Saturday, January 25, 2014

Blurring the Lines--literary fiction or genre?

Guest post today by Sunny Frazier. She addresses the 'controversy' among writers about literary versus genre fiction.

(you know you want it)

Last summer rocked out to Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines.” You either liked it, hated it or watched the video for titillation. Maybe it didn't even penetrate your radar.

I find the debate about literary fiction vs genre fiction much the same. I wouldn't call it a controversy and nobody is asked to pick sides. It's more than a misunderstanding. I'm going to call it the Hatfields and McCoys of the writing world. Authors get livid. Readers don't even know it exists.

Here's a simplified definition: literary fiction has merit. Genre fiction makes money.

The pricking point is that genre fiction writers feel like they are looked down on by literary folks. Their work is deemed sub-standard. Their defense is that they are writing books people enjoy. Books that are accessible to the average reader.

Literary writers find genre fiction too commercial. These writers are producing art. They want the respect of intellectuals rather than filthy lucre from the masses.

In trying to differentiate the two forms, Leigh Galbreath over at The Fictorians states that genre fiction is structured, literary fiction is more organic, experimental. Put another way, genre fiction has a plot and is usually going to wind up with a satisfying ending. The reader closes the book, sighs with pleasure and reaches for another book on the bookshelf.

With literary fiction, the reader has to WORK. It's some serious prose going on. The writing is more about language, style and technique rather than story. 

Adding fuel to the fire is that very reliable source, Wikipedia. It states literary fiction must be “critically acclaimed,” and defines it as “complex, multi-layered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.” Terms like “elegantly written,” “lyrical,” “darker” and “slower read” are used. But, it also calls it “an excessive or affected display of learning. Pedantic.” Ouch!

My basic yardstick is “If Oprah likes it, it's probably literary.”

Where does that leave genre writers? Possibly on the bestseller list. We write page-turners, beach-reads, the books you stuff in your book bag for when you're waiting in the doctor's office. There's no eyestrain or brain strain involved. The words (which you can understand without a dictionary) slip by as time passes. The reader is momentarily lifted out of their environment by words.

Literary fiction is said to withstand the test of time. Silas Marner, Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities--yes, they are classics. But, are they relatable? Not to people with the attention span the length of a tweet. 

So, who's right? Is literary necessarily quality fiction? Is genre always disposable fiction? And, who makes that judgment?

The answer is simple: booksellers, editors and agents.

Although some libraries now have divisions of fiction, there was a time when books were shelved alphabetically and by the Dewy Decimal System. This made it easier for librarians to keep the shelves straight. However, if you were a mystery buff or a romance junkie, that meant searching through the stacks to find what you wanted. Pretty soon bookstores figured out the smart move was to create sections catering to the reading tastes of buyers. Now they were able to target a built-in market of fans.

Agents and editors also needed to know how to categorize the books they received. A genre house specializing in Westerns is not in the market for Sci-fi. Unless it's a cross-over, which muddies the waters even more. Where does Steam Punk fit? 

At that point, things get tricky. Genres divide like amoeba, creating sub-genres. I write mysteries. In my genre there is the police procedural, amateur detective, hard-boiled, noir, craft mysteries, animal mysteries, historical mysteries, paranormal mysteries, romantic suspense—you name it, it's out there.

Literary fiction is filed under fiction. Period.

It's really not that cut and dry. Not only do I think it's possible for genre fiction to have literary aspirations, I believe authors should strive to go beyond easy labels. I have written short mystery fiction that won literary awards. Maybe the judges were just pleasantly surprised to have a murder in the mix, but I like to think there were aspects of the writing itself that wowed them. I work hard to elevate my writing without turning off my readers.

And, there are literary works that go down like fudge topping. I'd call Amy Tan literary and I love her writing. Margaret George. Gregory McGuire. Caleb Carr. E.L. Doctorow. All on my bookshelf.

What I believe has happened is that both factions have become defensive. Genre writers are tired of being perceived as hacks; literary writers can't all be classified as snobs. As the line between literary and genre styles become blurred, readers are the ones who reap the benefits.


Sunny has been included in The Mystery Writers anthology, alongside Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, J.A. Jance and 54 other bestselling and award-winning authors. It includes writing advice and articles from mystery writers in 12 different subgenres including suspense, thrillers, crime, noir, traditional mysteries, amateur sleuths, private eyes, cozies, police procedurals and much more. Available at

Visit Sunny's site for her books and opinion.




Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Art of the Tango & Romance

In my last post, I spoke of my decision to move into the Romance genre more fully. I enjoy suspense and have that as a background in writing, but, like anything, after a while a change is needed.  I think it came about because of two things. One I already mentioned—my association with romance genre critique partners, but the other is that when writing in this genre, you must delve more fully into the character’s emotions, feelings, thoughts than in any other genre. For me it is like going fully into life. That gritty stuff that makes us tick. All the emotions we feel and try to figure out about ourselves, about life.

Mystery buffs enjoy the puzzle—the who done it, how it was done and maybe why it was done and the tension as the suspense escalates. The plot seems to be more important overall. With romance, it’s more about the interior life (even with the more erotic romances—to be effective it must be about the story more than just be titillating)—which is why mostly women read romance. We are always trying to understand feelings, relationships and men. That insatiable part of us that drives men crazy. Reading romance is an outlet for women to feel that romance that is not always possible in real life and gives insight. (Men read and write romance as well, so this is just a general statement, but many more women buy romance novels)

With men, it is simply—go out, hit the animal over the head, bring back the meat, done. But women’s minds are constantly searching for meaning and how things work and how can we improve things—sometimes ad nauseam.

So, the next two new books I’m working on are romance. One is the Japanese Heian era love story of the past life of Tessa and Jack from Dance the Dream Awake (who did not get together in that book) and is tentatively entitled, Haiku Dance (or My Miyoshi). After that, Tessa and Jack will finally get together in a present day explosive erotic romance that hits the ground running, presently untitled.

As a result of getting into romance, I immersed myself into learning about the push—pull of female/male energy at work in love relationships and how to best relay that in words. In a previous post, I had posted a picture of a tango I love to watch (repeatedly), and one of my internet friends and fellow blogger, Sherry Isaac, commented, “Is there any dance more passionate, embodying the love/hate intricacies of a love affair? I think not.”
Right on.

As you watch the tango, the dance of seduction, think about the elements that go into it. The tease begins as the woman touches him. His reaction builds in intensity—the way he looks at her, runs his hand along her arm, leads her body in the dance. The fire in their blood is exhibited in the many ways they react to each other. Love can be tame and sweet or firey and out of control—or any of the stages in between, as exhibited:

-by the feelings of desire on her face

-the looking away, to go inside to feel the passion increase, at times fighting it

-the footwork; the push and pull, twists and turns of male/female energy playing out the desire, lust, jealousy, hate and anger.

All very erotic stuff and easier to watch than to write about effectively. In the romance genre, you are writing about the passion of life and must build the tension through all the different ways that love can play itself out.  So now watch the tango with new music than the link on my Pinterest page (because my critique partners don't like that music as well) and enjoy while I go back to work on Haiku Dance.

By the way, how do you like my new blog look? It was overdue for an overhaul.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Rebel Writer

The start of every New Year tends to get us thinking about our year ahead, making plans for what we want to accomplish, vowing to do better, whatever that ‘better’ is. Maybe one of those vows (or resolutions) should be to do this kind of thinking and re-evaluating periodically throughout the year instead of lumping it all onto January.

Writers have an isolating mental life and need to be reminded often of their goals, or maybe just clarify them and be re-inspired periodically, like feeding your pet regularly. Today’s post is for the writer (rebel writer, if you will) who does not do well under the heavy-handed instruction given by some authors that tell you to push through when you are stuck.
I have four writer girlfriends who have been struggling in the past several months, myself included.  Sometimes our lives get in the way of writing, sometimes the plot is stuck going nowhere or we get frozen for some other reason. (I usually attribute 'writer's block' to not knowing our characters well enough.)

I follow the train of thought of Hemingway, who says that occasionally our writer well goes dry when we are written out. At that point we need to step away and do something else while allowing it to fill again before attempting to continue. Trying to push through during those dry periods usually means we will end up either heavily re-writing, being discouraged by all sorts of self-talk that we are not really a writer; telling ourselves that we are amateur, unfocused or some other derogatory, self-denigrating nonsense. You wouldn’t be writing if you weren’t a writer. (And if you don’t write regularly, you are not a writer—just trippin' in some illusion you have about ‘being a writer.’) Harsh, but honest.
Let me add, writing regularly may not mean on your novel, short story or current creative work, but can be some other kind of writing that keeps you thinking, creating, evaluating, etc. And read—lots—in the style, genre you are writing in as well as any other reading that inspires and grabs you. It all feeds that well.
Now Hemingway didn't exactly say you should stop for long periods of time (I added that). His words from
A Moveable Feast:
When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
I tend to get myself so far off track when I push to write when it is not coming forth, that I end up having to edit what I’ve written so heavily that I end up in a bog of confusion, wasting time, only to find the answer is to throw it out and start over.

For me, pushing is a losing, frustrating battle. It works better for me to be flexible and move onto something else, while observing, listening, sensing all that is going on around me. The synchronicities are there in our environment that will feed us, speak to us and give us answers if we only pay attention. It can be a fun exercise to consciously look for those words, sights, sounds, even smells of inspiration that will come while we wait to be filled up again.

New Year’s resolution: Keep writing and fill the well, but listen to my own inner voice, my muse, on when to do each.

So, do you subscribe to the push through method or the wait and fill the well method?