when I met you.
I reread my letter and hit “send,” feeling a little less guilty about the previous day’s events but never expecting to hear from this author again.
But I was wrong. On the very next day, an answer was waiting:
First, please call me ******. We’re all just sister writers.
Second, I am weeping with gratitude for the fact that you “got” what I worked so hard to incorporate into my work. God bless you. To be mentioned in such gifted literary company is humbling, indeed.
Believe it or not, I am left speechless by your praise.
Your friend and fellow writer,
I guess that particular workshop taught me much more than I paid for, a lesson I’ll continue to remind myself of in coming years. Labels such as “literary” carry more than one connotation, and to box oneself into a singular category can be as detrimental as not. Is all southern fiction literary? Of course not. Neither is all work set in New York City or Paris, France. Can literary fiction be found under other bookstore headings? Certainly. Most importantly, I think we should all beware that many works with deep literary value may never reside in the places reserved for highbrow fiction. Good fiction, for whatever age, gender, ethnicity, culture or socioeconomic class it may be aimed, will continue to explore emotional journeys of the human condition.
Perhaps a book’s “literary” worth is measured by its worth to readers. If so, I guess I’m more interested in writing in a way that speaks to the reader’s heart than being proclaimed as a literary writer.
I still claim to be a lover of literary fiction, but my love of fiction in general is bigger than that. All in all, I just love books—beautiful, complex stories that take me into the soul of someone else. What kind of stories do YOU like? Does it fit under a common label, a combination of genres, or can you make up your own?
About the Author:
Adopted at birth, Elaine lived her first twenty years on her parents’ agricultural farm in rural southern Georgia. She was a public school music teacher for twenty-seven years, and continued to dabble with sideline interests in spite of her paid profession. Playing in her first band at age fourteen, she seemed to almost always be involved in at least one band or another. Elaine’s writing began in high school, publishing in local newspapers, then educational journals, then later in online fiction journals. In 2008 she enrolled in the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, where upon graduation finished her second novel manuscript. Recently retiring after eleven years as a high school chorus and drama director, Elaine now lives in north Georgia with her husband, an ever-growing library of used books, and many adopted animals.
Find out more about this author by visiting her online:
Author blog: http://elainedrennonlittle.wordpress.com/
Author Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/elaine.d.little
A Southern Place is a moving book that is expertly written! Mary Jane Hatcher–everyone calls her Mojo–is beat up bad. She’s in the ICU of Phoebe Putney, the largest hospital in South Georgia, barely able to talk. How Mojo goes from being that skinny little girl in Nolan, a small forgotten town along the Flint River, to the young woman now fighting for her life, is where this story begins and ends.
Mojo, her mama Delores and her Uncle Calvin Mullinax, like most folks in Nolan, have just tried to make the best of it. Of course, people aren’t always what they seem, and Phil Foster–the handsome, spoiled son of the richest man in the county–is no exception.
As the story of the Mullinax family unfolds, Mojo discovers a family’s legacy can be many things: a piece of earth, a familiar dwelling, a shared bond. And although she doesn’t know why she feels such a bond with Phil Foster, it is there all the same, family or not. And she likes to think we all have us a fresh start. Like her mama always said, the past is all just water under the bridge. Mojo, after going to hell and back, finally comes to understand what that means.
Paperback: 294 Pages
Publisher: WiDo Publishing (August 6, 2013)
Twitter hashtag: #ASPLittle
A Southern Place is available as a print and e- book at Amazon.