Tuesday 5 May 2015

Literary Fiction – Isn’t it all just clever marketing?

By Jane Davis

Jane Davis
Asked whether she wanted to market her fiction as literary or commercial, Adele Parks enquired, ‘What’s the difference?’ The reply came: ‘Literary fiction sells an average of 7,000 copies. Commercial fiction sells an average of 70,000 copies.’ There was her answer. She wanted to eat.

It’s just as well that the advice received on this occasion was practical. I have always thought that careers’ advisors neglect the question, ‘How much do you want to earn?’ The agent in question might well have waxed lyrical about great literary traditions. Because once an author has made his or her choice, the chances are that they will be pigeon-holed.

Parks was only offered this choice because elements of her writing might be considered to be literary. While we all know what it is not, debate continues about what literary fiction actually is.

"Literary Fiction is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves." (Huffington Post)

‘Literary fiction’ is a label I continue to feel uncomfortable with. As someone with few formal qualifications, it seems arrogant to claim a title shared by the likes of Dickens, Austen and Booker prize-winners. I am also aware that it can be off-putting for some readers, who associate it with something difficult or inaccessible, something that will have them constantly reaching for the dictionary. As John Gardner wrote in The Art of Fiction: “I don't want to be lectured, have issues thrust down my throat or, dare I say it, be called upon to admire the beauty of the language.” While Eimear McBride used her competition wins as a platform to urge publishers to back fiction that is challenging, a large section of readers just want to be entertained.

This week, The Telegraph published an article under the heading, ‘Why Great Novels Don’t Get Noticed.’ In this case, the great novel had been written by Samantha Harvey, whose debut had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, and had won the Betty Trask Award. Her third novel, ‘Dear Thief’ had a cover quote from Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, and scores of glowing reviews following its September release, yet, even with these advantages, it has only sold 1,000 copies. Harvey’s editor Dan Franklin explained that, ‘She writes serious books, which is not to the modern taste.’

When we hear Will Self mourn the death of the literary novel, we tend to think of this dilemma as being new. A recent re-reading of Diana Athill’s wonderful memoir ‘Stet’, about her career working as an editor at Andre Deutsch Ltd, served as a reminder that it is anything but. Athill goes on to describe how, when the typescript of a literary book arrived on her desk, she would hope it was bad, because then the decision was easy. But if it was good, the dreaded editorial conference would follow at which the team would estimate how many copies they thought they might shift, and the answer would generally be, ‘About eight hundred’. The decision was then to turn something wonderful in the knowledge that it wouldn’t wash its face, or to accept that they would make a loss.

So, what’s the answer? Kate Mosse, author, founder and defender of the Orange Prize for fiction has found one. She has begun to distance herself from the literary tag, claiming that her skill is story-telling, not literary fiction. The inference is that genre labels are all just clever marketing.

Jane Davis’s debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Five self-published novels have followed: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things, A Funeral for an Owl, An Unchoreographed Life and now her latest, released March 2015, An Unknown Woman. Jane’s favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’ http://jane-davis.co.uk/


  1. "Clever marketing" has been the bane of many a writer trying to figure out where their particular book fits in this category-crazy world! I initially chose "literary fiction" for my own books, particularly since that's the category I go to as a reader, but have now read a number of articles debating the limiting and, perhaps, misguiding elements of the label. And certainly anything that categorizes books in a way that limits readership... well, that's a deal-breaker.

    I love Kate Mosse's decision to go with "story-telling"; that would be my choice too! Can we get the publishing and marketing industries to include that now on the list? :)

    Excellent piece!

  2. It is publishers, marketing departments, and Amazon that insist on categories. But many readers also expect the conventions of a favorite genre to be present in a book calling itself by the name. Imagine the complaints if a tome labeled "science fiction" for marketing purposes were to rely too heavily on wizards, gnomes, dragons, and magic spells. "Literary" is becoming a much despised term, but we don't have a better one for a well-written book on any topic, using any type of imagery (dragons welcome, as well as boring Midwestern towns), that tells an engaging story with some concern for meaning and values. Such books may be more likely to enter the literary tradition associated with classics than are genres that follow stricter formulas. This does not make "literary" equivalent to the classics or a canon of "great works": the test of time is still required.

  3. Having only read one Kate Mosse, I would not say she wrote literary fiction. It was a good story, popular genre, but not literature.