There’s a lot made of the writer as a reader as well as a writer and this is true, often the best way to advance you writing is to read around and see how other people do it. One of the things I studied at university was looking closely at writing and determining what it is doing, how it’s doing it and why it might be doing it. I was once told that there is no right or wrong in literature as long as you can create an argument around your point, though that never seemed to apply when it came to marking at any level.
The problem perhaps comes when people are astounded that writers haven’t read a particular book, quite often it’s referring to a classic because at some point it has become wrong for someone to have not read a particular book or, worse still, not to like it. I distinctly remember once when I was writing a commercial book being told I wasn’t reading enough ‘literary’ books. I have a diverse taste in books but if you’re writing a fantasy book or a crime book, why should your reading not skew that way? How can you get a broad picture of your chosen genre if you don’t read it?
At no point does it seem to be allow for a genre writer to say to a ‘literary’ writer that perhaps they should read a more genre fiction.
I’m using the term ‘literary’ in quotation marks because I don’t like that it puts books on a pedestal simply because they are ‘literary’, not because they’re good. I prefer to think of them as ‘non-genre’ though this is not strictly true, for example, there are those such as The Radleys by Matt Haig which featured fantasy elements and yet it’s not considered fantasy. For those who don’t know The Radleys a novel about a family of vampires and I think it was supposed to be the family themes in the book that made it ‘literary’. Why though? People who write fantasy don’t ignore real world themes, they’re all there and yet they’re not ‘literary’.
Personally I think that the term ‘literary’ should be done away with. I think that all fiction is commercial because if it was not then it wouldn’t be published because publishers wouldn’t make any money.
Now, I’m obviously not saying that ‘literary’ fiction is bad I simply find myself frustrated at the notion that ‘literary’ is good and intelligent while genre fiction is bad and unintelligent. Both sides of literature should be treated equally, there should be no such thing as a ‘guilty pleasure’ in reading there should only be a pleasure, nor should there be an idea that you must read certain books, you should read whatever you want.
I know that I keep mentioning Shakespeare but I think he is a prime example of this predicament. Originally Shakespeare, and Dickens as well, were not considered ‘literary’ they were always considered commercial writers. The idea that over the years they can so completely transition to the heights of being ‘literary’ suggests that there really should be no distinction between the two.
So the next time someone disparages your work for not being ‘literary’ don’t despair because a lot of the giants of literature were the commercial writers of the day.
My advice is not to write to be ‘literary’ just write whatever you want. A label can be stuck on later, maybe you’ll even invent a new label.
For more writing advice see my archive page.