Hundreds of folks weighed in on the great literary vs. genre debate on Nathan Bransford's blog last month (He says good writers need to read both. I agree.) A few days later, in a Writers Chronicle thread more writers debated the subject. But nothing much got resolved—I think because the definitions of both words are so slithery.

I was surprised that so many commenters—mostly writers, presumably—said they dislike literary fiction. (This may explain why agents say there’s no money in it.) The general attitude seems to be: “If I had to read it for high school English, it’s literary and it sux.”

But the funny thing is, a lot of stuff you read for high school English started out as “genre.” Shakespeare was the original mass-marketer; Jane Austen wrote Regency chick lit; and Dickens’ novels were the soap operas of the Victorian era. Those authors only got promoted to “literary” status when they proved to have some serious staying power. In fact, even living “genre” writers with a long shelf life can ascend to "literary" realms. Stephen King gets published in the New Yorker these days, and Elmore Leonard is spoken of in reverent tones in a lot of literary circles.

Who knows, perhaps future generations of high school students will dread reading Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones) as much as Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) and someday Spock’s marvelous line from Star Trek 4 will be spoken in earnest: "20th Century American Literature: Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel—ah yes—the greats!"

So when agents say they won’t look at literary fiction, does that mean “anything that speaks to the human condition for more than fifteen Warhol minutes”?

Not really. What people usually mean by “literary” in that context is a particular style of self-conscious writing that’s in vogue in academia. Translation: “written by somebody with an MFA.”

When you’re deciding how to frame your query, keep that in mind. If you've got the academic moves, go for it. Otherwise, you’ll have a better chance calling yourself a genre writer.

But what, exactly, does that mean?

The dictionary definition of genre is simply “category or type”—from the Latin “genus.” But in publishing jargon it’s shorthand for popular, mass-market fiction that’s shelved in bookstores under headings like romance, mystery, thriller, suspense, sci-fi, horror, western, and fantasy.

And then there are totally separate shelving categories like Young Adult—genres unto themselves that include all the above subcategories: even literary. Other categories that are not “genre” in the sense of mass market, and include many subgenres are GLBT, Inspirational/Christian, and the newly minted New Adult. Then there’s the vast umbrella of Women’s Fiction.

Does that mean a literary novel with a YA or Women’s Fiction label has a better chance of being published than something called simply “literary?”

That seems to be the case.

Confused yet? I am. I think the publishing biz needs a more diverse, better defined vocabulary.

And what about “commercial” or “mainstream” novels. Are they “genre” or “literary”?

It seems they’re neither. If an agent says “no genre fiction” or “no literary fiction” you can send something you call “commercial.” But you may not get very far. Because nobody knows where adult commercial fiction is going these days, and they’re afraid of it. The days of big commercial books like James Michener’s epics or family sagas like the Thornbirds are over. Nobody knows what’s coming next.

So do you despair and throw your commercial or literary manuscript into the shredder?

No. Because maybe what’s coming next is YOU.

At the CC Writers Conference, agent Katharine Sands told us to query everybody, no matter what they say they represent because everything’s so up in the air that "the Chaos theory is in play." She says things move so fast that "changes in publishing are not always listed in the directories."

Still, you need a label in order to query, so in my next post, I’ll talk about genre categories and subcategories.