Literary? Don’t Say It!

Posted on September 26, 2017


Years ago when I first became entranced with books and reading novels were categorized by librarians as “serious” and “light.” Many who bought books or checked them out of libraries used the terms “heavy” and “escapist.” “Heavy” had Dostoevskiian overtones, light reading encompassed mysteries, most science fiction, women’s stories. Almost without exception “serious” novels were realistic—some like those of Hemingway or Catherine Ann Porter easily read, others like Faulkner more challenging. Escapist novels were more fanciful with daydreamy settings and, usually, happy endings.

Then, as now, life was difficult for many people. The Great Depression, the Second World War, what many described as “that mess in Korea” prompted a need for diversion, voyaging through something exciting, charming, losing the mundane grind of daily existence. For many television supplanted escapist reading. Television personalities became so real, so much a part of people’s lives, they supplanted reality. Fewer and fewer people sat on their porches or front stoops, greeting neighbors, chatting.

Fewer people read books but books continued to be published. On one hand nonfiction remained fairly stable, with how-to books offering instruction and guidance that half-hour TV segments couldn’t provide. Afordable paperbacks available in supermarkets and chain stores facilitated purchasing popular novels. So-called “pulp” literature seemed to disappear but actually migrated into legitimacy by assuming paperback standards of better binding, slicker paper, a more cosmopolitan look. Romance novels shed their “cheap” categorization; by the time ebooks volcanoed into popularity romance novels were among the most advertised and most purchased of any book categories.

Along the way “serious” slithered out of use as a description. Librarians and book dealers, seeking promotional and sorting cubbyholes, invented “genres” to more clearly categorize the various types of escapist reading. Genres soon propagated “sub-genres”—i.e. YA romance, Christian romance, erotic romance, etc. So entrenched have genre descriptions become that today one can’t write or publish a book without fitting it into one of the genre categories.

“Serious” isn’t one of them. The closest thing to “serious” is “literary fiction.” But when I proposed describing a new novel as “literary fiction” a marketer strongly advised against it. “’Literary’ is a negative,” she explained, “it has highbrow, difficult to read connotations.” To my “then where?” she added, “Slide it in somewhere else, stretch things a bit.”

As an afterthought I asked, “Where would you genre-size Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea?”

She hesitated for a second or two, then responded, “Sports fiction?”

I’m sure I heard Hemingway groan.






Posted in: Book Marketing