Sell Out: An Open Letter To Young Fiction Writers by Andrea Grassi

I always feel an overwhelming burn when I see another highlander-type romance top the bestsellers lists. But when it comes to the book market, the truth is genre fiction is the fiction that sells (the kind I’m talking about is usually sold in mass market formats and sometimes filed by genre in a bookstore, not by author’s name in the catchall “fiction” section), and is nevertheless the kind of fiction often dismissed and mocked by writers of the litterati and their 10-pound-text toting readership. For some writers of this higher-brow fiction all that remains after the culmination of perhaps two or more years of tapping away manically at a works interpolated to be an opus of sorts are glowing reviews in literary publications or book pages.

Well, reviews ain't paying the bills. I have recently started to think of my desire to write fiction more strategically, and I believe literary fiction may have the power to save book sales (and society) by getting out of its own head (and ego) and more publicly adopting the dreaded “genre”. What would happen if lit writers stopped thinking of themselves as just writers and craftsmen, and more as storytellers with an obligation to the masses?

Sure, right now young fiction writers who are reading this are thinking they will write what they want to write and be damned the book market because of integrity and la-de-da, but that is just the problem with good writers today: writing for yourselves is considered an artistic virtue. Writers shouldn't think of adopting a genre as selling out or pleasing the market, but rather as an homage to their heroes, and a small step towards saving society: an opportunity to reinvigorate the calibre of popular fiction by writing it well. Do you, headstrong writers, think Nora Roberts writes for herself? No. Her readers demand more stories, and there is something to be said for that demand.

A lot of young authors have to rely on grants to make ends meet. Thus, these “stunning” debuts get tucked away in the stacks with one or two copies in this or that bookstore. A nation of undiscovered talent and meticulous insight overshadowed by the thick-fonted bricks of mass market fiction. (The only hope of sales survival often comes down to being shortlisted for a literary prize or included in a popular book club list – Oprah is all.) But what if talented young writers who can't catch a break use their powers for good?

Take recent media darling Patrick deWitt, a literary outsider whose talent spoke for itself in his sophomore novel, The Sisters Brothers, and made him one of the most celebrated and decorated young fiction writers of the year. His first book, Ablutions, was also well received (noted by the New York Times), but with poor sales. He later told CBC in an interview that he was almost unable to complete The Sisters Brothers without a twelve thousand dollar government grant, saying the grant made a world of difference to his draft, and made it the book it is today. Yes, only twelve thousand dollars stood between this "new voice" being shortlisted for the Giller (and becoming an Amazon top seller) or being unable to complete his second novel despite a glittering debut.

So what changed from book one to book two? I believe, though it was never deWitt's intent, the difference was that the novel was spun by the media as an unorthodox Western. I’m not trying to devalue deWitt's work – I too ripped through the engrossing adventure (and cried for Tub the horse). All I am sharing is that, perhaps, our readership isn't that daring and are in need of a little nudge towards familiar territory: the romance for sexual tension and longing (Harlequin even has a step by step guide for aspiring writers); a spaghetti western for gun-slinging and bar fights; a fantasy to discover an other world and escape our own. Seek the corresponding genre for the corresponding tale.

The mass appeals of the historic Gabaldon, or the sleuth Evanovitch, or the thrills of Grisham are to be sure proof of this, continuously topping the bestseller lists. The problem with literary fiction is that it is too frequently an experiment for the reader, and the young writers writing it aren't as interested in story as much as pushing and refreshing the boundaries of language. The potential for not being gratified by a work of literary fiction is often an unknown for the reader (and that is not a great buying incentive).

So, why so “serious”?

Fortunately, readers still seek stories they can escape into – the plot twists found in a Nora Roberts and James Patterson novel – and I think they are all the smarter for it. But why not make them smarter? Why not force them to read better language and more intricate stories by making serious lit writers reclaim those genres and not dismiss them? For illustration, let’s compare pop music to genre fiction. There is a kind of formula to them both. And they are popular because the masses buy into them. Why? They are catchy. But we aren't a population of fish waiting to be hooked. We like them because they fuel our preference: rock, metal, country, etc. Last year, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat argued that perhaps genre fiction flourishes because our society craves the stakes that they offer, critiquing works of Jonathan Franzen and David Mitchell’s genre-bending novels as having little ability to use those stakes well.

Where those authors might have failed, some have certainly conquered. Take American writer Colson Whitehead, for example. His recent release, Zone One, is touted as a zombie novel, and his stunning debut, The Intuitionist, he claimed was a take on a detective novel. (Zone One made the NYT bestseller list in its first week on the shelves.) Colson, aware of the power of genre, even poked fun at the conceit in a New York Times essay on "picking the genre for your next novel" by suggesting it is as easy as throwing a dart and seeing where it lands.

Maybe, if they want to sell a book, writers shouldn’t be as self-indulgent as they would like to be. The first thing we learn is to think about audience, and maybe writers should, every once in awhile, stop writing what they want to write about, and write for the sake of the story. Maybe every good writer needs a good genre for backbone sometimes. Maybe writers need to become better salesmen for their words. Maybe they need a better marketing department or a better package. Genre became a genre because it was popular. Fit your current manuscript into a genre.

Let’s not forget the master of the mass market, Stephen King. Best known as a horror writer, he has also tackled sci-fi and historic genres. As a teenager and young writer, I dismissed King. I was interested in experimental writers like Kerouac or Burroughs, and I wanted to learn more from Pynchon and Murakami and Steinbeck – all of them cerebral writers, and the ones we studied in English classes. But when I finally got wise, shook out my delusions and picked up Christine, I realized I had been missing out. King is a craftsman. His description is unparalleled. His stories suck you in so you can let your guard down and believe in them. (Think about it: I was terrified over the, when protracted, seemingly ridiculous story of a possessed Plymouth.) He is more than a writer, he is a storyteller. So, maybe every good aspiring writer can take a page from King.

Even Shakespeare had a formula: every tragedy ending in death, every comedy ending in marriage. The point I take with genre fiction today – and the reason why I am demanding good writers adopt genre – is that the poor quality of the writing and the lack of originality in the story dilutes the quality these paradigms. Characters are seemingly plugged into a template rather than conforming to a genre, and readers nevertheless consume, half-heartedly, because they enjoy those types of stories. There is something that those romance, horrors, sci-fis and adventures touch in a reader and excite us. Arthur Conan Doyle was highly influenced by Edgar Alan Poe, and you could even say the enduring Sherlock canon might have never existed to such quality if it weren’t for Poe.

Most of the greatest and most enduring stories of our time, that won't necessarily be shelved in genre sections at the bookstores, can be considered genre: A Christmas Carol (Ghost story), Pride and Prejudice (Romance), "The Cask of Amontillado" (Horror/ Mystery), On the Road (Adventure), Tropic of Cancer (Erotica, contextually), The Time Machine (Sci/Fi Fantasy), and so on. These are the writers who founded these genres; those whom today's writers follow (however weakly). I think the reason genre writers like Nora Roberts and James Patterson have to produce so much today is because (save for King who is just a writing machine of other-wordly proportions) their stories will not endure, and their names will only be remembered for this or that type of story.

Young writers, you have the power to help strengthen these genres by writing quality work – like deWitt, Whitehead, Chabon, Lethem – and the masses will start to recognize the stories you tell again. Don’t be afraid to hybridize the genres either (look what horror and romance did for that Young Adult author that we dare not mention for fear of lost credibility). Evolve the genre, don’t dismiss it (and don't write it ironically). This new writing direction won't make you lose your voice, it will help you earn it. And your masses of readers will be all the happier (and smarter) because of your well-crafted stories. Me? I’m working on my buildungsroman fantasy paradoxically set in the suburbs. 


Photo: detail from the cover of Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Andrea Grassi is a writer and blogger based in Toronto. For more musings, click:


Faith Van Horne said...

As a genre writer myself, I'd like to comment on a couple of points in your article that I don't see discussed much among genre writers. (Note: I'm a new writer; I have one horror novella published, and my first novel will be coming out with a small press later this year).

Here's the first: "A lot of young authors have to rely on grants to make ends meet... [deWitt] was almost unable to complete The Sisters Brothers without a twelve thousand dollar government grant, saying the grant made a world of difference to his draft..."

I know a number of genre writers. I don't know any who have ever received a grant. Almost all of them have to work another job to pay the bills while they're writing. In many cases, they work full time. Granted, I don't know Nora Roberts, but she's the exception. There are a lot of struggling genre writers out there, too.

Here's the second: "The only hope of sales survival often comes down to being shortlisted for a literary prize or included in a popular book club list – Oprah is all... Maybe writers need to become better salesmen for their words. Maybe they need a better marketing department or a better package."

The genre writers I know have always been salesmen (and women) for their own words. Most don't rely on packaging or marketing from their publishers. They put themselves out there online, at conventions, writing articles, etc., anything that they can do to make sure that their words land in front of more readers' eyes.

Another point: some of the best genre writers aren't placed in their genre because their writing is considered "too good" for it. Take one of my favorite speculative fiction writers, Jasper Fforde. You won't find him in the sci fi/ fantasy section, I think because he includes too many literary references, or something. By culling the best genre writers from their proper places at the bookstore (entirely a marketing decision), it appears that genre work isn't of as high quality.

Anyway, thanks for an interesting article.

Justine Graykin said...

Reading this made me want to weep due to its airy lack of grasp on the realities writers face. The cold fact is that the system is heavily weighted against emerging writers of any stripe, no matter what they are producing, no matter its merit. The problem is not that there aren't "literary" authors writing character/plot driven quality fiction. The problem is that the gate-keepers aren't letting them through. Our work (and I count myself among them) isn't being found and promoted (and not for lack of us trying!). You are in fact advising us to do what we are already doing, to the indifference of editors, agents and publishers.

It strikes me a bit like the Republicans who look down their noses at the unemployed and homeless and complain that they ought to just get off their backsides and go find a job.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Thanks.

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Writing said...

Writers should think of their audience and not themselves alone. If you have a gift to share with the world but don't look at where it really needs to be used, are you sharing it fully?
Write a highlander type novel that goes beyond the cut and paste and has memorable characters and all the quality of a more "literary" or "unique" novel.

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