Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction.’

Battle of the (Literary Fiction) Sexes

January 19, 2012

Novelist Teddy Wayne wrote a great piece in  Salon   yesterday  talking about the issue of whether male or female writers have the advantage in the world of literary fiction.

As an agent, I think about this a lot. When I’m  looking at submissions  of  literary or “upmarket” commercial fiction, this question is always setting off sparks on the left side of my brain. Of course the big question for me is whether the book is sucking me into an immersive  trancelike vortex that makes me want to stay up all night and turn the pages. But I keep having these intrusive thoughts in my mind: “Who’s the audience? Will women relate to this? Do I really understand what women want anyway?”

So far most of the novels that I have taken on are by women authors and from the point of view of  women characters.  I am completely smitten by all of my novels. Haunted really. Obsessed even. And I know they   must appeal to women as well as men. How do I know? Because I ask  my wife Leslie to read them.  And if she stays up all night, quid erat demonstratum. (For the record, I have represented male authors as well and I am as smitten with them as with  my female authors.)

Pretty much every estimate and survey shows that  women are the audience for a vast majority of this kind of fiction. Actually, 60% of all books, fiction and non-fiction, are bought by women.  Men read relatively little fiction and overwhelmingly what they read is genre fiction, action, thrillers, and suspense. Men primarily read non-fiction – manly subjects like golf tips, right wing screeds, and “how to make ten minute meals”.  Ok. That’s a  cheap shot.

Jodi Picoult

Jennifer Weiner

Last year Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult threw down their gage at the literary fiction establishment and  led an assault on the almost universal critical raves of  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. He was hailed as a genius and his work a masterpiece. Weiner and Picoult, whose books have sold millions, pointed out that fiction by women tends to be dismissed as “commercial” or “women’s” fiction. There was a great interview of them in The Huffington Post where they discussed this issue.

Weiner brought up the subject  again yesterday in her blog. She went through all the book reviews in The New York Times in 2011. She counted150 reviews of books by men and only 104 by women.  She also pointed out that of the books that were reviewed twice and had profiles of the author, 10 were of men and only 1 was of  a woman.

Weiner didn’t count the gender of the winners of the major literary awards, but  I did and the statistics there are even more damning. Of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction since 1984, 17 of the winners were men and only 11 were women. Of the National Book Award for fiction since 1984, 19 of the winners were men and only 7 were women.

What these statistics tell me is that Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult are right to be concerned. One of the conclusions you could draw from this is that men are more brilliant writers of imaginative literature than women. That’s  a pretty odious thought. The other conclusion that you could draw is that sexism is alive and kicking in the critical literary world.

I’m grateful to Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult for having the courage to point this out.

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Publishing Literary Fiction (in Charts and Words)

June 18, 2011

I went to New York City a few weeks ago and spent 3 days talking to editors at Random House, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. I try to do this a couple of times every year to pitch upcoming projects and to get a better idea what editors are looking for. Since  I have been doing more work representing fiction, mostly literary and young adult,  I decided to speak to a number of literary fiction editors  and try to figure out the  elusive secret key to publishing the perfect literary novel. I am sad to report that this key continues to elude me.

The editors, with whom I spoke, all told me that they were looking for “fresh new voices.” This is commendable and reassuring, particularly for debut novelists. And I also believe that this is true. We often  scold commercial publishers for failing to take risks. Not to sound snarky though, sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing those fresh new voices from the stale old ones.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that trade publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. This is no less true of the decision to publish that most artistic of book genres, the literary novel. The acquisition decision is rarely based on simple aesthetics. In fact there is a vast amount good fiction writing out there, most of it heavily vetted and edited by agents before even reaching the desk of the literary editor. Good writing is a given. Publishers want something more.

Literary fiction editors are just like the rest of us. They get hooked on a novel in the first few pages, they fall in love with the story and the characters, they are seduced by the language, they stay up all night reading it, they laugh and cry,  and   decide they must publish  this book. But then the decision moves on to the acquisition meeting. Every week a group of editors meet with the publisher of the imprint, the marketing director, and the sales manager. Questions come up. Will the chains buy this book? Is the novel too much like one that flopped last year? Is the voice really fresh and new? Is the voice too fresh and too new? Is it too dark for the book group readers (That happened to one of mine). Is it too literary?

Too literary! Wait a minute. That’s what publishers are looking for, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. All of the literary editors told me that they want books with good writing, strong characters, original themes and compelling plots. How is this any different than a commercial novel? After all thrillers have to be well written too these days. 

So I took out a little piece of paper and started sketching a kind of literary-commercial continuum chart.  Most of the editors agreed that such a continuum exists and that the lines separating the genres are pretty fuzzy. They all agreed that the books they are looking for are not at the far end of the literary continuum. They are closer to the middle. Some editors and some imprints have sensibilities a tad to the left or a smidgeon to the right. 

So here is my chart. Study it, literary fiction writer, and you will get published.

Actually, that isn’t true. You probably won’t get published. Now those of you who lack courage and self confidence should not read on. The chances of getting a publishing contract are still pretty small, even for authors of talent and with fresh new voices.  I asked one of the editors to tell me how many manuscripts she considered in a year and from those how many ultimately got published. She looked at her log and said she had gone over about 250 manuscripts. Two were ultimately acquired and  put into print. This is a sobering statistic. And remember, all of her submissions were prescreened and heavily filtered by agents.

Here is the chart.

So I ask myself why am I spending so much time trying to make deals that seem to have less chance of happening than winning the lottery. I guess it is just that I love this stuff (and I got a pretty good feeling that my number is coming up soon).