Monday, June 25, 2012

Literary Fiction: Dead or Alive?

I was going to do a kind of follow up on my "Top Ten Sci-Fi games" post for today, except It would've focused on fantasy video games, but then I got a better idea.

Anyway, today I talked to my Uncle/Mentor Lamar Herrin over the phone. He told me that his new book, entitled Beyond the Marcellus, was just accepted by a new publisher and that it should be out sometime in the fall I think. So if you want, go check it out. Seriously, if you haven't read anything by him then get it, because he's a damn good writer and he deserves more attention. But in the course of the conversation he expressed his worry that his kind of writing (or literary fiction in general) was "On its last legs" and how genre fiction and e-books and/or self-published books were dominating the market and essentially grinding literary fiction down into the dust.  

And, as much as I hate to admit it, he kinda does have a point. As I've explained before, my Uncle comes from the school of fiction that includes such literary heavy weights as Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and many others; and he doesn't have high thoughts for genre fiction.Which is just fine, he likes what he likes and he's free to do so. And while I highly doubt that literary fiction is ever going away (and it shouldn't), the fact is that no body wants to be reminded about how unfair life is. We already get  reminded enough whenever we turn on the news. Especially in this day and age when news and information is literally available in your back pocket. Ask any casual reader what kind of things they like to read and chances are, 9 times out of 10, they'll name something like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, True Grit,  Lord of the Rings, Forgotten RealmsTwilight (God forbid) or any other sort of genre novel. Ask them if they've read or have read anything by Ann Beattie, T.C. Boyle, George Orwell, Hemingway, Andre Dubus III or any other literary fiction author and you'll probably get some version of: "No, they're too depressing." 
I know that I am speaking in broad terms here, and that not every piece of literary fiction is necessarily depressing. But the point I am trying to make is that people's tastes have changed, and Literary Fiction just isn't the literary world anymore, it hasn't been for a LONG time now. Most people read, watch TV, movies, or play video games to get AWAY from this shit hole, not have it slap them across the face.

As far as e-books and self-published books go, yeah Uncle Lamar also has a point here too. Its no secret that e-books and/or print-on-demand books are selling more than printed books today and probably for the rest of time. I personally don't like it anymore than he does to be honest (even though I am technically part of this movement). I have a hard enough time reading text on a screen as it is, and a tiny Kindle or Iphone/Ipod touch screen doesn't help matters. But the reality is that its a lot more convenient to carry A Game of Thrones around on something roughly the size and weight of a piece of paper, than to have a bulging brick jutting out of your pocket. But that's not why he doesn't like them. He doesn't like them because he feels like he can't compete with it. Unknown authors of every genre, a healthy portion of which are actually pretty damn good, are finding a voice on this new medium for very little or no money. And when something reaches a certain size, well that means that other things are going to be pushed out into the cold, and sadly my Uncle feels like he's shivering. Some of your might be asking "Well he's a published author, why doesn't his publisher just advertise it for him?" Well, to put it bluntly, my Uncle isn't a best-seller and unless you've sold a good size number of books, then 99% of publishers won't bother to advertise or promote you, because your work isn't a safe investment. Which makes sense from a business stand point, but much to my Uncle's irritation, what makes the publishers money...isn't Literary fiction.  

"Well ok," some of you say.  "Why doesn't he and they just start self-publishing and advertise the thing himself." Well, like I said, a lot of authors from every genre (literary fiction included) do. But at the same time, a lot of us don't understand self-publishing and, in the case of my Uncle, can see past all of the glittering gold that people have sprinkled on it recently. I've read countless articles and testimonies that say that promoting any kind of product has become a lot easier, thanks in part to social networking making it faster for word of mouth to get around. Well to a certain extent that's true, but when compared to when the self-publishing boom started, its just not as true. Speaking from personal experiences, I constantly advertise Walking With Summer Dreams on my Twitter, Facebook and Google+ pages and I still haven't sold enough of either the paperback or the e-book versions to get a check yet. Why? Well I can spam the thing on as many social networking sites, forums and what have you as I want. But I don't have the resources (money) for said spamming to reach a mass audience, nor do I have the know how to make people care with what I'm currently doing. So unless you have either of those, then word of mouth isn't going to get you very far. My Uncle is in the same boat as I am on this, and were not alone. 

"But wait a corn picking moment" you shout, "He's got an agent hasn't he? Why doesn't he just self-publish and then have his agent work on advertising, or hire a publicist to do it or something like that?"  Well he did considered that option but surprisingly...that's not a better alliterative. Why? Money. His agent told him that he would need a minimum of of $10,000 just to get started. Guys, that's more than most published authors can afford, let alone a retired college professor.          

By now some of you are asking, "Does this mean that his Uncle is right and that Literary fiction is dead or dying?" And the answer is no, Literary Fiction isn't dying, its just not popular right now. But that doesn't mean that a Literary Fiction story can't become a critical and financial successes in this era of sparkling vampires, ladies with Dragon tattoos and  Jane Austin's characters battling zombies. Why it hasn't happened, at least not to any meaningful degree, probably in part has to do with the reasons I just described in preceding paragraphs, but I think the bigger reason has to do with literary snobbery. Stephen King once observed that, in this day and age, the distinction between "Literature" and "Pop Fiction" largely seems to depend on how many copies you sell. And to a degree that's true, but he also said that he thinks that  the labels were created for the convenience of book sellers so they would know how to organize their inventory. Weather that's true or not has somehow ceased to matter, because a frightening number of Literary authors and academics have sized hold of this concept and corrupted it until its created a country club mentality, that those who write "Literature" are the Gods and those who write "pop fiction" are the unwashed masses who must be kept out of Valhalla. I've been over this already in another blog entry, so we all know how incredibly stupid it is, but the point is that these people believe it. And they've believed it for so long that they have fallen out of touch with how the rest of the literary world has changed (particularly in the past couple of decades) on a business level, artistic level and I would even argue on a readership level. And I don't mean in the "the readership has become more sophisticated" level, but in the "You're out of touch with your readership level." 

Literary snobs, let me tell you something. Part of the reason that Science Fiction and Fantasy is the beast that it is today is because those who write it understand and, more importantly, regularly INTERACT with their fans. Well known Fantasy and Sci-fi writers do book signings all around the country (and sometimes the world), they attend conventions and talk to their fans who are also in attendance, they set up social media pages, blogs and internet forums so that their readership can interact with them, however indirectly. In other words, the readership feels as if it can connect to the author on some level or another. And its that connection, however impersonal, that makes stronger fans out of them and that in turn makes them want to buy more copies of their work. I know that I am speaking in broad terms here again guys, but I have to call it like I see it, and I just don't see this level of interaction between literary authors and their readers. And that, I think, is hurting them more than anything else. 

Some of you literary writers might be thinking: "Well I have to stay away from my readership because I want to be true to myself and my work, and not be influenced by others." Guys, staying true to your own art is one thing,  interacting with your fans, readers or whatever you want to call them is another thing entirely. And if you are so insecure in your talent that you're afraid that someone else will pull your story in a direction that you don't want it to go, then why are you even in this job? 

Alright, alright, alright. So maybe I was a little blunt, harsh, bull-headed and what have you. And if it feels like I've repeated myself at some parts then I'm sorry. I'm just saying whats on my mind. 
Talk to you later.               

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