Thursday, November 7, 2013

Literary Fiction in the current genre market - review difficulties

At the risk of coming across as someone who disagrees with reviewers (which is not the case), I decided to write a discussion topic pertaining to a recent experience I've had. For the record, I discussed this post with one of the reviewers in details, and shared it with her before posting it. Like me, she thought it would be a good start for a discussion.

Literary Fiction in the current genre market

The idea for this post arrived at the heels of three separate discussions I had with reviewers who recently reviewed my books. Its purpose is neither to soothe my ego, nor to disagree with the reviewers' assessments of my work but, rather, to invite an open discussion.

As you might have guessed by now, the reviewers referenced here did not receive my work with open arms. This, however, does not bother me, as I am a firm believer in honesty, and I embrace any review whether good or bad. Rather, I look at my recent experience as a learning opportunity. For all intended purpose, my subsequent discussions with the reviewers were nothing but pleasant and civil.

Part one: What had I learned?

I've learned that many reviewers are not familiar with the terms 'literary fiction' or 'literary novel'. This does not come as a surprise. Despite reading literary novels for over two decades, I can only name one review site devoted to the genre - Dactyl Review. A lot of reviewers who have their own blogs these days are fairly young and have never read authors like Hamsun, Camus, Handke, Cossery, Kafka... Having said that, the three reviewers I spoke with had no idea what literary fiction is.

Part two: What is literary fiction? 

This is a loaded question. Instead of supplying some generally accepted definition I could find on Google, I'll present my own interpretation: Literary fiction or a literary novel is a written work where the protagonist's state of mind and resulting actions take precedence over the plot itself. I realize that this definition may not suit everyone, and I'm open to a discussion on this.
My second criteria would be that the book is as true to life as possible.

For me, literary novels are packed with emotions and real human experiences. The protagonists are not always likeable, the villains are not always bad, but we experience the world through their eyes and thoughts, which, in turn, teaches us something about our world. Such is life.

Part Three: The Critique.

All three reviewers mentioned that my protagonist was "an unreliable narrator". Upon further exploration, I had learned that this meant my protagonist did not contain his narrative to the main plot line only but rambled and spoke off topic, and that his point-of-view was compromised with internal monologue.
One other issue mentioned was that some instances and events in the novel were not very much fiction-like, because there were random actions too true to life.

Writing in a first-person narrative is not an easy task. Actually, writing is not an easy task no matter what narrative the author decides upon. For me, in this particular story, there are two simultaneous narratives: One of the plot relayed through the protagonist's sensory receptions, and one of the protagonist's internal monologue - his mental state. A character driven to the edge of sanity by his ordeal reflects upon his inner thoughts in random, while not leaving the plot. My protagonist, by all means, fits the preceding sentence. He has dreams, nightmares, opinions. He reflects, he desires, he muses. But he continues to narrate the story all the while. In my humble attempt to delve into the human psyche, I selected a scenario and a character that work well together. From the onset, the protagonist shows signs of paranoia. After his ordeal (the plot thickens), he has to deal with a lot more than he can handle; thus he retreats to his safety zone, his mind.

On the subject of being too true to life, I was told that there were instances when the reader expected something different to happen. In an example, the protagonist reaches out to a former boyfriend and ask for help. The boyfriend ignores the request and the protagonist, not having any other choice, goes back to his ordeal. A reviewer expected the boyfriend to make things happen, to come for the protagonist. After all, the reviewer has read many fictional books where this would be the norm. Shall I call it a happy Hollywood ending?

In realistic fiction, however, this does not happen often. Sure there are instances where a happy ending is warranted. There are instances when magic and miracles truly happen. Nevertheless, these instances are rare, and life as we know it is not as easy as a happily-ever-after story. When I was writing this particular novel, I wanted to explore the limits of human endurance, of human spirit. After all, the blurb states: "This is a story of humanity's worst nemesis - itself." With a description like that, there has to be drama.

For me, it was important to write a realistic book with realistic characters. It's a slice of life, albeit not everyone's life and certainly not everyday life. If it comes across as "too real", then I'm happy.


Overall, this entire experience has been very pleasant. When I set out to find out more about what the reviewers meant, I had no idea that we would engage on the level we did. I had no idea that a week later we would be sending emails back and forth, talking about styles, literature, writers, and yes, even exchanging cooking recipes. I had learned some things I was unaware of, and the reviewers had learned a bit more about different literary styles.

I had not asked any of the reviewers to reconsider their reviews, nor do I plan to do that. Their opinions are what they are, or were when they reviewed my work, and I respect that. It was never my intention to challenge or discredit those opinions.

So what is the purpose of this post?

A discussion. Hopefully this topic resonates with someone who reads this, be it a reviewer or an author. If you write Literary Fiction, have you encountered similar issues? If you reviewed literary fiction and did not know what you were getting into, what was your experience?

If you decide to engage in a conversation about this, it should remain civil. There will be no author or reviewer bashing here, no name calling, and no personal attacks.

Please keep in mind that when it comes to reviewing, there are no wrong opinions. Tastes and interpretations vary greatly among readers, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

I would appreciate to learn your take on this. If you have something to add, if you agree or disagree with something I have said, or if you just want your opinion to be heard, please comment here. 

For all intended purposes, the discussion has moved here:

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