It's Not Literary Fiction but "The Market" that Needs to Come Out of the Cloisters by Dan Holloway

A strange thing has been happening recently. The bookish blogosphere has been talking about literary fiction. This is a fire it would be perverse of me not to stoke, so here is a little light mix of oxygen and fuel.

It started with an excellent piece by Roz Morris about why literary novels can’t just be churned out. As if to prove her point, this coincided almost to the day with the announcement that after years of writing, arguably our greatest living literary novelist, Vikram Seth, had just missed the deadline for his follow up to A Suitable Boy, A Suitable Girl, and was being pursued for his seven figure advance. Now Roz’s piece was balanced and thought-out, and made no disparaging comments about genre fiction. Nonetheless it caused a considerable flurry of ruffled feathers. This in turn led to a superb piece from Porter Anderson in which he made some excellent points about genre-paranoia and the oppression of the “business-is-business” mentality. Yesterday one of my favourite literary authors, Vivienne Tuffnell, wrote a brilliant and coruscating attack on the pressure on literary writers to conform to a sales-driven agenda.

It was the title of Porter’s piece (Should Literary Fiction Come Out Of The Cloisters?), though, that made me think, with its huge implication that is both untrue and betrays a certain business-is-business subconscious of his own. Anderson argues passionately, and rightly I think, that literary fiction needs to be a central part of the contemporary literary discussion, and also that it is not. He also argues, again rightly, that the best way to meet the accusations of elitism thrown out like a herd of white elephants by the genre paranoiacs (and sadly stoked by the likes of Geoffrey Hill, whose election as Oxford Professor of Poetry was one of the most egregious and retrograde steps in recent cultural history) is not to respond with an attitude of superiority. Bang on, Porter – the way to respond, as always, is not by claiming superiority but by sending out the infectious spores of your own passion.

Where I diverge from Anderson is in his conclusion. “ Should literary writers try doing a bit more to meet this modern marketplace halfway?” he asks. Specifically, should they be getting out of the cloister? Now, it’s easy to whoop a loud “hell,, yeah!” and stand to applaud. That was my first reaction. And then I thought about it for a bit and I realised there are two hidden assumptions that loom very large here. And both are very wrong.

  1. That literary writers are in the cloister. Now from my experience, that’s the opposite of the case. When I was writing my second novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, interactively on a Facebook group back in 2009 I was aware that I was part of a group of literary authors who were exploring the possibilities of both technology and relating with readers every bit as much as my innovative friends in the worlds of SF and speculative fiction. Look at the literary movements that have been spawned by the internet age – Offbeats, Brutalism, Alt Lit, increasingly flourishing Bizarro and Transgressive scenes. If drawing Venn diagrams was your thing, you’d soon see that the single point of intersection was literary fiction. Literary writers *are* using the internet to engage with their readers. They are the pioneers at doing so. They are, arguably, the least cloistered of all writers.

  1. That genre fiction, and the wider modern marketplace and media scrum is not in its own cloister. The implication is that the marketplace is a porous place, delighted to welcome all-comers and that those on the outside are there because they have thrown up their own barriers in a giant (implied, “elitist”) sulk. I don’t know what to say other than this is plain and simple cultural colonialism. And just as the answer to human interaction isn’t assimilation, so the answer for literary fiction is not “meeting halfway”. Because meeting halfway is an acceptance of a structural status quo that  just isn’t worth bolstering. It smacks of a move towards the centre, implying there is a centre. There isn’t. There are gloriously disparate nodes and nexuses between them, and like some superpowered superconductor it is the job of the cultural media to slide frictionlessly between them, along points of connection, and across synaptic chasms, exploring, mapping, presenting to the world the terrain it finds. 

It is when the cultural media aligns itself with one of these nodes, or a matrix joining certain nodes, that an unacceptable (and denigrating/patronising to readers) colonialism appears. Sadly, the digital revolution has aligned the media with the marketplace, and, a fortiori but unseen, those nodes that flourish therein. And that is a state of affairs not to be met half way but resisted. Not by snobbery and superiority, but by an overflowing and abundant, passionate persistence, welcoming and embracing and learning from all other nodes in the gloriously diverse web of culture whilst continuously exploring and evolving one’s own.

And it is always the job of the media – and the marketplace – to make 100% of the journey to meet us. When it doesn’t, the failing is not ours – or that of any other genre in the same predicament – but theirs.

I’ll finish, as I finished my comments to Porter, by quoting the manifesto I wrote 3 years ago when I started eight cuts gallery. It’s as true now as it was then.

there is writing out there that will blow your mind. and you have no idea it’s there at all.
eight cuts exists to champion extraordinary literature from people you may never have been given the chance to encounter, be it a single poem, a performance or a body of novels
eight cuts is a doorway to a world you heard is there.
a world intimated at in blog comments and tweets
a world alluded to in magazines
a world a shadow of a shadow of which is hinted at in newspaper and magazine articles
a world you’ve probably been told is meaningless, scary, junked-up, trashy, bloated, angry, wannabe
our world
we are rats
we live in our own space, build our own communities, societies, foundation myths and bodies of work.
we share some of your doorways, and sometimes you will see the traces we leave behind. traces like this. often they are strange, unfamiliar, and consequently seem frightening, but they are doorways onto a whole world that exists, fully formed, in parallel with yours.
for too long we have been expected to push at these doors, and gaze around them in wonder and admiration, dreaming, cap in hand, of one day entering the world beyond them. we think maybe it’s time for us to offer an invitation the other way.
go on. push, and see what exists on the other side of the door. those traces you see on blogs and underpasses, left behind in railway carriages and in strange marks on walls and pavements and facebook updates. they are tips, and traces, but of what? of something remarkable and fantastic.


CallyPhillips said…
Thanks for bringing a lot of things into one place from which I can do my own reading into the whole 'lit fict' thingamy as it is - I was too busy and let the 'debate' slip past me - with this as reference I can go explore and see what I think! I'm not so much sitting on the fence on this issue at the moment as swinging from lamposts and gazing at wind turbines and wondering if it all ain't some kind of bizarreness that can be approached from an ENTIRELY different place. And then I have to get back in my cage and get on with the world of the day. But thanks for sharing that Dan!
Dan Holloway said…
Some kind of bizarreness is about right. What I love about Roz and Viv's pieces and what I want to see more of - not necessarily on the blogosphere but in writers' lives - is an increasingly unapologetic attitude - yes, as literary authors we write weird stuff, we write unboxable and uncommercial stuff and we write it sometimes REALLY slowly and sometimes we sprint it off unedited *because that's the point* and no, we shouldn't have to explain ourselves or feel guilty for doing it or feel that we should be more accessible or less accessible because we're not the ones who hold the keys to access.
Lee said…
I like the idea of bizarreness a lot, and there's a greal deal more to respond to in your post, Dan, which I'll try to get to later today. I'm not sure how I come down on the genre question, for example, and trying to comment may help me to crystallise a couple of vague musings.

After tomorrow, I won't be able to read or write for a week (eye op) - which will probably cause a few sighs of relief here, I reckon! - but one way or the other, you've raised points which I hope generate a lot of lively discussion.
Dan Holloway said…
I'm not sure about the genre question either - which is why I skirted round it. I have only written what's clearly genre fiction twice - once was an unmitigated disaster and the other was a great ride, but I may well have had more fun that my readers. So I don't really feel qualified to commment :)
Dennis Hamley said…
Lee, best of luck with your eye op. Is it a cataract? I had one removed last month. Oddly it was a rather restful experience and the result has been fantastic. Dan, you raise so many brilliant points that I can't begin to sort out yet - I just have the overall impression that you are right. I suppose my main work was done in less commercially-driven days, though it was certainly coming, which is why I don't seem to be doing it now. In my time I've written four novels which I would in any way class as literary. I also wrote a lot of books which were in series but which were still one-offs. I used them as excuses to write what I wanted to and nobody. I had an idea for a novel of the supernatural? It went in Hippo Ghost, a series full of quirky one-offs. The Joslin de Lays started with my being asked to do a actual series. I refused but suggested a sequence instead. A very different thing. And what turned out was nothing like the formulaic simplicities of the run-of-the-mill Point Crimes. I just saw the series as a peg to hang something on which I wanted to do but otherwise wouldn't have been allowed to. I used the series to write what I wanted to within the genre. What obsolete luxury. This was all 10-20 years ago now and nobody pressed me not to exceed their notional deadline, though I made sure I didn't. Obviously the deadline wouldn't be notional now. But for the four 'proper' novels I was given no deadline, not even notional. I told them what I was doing, did them in my time, not theirs and nobody worried. Speculative? I suppose so, but I did have the assurance that they would be published. It's dreadful, that you have to go outside the box now. The tension has always been there but now it's scandalous and people like Geoffrey Hill should know a lot better.
Dan Holloway said…
Interesting the distinction between a sequence and a series - I have always wanted to write a series but the two times I tried I failed to get beyond the first book - I have a feeling that it was the sheer terror of being locked into something I couldn't escape from, and I wonder if it would have felt very different if I'd set out to write a sequence
Dennis Hamley said…
It would, Dan. You can see the end: you know when (and even possibly how) it's going to finish and as part of you mind works on the the overarching story you're free to concentrate on the to all intents and purposes standalone novel you're doing at the moment. Trust me, Dan, it's a good experience and at the end you know your main character better then you know yourself. So do it!
Dan Holloway said…
Thank you, Dennis!
Unknown said…
Lee, Lord knows I'm just a scamp with no publishing credentials, but isn't 'crystallise a couple of vague musings' a...well, hackneyed metaphor?

Dan, is there any way I can meet the young lady in that photo? Wow, if my mom could see me with her!
Dan Holloway said…
:) Which one? I have to say I'm immensely proud of both covers - the image used for Evie and Guy is a self-portrait by my long-term collaborator Veronika von Volkova, whilst Sarah Melville, who did such a beautiful job of the cover for Songs... arranged the photoshoot for it based on one of the scenes in the book
Unknown said…
Dan, please--make, like, nice! You've got to know I could've only been referring to the goddess on the cover of 'Songs'. Dan, look, I'm not tall. Do you think she might meet a short fellow?

I can do the wall-climb dance scene from singing in the Rain. Not well, but I can do it!
Thanks for the mention, Dan - and it's great to keep this debate going. In case anyone mistakes this, I'm sure Porter meant his comment to provoke discussion - and perhaps rampant disagreement - rather than to suggest that literary authors 'get real' in some way.
One thing we can all agree on is that serious work is valuable and should not get drowned in the increasingly commercial world of noveling. And especially with literary fiction. We have a much harder time to get noticed in the indie world. We take longer to write our books and we often haven't a clue how to sell them.
Or at least I haven't :)
One of the great things that came from my post was the number of people who stood up and said 'I feel that way too'. Thanks for passing the message on again, Dan, and for keeping the faith as you always have.
Unknown said…
Great to see Porter’s perceptive piece being met by your equally perceptive one here. By now, as Porter has pointed out, the “digital” dynamic in this context is in many ways an energy of distribution rather than of content – a type of fuel that happens to favour what’s most popularly fuelled already. A couple of basic manifestations of this are how both Amazon algorithms and search engine results in general tend to prioritise what’s already most popular. This is just the nature of the digital beast and of course it’s been benevolently revolutionary in many ways. However, as you’re articulating here, it’s not sufficient as a mechanism of surfacing and curating what’s culturally richest in every category: instead, it’s a mechanism of surfacing and curating what’s culturally richest in certain categories only. That’s a cool development for those particular categories, and those are definitely not lesser categories in any way at all, as Roz and Porter and Vivienne and you have each shown – they are simply certain specific categories.

But in order to ensure that all the other culturally valuable categories are just as well surfaced and curated (as they do need to be, if we’re to have a culture as richly varied as we should and can), we do indeed need more of that proactive kind of curiosity in the media, as you’re urging here, so that all of your “gloriously disparate nodes and nexuses between them” can then appropriately complicate the prevailing firework display by contributing their own strange fireworks to it. I mean a curious media embrace of new and/or unexpected literary forms – an embrace that’s always sceptical and literary-critical, of course, but also one that remembers to remain actively open-minded enough to look beyond the marketplace dynamic that Digital’s natural energy of distribution happens to favour when left to itself. Or as you put it, an awareness that looks “across synaptic chasms, exploring, mapping, presenting to the world the terrain it finds”. Once this media imbalance gets slowly corrected, as I believe it will be (through pieces such as yours here, and through our all continuing to demonstrate the welcoming and passionate persistence you mention), then directly or indirectly we shall all be the richer, I think.
Dan Holloway said…
yes, I absolutely took Porter's comment as a discussion-starter - he's a long-time champion of literary fiction. I really wish the media would stop being so slow when it comes to self-published literary fiction- it drives me absolutely nuts - especially when their coverage of traditionally published books consists of endless new angles on Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel. How about a balance - more great genre fiction that's traditionally published; more great self-published books that might not have sold a gazillion copies!
Dan Holloway said…
Rohan, your phrase "a curious media embrace of new and/or unexpected literary forms" is brilliant - should be the title of a literary white paper!!
glitter noir said…
More balance, indeed. No Leaves of Grass if one fiercely independent writer hadn't gone our route.
Dan Holloway said…
Reb, I wonder if it's possible now to hear Leaves of Grass and not think of this video
glitter noir said…
I'll try to watch it again later, Dan. Nothing came up but a black screen with a spinning thing-y. I know that when it comes to poetry, you never feel around. So, clearly this isn't a practical joke and will be high praise for the Good Gray Bard. Right?
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the mention, Dan and also for running with the ball.
I'm not sure I have anything to add, other than that the whole business side has begun to make me ill and drive away my desire and ability to write.
I am hoping that when we get away for a few days later this week, the refreshment of being with old friends in a part of the world I love (North York moors) will help. Sadly we have to be back by Tuesday as I have an early appointment at Occupational Therapy the next day.
I've got no less than 4 books on the go; when I actually get my head right, I think they might be quite good.
Lee said…
Hi Nick, 'crystallise a couple of vague musings' a hackneyed metaphor? Probably! At least pretty lame, I have to admit. If we can't laugh at ourselves, we're in deep shit. (Whoops, there goes another one... Thankgod I'm not obliged to write any longer pieces.)

Yeah, cataracts - one now, one in August. Sigh.

Rohan, I'm not sure I follow your argument. How is the energy of digital distribution rather than content all that much different from legacy publishing? (I get the algorithms.) Wasn't it always mostly a matter of who got promoted, who got talked about? I realise that the midlist writer seems to be disappearing, maybe just like the middle class, buthow does anyone propose to counter this?

Something about genre later, but it's one of those things no one seems able to define but everyone knows exists, despite protests to the contrary.

Oh yes, thanks, Dennis. I've been a bit worried, since it's my second operation within a short time on the one eye.
Sessha Batto said…
The whole genre v literary argument escapes me - I spent my entire life reaing without ever considering the 'genre' of books - the story either appealed to me or it didn't. All this classification makes the business of writing more about ticking certain boxes to fit in a category than about telling a compelling story. Not because it makes them better, but because it makes them more 'discoverable'. For myself, I'll stay happily undiscovered and write what sings to me, however unpalatable others may find it!
Katherine Hajer said…

I'm not sure anymore who is helped by genre discussions. I do know a lot of books marketed as literary fiction I would count as genre fiction, if I were inclined to categorise them at all.
Unknown said…
Hi Lee, you’re dead right: this tendency that Porter has spoken of, for the current incursion of “digital” (in a wide sense) to be in itself essentially an engine/energy of distribution, does indeed result in something that’s somewhat like traditional publishing in those respects, IF the distributional achievements of individual ebooks are allowed to remain as the main thing the media are interested in covering. To help ensure a richer engagement and coverage than that, I was pleased to see Dan’s call here for the media to become less focused on an ebook’s distributional achievements/sales as a necessary condition for covering it. For the media to maintain this particular focus as their main one, at this stage, would be more a matter of habit than necessity, I believe; and I think it would be a bit too narrow to do proper justice to many kinds of new work whose achievements are comparably great but just don’t happen to include wide commercial distribution. Let’s hope Dan’s tactic of issuing a call to the media, as he’s doing here, may help nudge things in a positive direction in this regard!
Dan Holloway said…
back to answer fully after cooking supper but

Reb - it's the most famous of Clayton Cubitt's "Hysterical Literature" series, featuring Leaves of Grass
Dan Holloway said…
Viv, have a wonderful and refreshing break - and come back ready to nail those books!

Sessha/Katherine - the genre thing is a whole other debate - but from the point of view of media coverage at least there is definitely a tend to cover books of a certain kind and not cover other books, and that has to be a bad thing

Rohan - that's a really good point - digital publishing is exciting because of the possibilities that might be opened up for storytelling. Distribution has some exciting prospects, for sure - but from a literary point of view, it is what it can do for content that is most exciting - my personal theory is that this gets very little coverage because at the moment most of the exciting developments happen in places like tumblr and aren't monetised, so they don't fit the media's agenda
Lee said…
Dan, have you noticed how the comments are dwindling in number at the Guardian's review column of self-published books? I wonder if this means that self-published writers are the only ones paying attention - and much less so when they don't have the chance of a review.
Dan Holloway said…
Yes, I absolutely have - which is one reason IO make sure to comment every time - I've pointed out to the editors several times that they *really* need to stop just featuring best-selling authors of genre fiction - who, yes, have some interesting backstory (though many of those stories are the same) but whose answers to the questions are pretty much all the same and whose writng is pretty much the same (except worse in some cases, notably last week, which was - for a piece chosen as a showcase of the author's finest, execrable) as you'd get from something published in the regular presses. There is a danger that the column will die before they gave it a chance to flourish, and worse still they will then say there is no readership for such a column about self-publishing when they never really made it about the interesting bits of self-publishing. There are so many writers out there (on this thread alone we have Viv, Rohan, Roz and Cally [I've long since given up anyone in the media actually noticing I'm a writer as well as a commentator]) both doing weird and exciting things, and with some fascinating controversial opinions (am I the only person both bored and saddened by how anodyne and polite the columns are?) - if you're going to do a column on self-publishing and make it thrive you *have* to include some of them to really get people takling
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Right, Dan, you've convinced me that I need to comment on every review, and I'd like to encourage everyone else here to do so as well. And you can guess that I'll try to make it something provocative. (I must think about how to do this wisely while I'm offline in the next few days, though I'm not particularly sanguine about how wise I can be...)
Dan Holloway said…
Commenting would be very helpful, I think - I think it's really mainly up to the authors being interviewed to say something to get conversation going and raise issues, but they seem singularly determined to be political and diplomatic. Very best with the surgery :)
Lee said…
Heheh, Dan, I've just fired off something quickly - maybe a bit over the top, but so what? I've got a good firewall in place, so no figurative firebolts are likely to get through. And for my Snowden/NSA stance, I'm probably on all sorts of hit lists already (I'm an American).


I must get some other stuff done, so here's merely hoping that a couple of you are inclined to comment at the Guardian site, a couple more wild enough to take me on - and maybe defend all the writing clones (yup, I used the word 'clone' in my comment) that seem to be attracted to self-publishing.
Unknown said…
Thanks Dan for the "weird and exciting", which is effectively what I just requested in a comment there at The Guardian (where I don't seem to be able change my profile name from the aptly prisoner-like "ID4035873" with mugshot). Lee plays a much better Bad Cop than I do, so I stuck with the Good Cop tone there - but those cops are a tried-&-tested pair, I think!
glitter noir said…
Lee, best of luck with your eye surgery. A truce till you've recovered--with my prayers that all goes well.
Lee said…
Hi Reb, Just a quick peer, one-eyed, at my monitor! Thanks, all seems to have gone well, & colours are much brighter. Didn't expect that. And sure, no problem about a truce. Rohan has got my number, you know (bad cop/good cop)!

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