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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Hundreds of folks weighed in on the great literary vs. genre debate on Nathan Bransford's blog last month http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/10/reverse-snobbery-of-low-literary.html (He says good writers need to read both. I agree.) A few days later, in a Writers Chronicle thread http://thewriterschronicle.forumotion.net/genre-f22/ 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.



Blogger Diana Paz said...

I definitely read and enjoy both, but my only issue with literary is it's so much fonder of the tragic ending than genre. I'm a girl with an eye for happy-ending books :)

November 22, 2009 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Diana, I think you've hit on a good point. I feel the same way. It's a lot harder for me to plunge into a story when I know the ending is going to hurt.

November 22, 2009 at 4:22 PM  
Blogger Emily Cross said...

I love me a happy ending too!

I enjoy both areas - i just wish that this imaginary line between the two would end! Isn't it obvious that its not necessary to seperate literary and genre when its so hard to define them seperaretly?

November 23, 2009 at 4:40 AM  
Blogger christineA said...

Or, is it that contemporary literary writing many times has a non-ending. I have been known to throw the occasional non-ending book against the wall. Is it considered naive or unsophisticated to actually wrap it all up?

November 23, 2009 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Oooooh--the non-ending. Worse than a sad one. I feel so cheated when I read a whole book where nothing is resolved.

That is something Dickens and Austen and the other classic writers knew--you gotta have a beginning, middle and an end. Anything else isn't really storytelling. I'm willing to bet money that writers with non-endings don't stand the test of time.

November 23, 2009 at 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Peggy Bechko said...

Love the statement about the Chaos Theory being in play. That's pretty much the way I see it.

I read pretty much what I can get my hands on - perhaps because I'm a writer as well???

All in all I prefer a 'happy ending' but of course many times when I pick up a book I don't know that in advance. I'm with annerallen about the beginning, middle and end. Good story telling simply has those elements and I, too, doubt the non-endings will stand the test of time.

Meanwhile, with the shifting sands of the publising industry I keep a foot in many different worlds and juggle as fast as I can.

In fact, I have a story idea that's been rolling around in my brain for the best part of twenty years that I plan to take up yet again soon.

November 24, 2009 at 7:22 AM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Peggy--speaking of standing the test of time, an idea that's still bouncing around your brain 20 years later has some serious staying power. I've just started on a new project based on one of those "won't go away" ideas, and my critique group says it's the best thing I've ever done. I hope yours reaches new heights, too.

November 24, 2009 at 9:49 AM  
Blogger Jean Oram said...

Good point on the classics once being genre stories. I never really thought of it that way, but it is true. I suppose that is why some of them are still popular today.

Personally, I'll read anything. As a writer, I love hearing/reading the different ways ideas can be put together. There is something to be learned from every book

November 26, 2009 at 9:42 AM  
Blogger Dorothy Ann Segovia said...

Okay - I'm really confused! I just read what I feel to read (no Oprah book clubs - too sad) and write what I write. If I think about it too much, then I end up by not writing!

November 27, 2009 at 12:42 PM  

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