I don’t read genre, but you can find it in my home. I have a fourteen-year-old who brings plenty of it into the house. She slips it in, wedged between her schoolwork. That’s right, my own daughter is trafficking in fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal romance right under my nose! Woe to the literary mother! (Here I beat my breast and pull my hair.)
I’ve put plenty of literary realism into her hands, but will she read it? No. Her old mom is too square to make recommendations of any use to her. Split, Finding Nouf, even Catcher in the Rye, all rejected. The best I’ve done is The Bloody Chamber, but fairy tales defy categorization. You’d think I was trying to sneak bran into her Frosted Flakes!
Maybe I am.
I love my gramma’s bran muffins, but I also love dark chocolate. My sweet tooth craves the rich, not the sugary. On one end of the genre – literary continuum is the pulp fiction found on tall, spinning racks in grocery stores. They are the Pixie Stix of the fiction world. Cavity-in-a-paper-tube, anyone? And on the other end are the carob brownies for the truly committed. But between the Pixie Stix and the carob is an entire world of delicious goodies.
We were discussing this genre – literary continuum at a recent Pants on Fire writers group. We happened to be meeting at Patisserie 46, speaking of delicious goodies. You won’t find any Pixie Stix or carob on the premises, but want a chocolate chunk cookie? They have it. How about an award-winning pastry that looks like sculpture with real gold leaf? They have that, too.
Wendy brought a cool graphic of the genre – literary continuum by writer Micheal Kardos. He uses a plane, instead of a line, to represent the continuum. Here’s a reproduction of the Kardos graphic.
We discussed the graphic and read a blog post by writer and former agent Nathan Bransford. One thing everyone agreed on, including Kardos and Bransford, is that there is a spectrum: Pixie Stix to carob brownies.
We had some difficulty with Kardos’s terminology. He defines “stuff” as “things that are out of our ordinary experience, especially things that don’t actually exist.” We, Wendy, Susan, Nico, and I, concluded that the easy – difficult continuum has to do with style and what a work demands of the reader. While the “no stuff – stuff” continuum has to do with action. We also changed “no stuff – stuff” to “ordinariness of plot elements – extraordinariness of plot elements.”
Our revised graphic looks like this:
A book we’ve all read is Nami Mun’s Miles From Nowhere. Here is the plot summary on Amazon:
Teenage Joon is a Korean immigrant living in the Bronx of the 1980s. Her parents have crumbled under the weight of her father’s infidelity; he has left the family, and mental illness has rendered her mother nearly catatonic. So Joon, at the age of thirteen, decides she would be better off on her own, a choice that commences a harrowing and often tragic journey that exposes the painful difficulties of a life lived on the margins. Joon’s adolescent years take her from a homeless shelter to an escort club, through struggles with addiction, to jobs selling newspapers and cosmetics, committing petty crimes, and finally toward something resembling hope.
This book was harder to place on the continuum than you might think. There’s really no “stuff,” no aliens, no magic, no robots. However, I suggested that the book is full of extraordinary circumstances, things most people don’t experience in their lives. Then we discussed the difficulty of Mun’s style. It is written in straightforward prose, however, the story makes significant demands on the reader that are first emotional and second acts of imagination. The novel is a series of stories and there are often gaps between the stories, or chapters, that the reader has to fill in for himself. For example, one chapter ends with Joon pregnant and in danger. The next chapter opens with her not pregnant. Did she miscarry? Did she have an abortion? Did she have the baby and give it up or abandon it? It’s not on the page. In essence, the book is asking the reader to stick with Joon and let the baby go. The gap in the story is instructing us: don’t worry about that, it’s over. Somewhere in the margins that baby got lost and we readers are expected to carry on, much as Joon carries on. That is some difficult material!
In the end, we agreed to place Miles From Nowhere in the middle of the vertical and ¾ of the way to the right on the horizontal. It’s all subjective, of course, and now I would place it deeper in the Literary quadrant because of how challenging the material is. It’s been a while since I read that book, but I remember it making me uneasy (not grossed out or scared) and that kind of visceral quality is something I deem literary.
We placed ourselves on the continuum next. For some of us, we had to ask which work were we placing. For example, my novels and my stories are completely different. I went with Saving Annabelle. That novel is realism through and through—oh, wait, there’s an angel, but lots of real people believe in angels—but it’s historical. Although realism, I did a ton of world-building, just like Nico does for his fantasy works. You can see how many factors have to be weighed to put a work on this continuum. (My notes show us all on the continuum like this, but give me a margin of error.)
Now let me confess that my bookshelves are full of literary-genre or genre-literary work depending on where you place them on any given day. I would never touch a Pixie Stix, but sometimes all I want is a cookie. And really, when it comes down to it, I aspire to write the perfect blend of both: an irresistibly delicious piece of art!
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