Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Literary Fiction versus Genre Fiction?

In a previous blog post (http://www.janeayres.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/how-do-you-deal-with-rejection.html ) I referred to work I recently had rejected and promised to develop this in a future post.  Today I am picking up the thread again, and will try very hard not to end up having a rant, because the topic I will write on has niggled me for a long time.

Literary (or serious) fiction versus genre writing (or commercial fiction).

When I started out as a writer in my teens, I won a few short story competitions at school and decided I wanted to be a journalist.  In fact, when I contacted some well-known writers, this was the career path they recommended to me if I wanted to see my work in print.  Interesting.  I wrote about what I was passionate about, which at the time was horses and riding, and, a bit later, I developed a fascination with the supernatural, often combining the two. I also enjoyed reading horror stories.  (Does anyone remember the Pan Book of Horror Series of short stories?  I used to read these avidly). In fact the first short story I had published in a national horse magazine was about a psychotic pony that goes unaccountably crazy at a horse show and kills another horse! 

After this, I wrote a large body of traditional pony stories and serials, which were all published in pony magazines and annuals, so I kind of pigeon holed myself in a way.  But I was doing what I loved and I felt like a proper writer.

In my twenties and thirties, I sent out a range of other short stories to a mixture of magazines, which included the women’s mags, and some of the small press (and bigger press) literary magazines.  I had limited success with both, faring better with small press.  

When your pony stories are usually accepted by the specialist publications but your non-horsey stuff is more frequently rejected, you tend to veer towards what experience shows you works, but I did persevere with my “other” writing for many years, winning a few more writing competitions and getting a fair bit of poetry (and lots of non-fiction articles) published.  On the whole, “literary” success eluded me, and I soon discovered that in the world of academia, there was far more respect for a writer who had achieved recognition in this field than one who had sold over 162,000 copies (translated into 7 languages) of their latest pony novel for teenage girls.  (This was Transitions, my best seller ever and which took me into the US market). I began to develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder and wondered if I would only be a proper writer if I won the Booker prize (or similar), because whenever I applied for an arts council bursary or RLF Fellowship Scheme, I never got a look in.  

So, back to the point, which was my recent rejection from a literary magazine.  I don’t often enter contests or send speculative work off these days but last year, I sent off 6 of my poems (all previously published) and a short story that I felt proud of, (which had won a literary short story award a few years back) to this magazine.  My work eventually came back to me in the familiar A4 white SAE (I used to spend a fortune on postage before emails were invented!).  It had been read “with interest and careful attention” but “the editors finally decided not to take (them) for publication.” 

Why did this sting so much?  Was it because it reminded me of those days in the past when this was a regular occurrence?  I am always telling other writers to develop a thick skin; rejections are a fact of life for a writer. Just keep going, there’s an element of subjectivity, someone’s opinion, wrong place, wrong time, etc.  But clearly this got to me or I wouldn’t be writing this long and rambling post.  I believed I wrote as well as many of those already published in the magazine.  Deep down, did I think my work simply wasn’t “literary” enough?  I suspected they did.  And does it really matter? 

As regards Treading Water, the short story in question, you can judge for yourself, because I put it on my blog a while back, before I (correction, it) got rejected. 

My question is, am I being paranoid?  Do I still have a chip on my shoulder?  Does a kind of snobbery  exist in some circles about genre and commercial fiction, as opposed to literary?  And what the hell is the difference?  And does it matter?  Phew.  Ranting again.  Can anyone give a definitive definition of what makes something literary?  Who decides?

There’s an excellent (non-ranty!) post about over at Jane Friedman called “Commodity publishing, self-publishing and the future of fiction”, which explores the role of literary and commercial fiction in the world of indie publishing, and it has some great insights into what can be a controversial topic.


  1. Nothing wrong with genre fiction, most of the so called literary stuff I’ve tried reading has bored the crap out of me. I take Alan Moore’s advice on this one. Never read anything that has won, or been nominated, for the Booker prize. It will only disappoint you.

    1. Hi Gary. Thanks for stopping by. I often wonder who makes decisions about what is "literary" and what isn't and the distinctions seem rather artificial. I wonder if it is a label someone invented at some point in the past. It's certainly not helpful.