Genre Vs. Literary Has Nothing to Do with Popularity

Is the novel dead? Are MFA programs worth it? Can characters be unlikable? Genre or literary fiction? Is the novel dead because MFA programs are fighting a genre war with unlikable characters?

Sometimes it feels like there are only five topics the literary world can write about, but despite the sheer number of think pieces on these subjects, there tends to be very little said in the way of actual facts. When we get into a debate like self-publishing vs. traditional publishing or “genre” vs. “literary,” we’ve wandered into the book world version of conservative vs. liberal. Arguments revolve around feelings, constantly redefined terms, and moving goal posts rather than any interest in truth or understanding.

Take Damien Walter’s article in The Guardian claiming that “Literary fiction is an artificial luxury brand but it doesn’t sell.” Walter pretends he is attacking the literary snobbery, yet the piece is overtly condescending toward readers of books Walter looks down upon. For Walter, people who read “high-end literature” only do so because they (falsely) think it “make(s) you look cool” while readers of genre fiction are people who buy books “because they love them.” It isn’t just that literary fiction doesn’t sell, but its readers are poseurs who don’t even actually like books! Claiming anyone who reads books you don’t like is a fake reader who buys books out of bad faith is about as snobbish as you can get.

There are some other nonsensical arguments in Walter’s piece, such as his claim that David Mitchell—most famous for his genre-bending Cloud Atlas—is being penalized for “wander[ing] off the reservation” of literary fiction and experimenting with genre with his current book. That’s kind of like arguing that David Lynch will be penalized for being weird in his next film.

Walter also defines literary fiction as “an artificial luxury brand”—I’d love to know what a “natural” luxury brand is—“the Mercedes, the Harrods and the Luis Vuitton of high culture.” But those luxury brands are ones that cost more and are marketed to affluent customers as socioeconomic status symbols. Literary fiction books mostly cost the same as SF or thriller novels. Even the idea that literary fiction is favored by the actual elites of society is highly suspect. You are far more likely to find John Grisham and Dan Brown novels in the houses of politicians, lawyers, and hedge fund managers than the works of Lydia Davis and William Gaddis.

You are far more likely to find John Grisham and Dan Brown novels in the houses of politicians, lawyers, and hedge fund managers than the works of Lydia Davis and William Gaddis.

But what I’d like to focus on is the oddly persistent myth that genre fiction is “popular fiction” and that literary fiction is pointless and obscure. Or, as Jennifer Weiner regularly argues, that book critics and literary awards overlook the kind of fiction that real readers actually like. The idea even comes up in intra-genre wars, such as when the conservative SF Sad Puppies—who caused the biggest stir in science fiction this year by organizing a coordinated Hugo voting campaign—argued that science fiction is being destroyed by books “long on ‘literary’ elements” and short on what makes science fiction “popular.”

There is an odd cognitive dissonance that happens in these conversations, where we are simultaneously supposed to believe that literary fiction is “mainstream fiction” and genre fiction is “ghettoized,” and also that literary fiction is a niche nobody reads while genre authors laugh all the way to the bank. Throw into the mix a recent Wall Street Journal article on the increasingly practice of giving million dollar advances to literary debut novels, and you can see that the truth of the matter is pretty unclear.

A Note on My “Team”

Since the genre/literary debate is such a political one, I should probably lay out my cards. I’m an avid reader of both genre and literary fiction. My debut book was generally reviewed as “genre-bending” and featured literary realism stories alongside stories about cosmic horrors, fairy tale journeys, and zombies. Earlier this year, I co-edited and published a science fiction anthology that featured both “genre” and “literary” authors. I’m hardly of the opinion that books shelved as genre are inherently inferior to those shelved as literary. Artistically, I’m rooting for both sides.

Ultimately, though, I think that sales are an entirely irrelevant question in art (more on that at the end). My favorite books in both the genre world and the literary world are never the ones that sell well. What’s popular in any field is largely a matter of money and luck. My interest in this issue is with the persistent misconceptions and contradictions that abound.

How the Popular Pie Is Divvied Up

Is genre more popular than literary fiction? If you combine every single non-literary genre together, the sales are the vast majority of the market. However, the same people who make this argument typically say “literary fiction is just another genre.” So this is akin to saying that US-based NBA teams score more points than the Toronto Raptors. Sure, it’s true, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything about how good or bad the Raptors are. Non-superhero films sells more tickets than superhero films. All foods that aren’t pizza sell more than pizza. That doesn’t mean superhero films and pizza aren’t popular.

So this is akin to saying that US-based NBA teams score more points than the Toronto Raptors.

So are individual genres more popular than the genre of literary fiction? Well, that depends on which genre you mean. Despite the regular conflation of “genre fiction” with “popular fiction,” most genre fiction is not popular at all. I don’t merely mean that most books that are published in the various genres are unpopular—although that is certainly true. Most books don’t sell much period. I mean that most genres and subgenres are niche markets. You rarely see steam punk or bizarro fiction titles flying up the bestseller list. You rarely even see westerns or horror novels. By what measure are they “popular” fiction when literary fiction, which does regularly reach the bestseller lists, is not?

In reality, the bestseller lists are completely dominated by thrillers/mysteries, romance novels, and YA. Literary fiction titles are a regular staple. Other genres—westerns, hard SF, non-YA fantasy, and horror novels not written by Stephen King—are much less likely to appear. If you scroll through the New York Times combined print and ebook list, you’ll see a couple literary titles each week sandwiched between a bunch of big name thriller and romance authors like Grisham, Roberts, and Patterson. You’ll also see a handful of traditional adult SF or fantasy titles, but they are typically works that have been adapted for TV or film, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian. One could argue that Anthony Doerr and Jonathan Franzen are exceptions, and of course they are. But George R. R. Martin and Stephen King are exceptions in their genres too. The bestseller list is 100% exceptions.

Using Neilsen BookScan—the industry’s sales tracking system that captures most, though not all, of the print market—I looked at the different categories for adult fiction that have sold more than 50,000 copies. (Children’s books, middle grade, and young adult are an enormous part of the market, but that’s a topic for another post.) For adult fiction, Suspense/Thrillers had 28 titles that made the cut, and Mystery/Detective had 17. Fiction General had 25 and Classics had 20 titles. None of the other genres had double digits, not even Romance. Western and Horror/Occult/Psychological each had 1 title that made the cut. Fantasy had 6, but only one that wasn’t written by George R. R. Martin.

The category Fiction General in BookScan includes many titles that Weiner would call “commercial women’s fiction.” Still, about half of those high-performing titles would be considered literary fiction (such as Doerr, Adichie, Ferrante, and Franzen) and basically all the Classics (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, etc.) are literary titles. It would probably be fair to clump Mystery and Thrillers together, and several of the Fiction General titles could be shuffled to Romance, but no matter how you slice it, literary fiction is one of the larger chunks of the popular adult fiction pie.

best selling adult fiction books

A Note on BookScan and Those Numbers

BookScan is estimated to account for somewhere around 75% of the retail print market, so these does not tell the whole story. Some genres, like science fiction and romance, do well in ebook form. Still, it gives a good estimation of the relative selling power of different books.

I’m sure some readers will think it unfair to include classic titles. But is popularity only measured in the short-term? Is a book that sells 100,000 copies in a year, but is quickly forgotten, more “popular” than a book that sells 10,000 copies a year for 50 years? Even focusing only on contemporary titles, literary fiction makes up a larger percentage of popular books by this measure than most genres. (FWIW, many of the bestselling genre books are also from previous decades. For example, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None are listed in Science Fiction and Mystery/Detective in BookScan.)

Looking at the BookScan titles also shows the murkiness of genre categorization though. One of the best selling books in Science Fiction is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a finalist for several major literary awards (and also the ire of Sad Puppies types). Plenty of other books could be categorized in different genres, or multiple genres at once. Genre distinctions are anything but clear.

What’s Popular Is Whatever You Want it to Be

The above is only looking at the most popular books, not the entire market overall. Some genres do better or worse in the long tail and are larger or smaller slices of the entire industry. And then again, some genre readers are more rabid buyers of books. Romance readers are infamous book devourers, and thus their portion of the reading population will be different than their portion of sales. In short, it is complicated. But the above numbers give a good overview of how the popular break-out books break down.

However, too often it seems their interest in “popular books” is actually only an interest in books that are popular in the styles they like. Take this interview with Weiner and Jodi Picoult from their famous Franzenfreude. The two authors bend their arguments into bizarre shapes trying to define what “commercial” fiction is in opposition to Jonathan Franzen, an author whose last two books sold at Stephen King levels (the #5 bestselling and #8 bestselling books of their respective years). Many of the titles Weiner and Picoult slag on here and elsewhere actually sell more copies, and are thus more truly “commercial,” than books they say are overlooked. Weiner says “How seriously am I going to take the paper’s critics when they start beating the drums for Gary Shteyngart” and then mocks Shteyngart’s BookScan numbers for the first week of his (then) new novel. Yet all three of Shteyngart’s novels have sold in six figures, making him a pretty darn popular novelist in any genre.

(Picoult also has very ahistorical comments about the popularity of famous authors like Jane Austen. But again, the facts are less important than truthiness in these debates. Austen may have, in actuality, been read mainly by the elites of her day–an era when about half of England’s population was illiterate to begin with–but she feels like she should count as a writer who writes for the masses.)

In fairness to Weiner, her main argument is that book review sections, like in the New York Times, don’t review as many commercial women authors as commercial male authors. I think that Weiner has a point, as there is plenty of sexism in publishing and women authors are often not treated as seriously as male authors. And Weiner is correct that romance and “women’s fiction” are not treated with the same respect as other genres. However, I wonder if Weiner conflates different issues, and is practicing a form of literary erasure by implying that women authors in most genres don’t count as women genre authors:

Most likely, the readership of mysteries and thrillers is largely women—as is true of fiction as a whole—and the idea that the genres of Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, and Ursula K. Le Guin are “male genres” is, to put it nicely, a stretch.

The New York Times is not perfect of course. But I will say that the New York Times does a far better job of covering non-white writers, international writers, and writers of poetry and short stories than the bestseller lists. Their 100 notable book list had a roughly equal gender split. A newspaper that only devoted coverage to popular fiction would be a newspaper that only covered white American novelists.

The (mostly) conservative white men of the Sad Puppies movement, and their more odious Rabid Puppies offshoot, nominated a slate of books that was by and large a list of relatively poor-selling books even as they claimed to be representing popular science fiction. On the other hand, many of the best selling science fiction titles of last year (Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, etc.) were exactly the kind of literary titles the Puppies claimed were making SF unpopular. But to the Puppies it feels like their favorite books should be popular and it feels like literary SF shouldn’t be. Even more so, the Puppies complained that the Hugos were being awarded to people of color, queer writers, and other writers on “social justice warrior grounds.” Yet again, this seems entirely a matter of feeling instead of reality. A scroll through the list of recent Hugo winners shows that most have been white writers, and most have been white men.

Big in an Alternate Reality

When Walter and similar critics call literary fiction’s status “artificial,” they seem to imply literary fiction is being wrongly inflated by literary critics and awards. I’ve heard this argument many times. I must admit I find this idea pretty baffling. Commercial fiction is more likely to have massive corporate marketing campaigns with subway ads and full page spreads in popular magazines. A gushing review from actual literary critic is “artificial” while a Times Square billboard is “natural”?

A gushing review from actual literary critic is “artificial” while a Times Square billboard is “natural”?

The underlying argument seems to be that even if these books aren’t actually popular they are still popular in some theoretical sense, because they are the kind of books that could be popular in some alternative world. (This is essentially the Sad Puppies argument. The SF books they like don’t sell well because the evil Hugos and SF critics are pushing literary novels on the SF public.) In this way, all “real” genre is popular because it is all theoretically accessible and written to be fun and engaging.

Only someone who doesn’t read widely in genre fiction could actually think this. Plenty of genre fiction—especially in the SF, fantasy, and horror worlds—is as inaccessible as the most avant-garde poetry chapbook. Epic fantasy series often include detailed encyclopedias of their fictional worlds, hardly something accessible to casual readers. SF novels are often written in jargon and tropes that outsiders wouldn’t understand. And, most importantly, lots of really interesting, boundary-pushing work exists in the genre world. I doubt anyone would argue Gene Wolfe isn’t a SF author, and I also doubt anyone would honestly say his work is popular fiction. His books are every bit as dense and complex as the most “luxury brand” literary novels you could name, but they swim happily in the sea of genre.

And all that’s as it should be! Some of the most exciting genre work is written only for fans of those niche subgenres. That isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

The Focus on Popularity Is Horrible for Literature

Which brings up the larger point: the incessant focus on popularity is an artistically-deadening feature of modern discourse. Far too many people tout sales numbers as some kind of armor against criticism, and think that the highest compliment you can ever pay an artist is that their work “sells well.” Sales have essentially no relation to quality. In fact, sales barely even have any relation to sales. By which I mean, books that sell well today are pretty unlikely to be selling well 50 or 100 years from now. How many best-selling titles from 100 years ago do you recognize? (Note: this Winston Churchill is not the prime minster. In fact, the American Churchill was so famous that the British Churchill wrote under the name Winston S. Churchill to avoid confusion. But the former is now totally forgotten while obscure-in-their-day contemporaries of his like Franz Kafka are widely read.)

The massively popular books are very rarely among the best, whether shelved as “genre” or as “literary.” Want to know what the best-selling book of the year has been? Go Set a Watchmen, a cash-grab novel that many have argued was unethical to even publish. The second? Grey, another cash-grab where E. L. James rewrote 50 Shades from a male point of view. (And, yes, Hollywood “reboot” culture is absolutely coming to the literary world in the near future. I mean, hey, it’s popular.)

There is an entire world of literature, quite literally. Yet you would never know it from the bestseller lists, which are populated by the same handful of names year in and year out. Those names are almost entirely white English-speaking men and women. They write in a narrow range of styles and subject matters. We should be extremely wary of anyone who wants book coverage to focus even more on the handful of white American authors who dominate sales.

We should be extremely wary of anyone who wants book coverage to focus even more on the handful of white American authors who dominate sales.

The overwhelming whiteness and homogeneity of popular books is not something that would be addressed by focusing even more coverage on the same handful of popular books. (To say nothing of what it would do to short stories, essay, and poetry collections.)

If you are determined to compare popularity, at least do so with actual facts. But it would be far better if we focused less on popularity, and more on the wide range of amazing books from all genres and corners of the globe that are daily ignored for yet another think piece on already popular books.

78 Responses

  1. Rebecca

    This is a well constructed and carefully thought out argument. I appreciate it for opening up a dialogue on the subject in a way that isn’t facile, looking more for a headline or soundbite than substance. However, the author seems unaware of the history of highbrow/lowbrow (which today in books we generally call literary/genre): how these artificial labels came into being, and particularly how the tensions in the commercial world of books led to the creation of middlebrow fiction. The author scoffs at certain assumptions people seem to be making about these labels without realizing the historical precedents or agendas of past critics going back 150 years.

    I’d recommend some background reading for historical context before making such blanket claims. Try Rubin’s Making of the Middlebrow or Radway’s Feeling for Books.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      I’m quite aware of that history, although I think the equation of genre with lowbrow is a big oversimplification. Much of what we consider highbrow literature used to be considered genre fiction (e.g., O’Connor and Faulkner were part of the Southern Gothic genre), and in modern times genres have both highbrown and lowbrow branches. E.g., Science fiction contains both Samuel Delaney and Star Wars novelizations. But that’s a topic of another essay.

      Reply
      • Rebecca

        Fair point as oversimplification, I don’t disagree (note my hedging in an attempt at a short comment: “generally”). But your article reads as if these opinions come from nowhere, whereas in fact they have a long history. I see it as a big oversimplification on your part, also presumably for concerns of space, to ignore that. It hurts an otherwise interesting argument.

      • JD Kaplan

        One tiny bit of personal experience related to the topic. I got my first degree in creative writing and in that program if you wrote anything that wasn’t unmistakably literary in nature, you were ridiculed, graded down and otherwise penalized. It took me years to recover from that brainwashing and return to write what I want to write (fantasy, scifi, horror.) I can’t speak for how common this is or isn’t across writing programs but I’ve heard similar things from many of my peers. So at some fundamental level writers of genre fiction often didn’t have access to the same kinds of training that literary fiction writers had. Has this changed? No idea. Just another “data” point to consider.

      • Lincoln Michel

        Yes, that genre snobbery does exist, even today. But I do think it is less common. (And there are great genre training programs like Clarion).

  2. Victoria Tegularius

    If I may use an analogy, using popularity as a measure of value is akin to considering Ron ‘the Hedgehog’ Jeremy as a relationship expert. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Rase

    “In reality, the bestseller lists are completely dominated by thrillers/mysteries, romance novels, and YA.”

    Although it would be inconclusive and impossible to prove, I wonder if this fact suggests something about why most people buy stories (read: novels, movies, etc.): They want to feel things. and perhaps may even want to feel *specific* things. For example, I love a good romance because it makes me feel like I’m in love and often end in marriage (my wedding day was an extremely happy day for me); likewise, I love a good thriller because it makes me feel an adrenaline rush, to say nothing of the righteous endings that often reward the hero and punish the evil villain.

    By comparison, critics often praise the “unsentimental” as a virtue worth striving for; I won’t go so far as to suggest that such unsentimental books are devoid of emotion, but clearly there’s an implication that emotion flowing too strongly or too readily is a bad thing.

    These are unformed thoughts, and I have neither evidence nor a clear argument–perhaps it’s even fallacious thinking entirely, but it’s still something that came to mind while reading this excellent piece.

    Reply
  4. Michael

    While I agree with much of what you said,one subject you spoke upon was far from accurate. That being this: ”

    The conservative white men of the Sad Puppies movement nominated a slate of books that was by and large a list of relatively poor-selling books even as they claimed to be representing popular science fiction. On the other hand, many of the best selling science fiction titles of last year (Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, etc.) were exactly the kind of literary titles the Puppies claimed were making SF unpopular. But to the Puppies it feels like their favorite books should be popular and it feels like literary SF shouldn’t be. Even more so, the Puppies complained that the Hugos were being awarded to people of color, queer writers, and other writers on “social justice warrior grounds.””

    As a classic liberal I was on the inside of Sad Puppies 3. Did those members know that? Yes. So is Brad Torgerson (the head of SP3). SP3 was about getting authors that typically are not recognized,their recognition as well as getting more people involved since it has been historically a very tiny voting block compared to how many people actually read Science Fiction and Fantasy. It wasnt about what SP1 was. Voting slates? Scalzi did such with his “award pimpage” for 7 years (and yes that is what he called it). GRRM has said slates had been done before on his blog. I saw the hit pieces like Entertainment Weekly that had to be re-edited at least 3 times after being published. I can safely assure you there were not just white people involved. Some of us felt (from years of watching at conventions what happens) that after the 2014 nebula award for “If you were a dinosaur,my love” and it being in the Hugo finals,that enough was enough. At least 1 critic felt it was not speculative fiction at all. MY personal take is it is a great anti-bullying piece,but it is neither science fiction nor fantasy. As a person who attended conventions for more than 25 years either as a gopher,a vendor or a convention goer in the San Francisco Bay Area,I have seen how that sausage is made. Even EW had to readjust their claim in the end with this: “CORRECTION: After misinterpreting reports in other news publications, EW published an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the Sad Puppies voting slate, which does, in fact, include many women and writers of color. As Sad Puppies’ Brad Torgerson explained to EW, the slate includes both women and non-caucasian writers, including Rajnar Vajra, Larry Correia, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson, and Amanda Green.” Please read this post by Sarah Hoyt. Click the links and get a better idea of what was actually going on by looking at both sides objectively. http://accordingtohoyt.com/2015/08/12/the-goat-kicks-back/

    I want you to think about this in passing. I am a classic liberal,who is pagan,who did escort runs in the late 80’s and early 90’s to planned parenthood when the protests went on (and got spat on and bloodied more than once as a result),who lives an alternative lifestyle,voted for the current US President twice,whose best friend is a lesbian, and has everything on his reading shelves from Sci-Fi/Fantasy to Louis L’Amour to Hagakure to books of poetry and several of the classics. My greatest fear with books is that somehow I will make it through Burtons Anatomy of Melancholy. I have tried 3 times.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      Hi Michael, the question of whether other groups have used voting slates and such isn’t one that interests me very much. I’m not saying you are wrong, only that it’s outside the scope of what I was talking about here. I was trying to focus only on the claims of popularity and literariness that the Puppies made.

      I’ll grant that I should have provided more context for the Puppies and Hugo stuff here though. I felt the essay was already running too long so tried to summarize quickly.

      As for the EW correction, I did see it but… the Sad Puppies slate is still largely white men. The fact that they put a few women on and a couple writers of color doesn’t change that.

      That said, I can certainly understand you or anyone else wanting more underrepresented writers. I was just investigating the claims made by Torgeson and others about popularity and literariness in SF. I’m sure not every Sad Puppies voter agreed with Torgeson’s claims.

      Reply
  5. Margery

    This was terrifically written. Most avid readers I know devour genre literature and “literary” literature both.

    I do have a quibble with one bit:

    “the Puppies complained that the Hugos were being awarded to people of color, queer writers,”

    Actually, this is not the case. Puppies opponents made this claim. Puppies argued that a mostly-white clique was controlling the awards, not based on merit, but on membership in the clique and adherence to particular values over literary merit. (this merit is debatable, obviously) Had puppies been upset about poc or females nominated, they would not have nominated poc or female authors, as they did.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      The Puppies claimed to be opposing “social justice warrior” picks, and I don’t think the dog whistles are that hard to translate. The Puppies also ended up with the support of Vox Day, NRO, Brietbart, and other extreme right-wingers. I’m sure that many Sad Puppies were embarrassed by that alliance, but

      Had puppies been upset about poc or females nominated, they would not have nominated poc or female authors, as they did.

      There were a few tokens, but the list was still largely white and male. I mean, you can look at the official slate. The best novel category is all white men. The second category, novella, is all white men. You don’t even see a single woman’s name until the fourth category. And the Rabid Puppy slate, which actually placed more nominations than the Sad Puppies, was even less diverse.

      Anyway, this has been legislated all across the internet. I was primarily trying to look at their claims about “literariness” and “popularity” here.

      Reply
      • Ben

        Having been on the relevant parts of the internet since the beginning I can assure you that you are mistranslating the “dog whistle”.

        The achetypical social justice warrior is not a minority or LGBT. It is a white person, either male or female, of middle to upper class who speaks for all women and minorities while silencing any women and minority who disagrees with them.

        This is why you’ll see plenty of women and minorities in groups opposing SJWs and why it’s incorrect to say that being anti-SJW is a dog whistle for being anti PoC/women.

        P.S. Please don’t call people tokens. It is an insult to suggest they were selected for apperances rather than the quality of their work.

      • Lincoln Michel

        I’m using token in the sense of “done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture” not as a description of the quality of work. (I don’t really rate the Rabid Puppies or Sad Puppies highly on their ability to perceive literary quality anyway.) The point is that the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies lists are largely white men, and in the MAJOR categories they are all white men. Yes, I believe the Sad Puppies placed a few women and POC on, mostly in the less popular categories, as a “symbolic gesture” so they could claim that their complaint wasn’t as conservative as it is.

        But really, all this has been hashed out all over the internet. I’m not that interested in that part of the Sad Puppies debate here. My concern was with their claims about “literary” SF and popularity in SF.

  6. unsafeideas

    I think that women, non whites and combination of thereof among Sad Puppies might feel insulted over your assumption that they are all white males. That habit of pretending women who are in opposite ideological group don’t exist is rooted in sexism. You are not helping with equality when you feel free to pretend women who very much exist don’t. The whole “males ignore women” thing does not happen when women agree with males, it is a problem that tends to occur when women disagree. It is ok to say that women among Sad Puppies are wrong, pretending they do not exist is what feminists complain about persistently.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      You are correct, I was using a short hand as the heads of the Rabid and Sad puppies were white men as was the majority of their slates. But you are correct, surely there were women vote voted for both slates too.

      Reply
      • Kary English

        The women on the list also might have a bone (see what I did there?) to pick with you over being called tokens. Typically, when one refers to a woman or person of color as a token, it’s meant to imply that the individual is there not on merit, but for the sake of their gender or skin color, in other words, as a devaluation of the individual and his or her work. Was this your intent? To dismiss me and the other women as tokens?

        Here’s something that I’ve told several bloggers and journalists, but oddly, no one wanted to print. Perhaps it’s because adding this bit of info doesn’t advance the preferred (though, in my opinion, incorrect) narrative, that of angry white men trying to keep women, POCs and other marginalized groups out of their fiction.

        If everyone who was originally asked to be on Sad Puppies had said yes, the fiction categories would have been pretty much 50/50 for gender. Juliette Wade wasn’t the only woman to decline. I would say this indicates that Brad and Larry did their best to strive for gender parity.

      • Lincoln Michel

        And what does it say to you that so many women declined to be nominated by the Sad Puppies? You seem to act as if that is unrelated to the SP agenda…

  7. KD Rose

    Well, when you consider “politicians, lawyers, and hedge fund managers” to be the elite of society I think that dispels the rest of the article right there.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      Yes, I’d consider politicians and hedge fund managers to be the “elites” of society, the ones with the most power and wealth, and not poorly paid English comp adjuncts and librarians.

      Reply
      • Ellen

        There are elites of different sorts, tastemakers vs. money movers. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they interact, and, re Thomas’s comment about comparing “literary critics and awards’ ‘artificial’ inflation of literary fiction to marketing for commercial fiction,” to publishers it’s all marketing in the end. However much some want the cachet of artistic approval, it all ends up being about how the books sell, whether through the influence of critics and prizes or the big love of a less discerning public. What’s good is something that’s sorted out separately, privately, and–often–over a very long time, during which the notion of what’s good often changes, while what’s popular, embracing both the critically and commercially beloved, is of the moment and obvious.

  8. KD Rose

    Come on. : ) It’s a good article. Don’t drag our exchange down to dictionary definitions. I’d just find another one. I really am not trying to obfuscate. I weigh in on both sides of the general issue too. I just differ with what elite really means and find it important in germane understanding that it should not equate only with money. BTW: I just saw you are the EDITOR of this Lit mag.com. Is that not elite? In my view, it is. Let’s just leave this with something we can both agree on, from your last paragraph:

    “If you are determined to compare popularity, at least do so with actual facts. But it would be far better if we focused less on popularity, and more on the wide range of amazing books from all genres and corners of the globe that are daily ignored for yet another think piece on already popular books.”

    Reply
  9. Joyce Dade

    Is there no Scared White Puppies movement underway? Sad and Rabid and Scared, that makes more sense, it seems to me. It is sad that is so much fear and weakness on the part of writers who own the market share of the marketplace by virtue (?) of their gender and ethnic origins alone for the most part. Man up, Pups, there is more to the world, literary and otherwise, than is reflected in the weak pale male ego. The lit prizes and glory cannot and will not remain yours alone. Like it or not, there is a whole world of others, of women and people, writers of color who share this world with you, including the glory and honors, honorarium, book deals and history that is being made and will continue to be made by others who do not look like you and that you need not fear but welcome. More voices than you can shake a stick at, so why not stop crying and ranting and become friends with others who under the surface of things, it turns out, are just like you. Writers who are making contributions just like you, and who welcome the rewards and return on the investment of their efforts.

    Reply
  10. Friday News: On popularity, best of lists, attempted book banning, and Stormtroopers | Michiko Katsu

    […] When Popular Fiction Isn’t Popular: Genre, Literary, and the Myths of Popularity – There is a lot in this piece by Lincoln Michel to think and talk about. He goes well beyond simply arguing that the distinction between so-called genre and literary fiction is artificial; instead he takes on the whole idea of “popular fiction” across all genres, including lit fic. And I think it’s a good strategy, because it opens up a lot of questions about what books sell and what those books represent, in regard to quality, accessibility, and longevity. A book may sell really robustly in a short run, but does that make it more popular than a book that sells fewer copies for a longer time? Are genre fiction books really more accessible (he raises the issue in regard to encyclopedically detailed epic fantasy series)? And what about those books each of us loves that are not “popular” in either sales or reviews? Does that make them “bad” books (i.e. what values are we unconsciously inferring when we call books or genres popular)? And I appreciated his willingness to interrogate Jennifer Weiner’s arguments. I definitely have issues with the personal and commercial investment she has in her own arguments, and in the way that can compromise their cogency and integrity. […]

    Reply
  11. Edward Burke

    Reading this was time well spent, as opposed to the vapid idiocy The Atlantic posted recently with sales-figure nonsense coming from Ester Bloom, whoever she is.

    Michel raises many relevant matters and sadly fails to treat them all, so further posts would perhaps only begin to address other topics, as he mentioned in passing. Because of the thoughtfulness he brings to his work, we could hope he would address in due course topics like “the academic captivity of American letters” and the disgusting profusion of MFA programs and the literary awards industry, he might also bewail more copiously the pernicious influence of film, movies, television, and videos upon the publishing industry and note more strenuously that writing and publishing is NOT rock ‘n’ roll and music production: in point of fact, the world of writing is much larger than the world of publishing, and I begin to think (both as a writer and as a former copyeditor and proofreader in scholarly publishing) that this has to be the case as much or more today than ever.

    Perhaps more sadly from my perspective as a writer, I note Michel’s entire failure to treat fiction that is available online but which has never formally been published (except online, a circumstance with which a serious writer [such as one that I claim to be, however legitimately or poorly] can hardly remain content). I am glad that Michel begins to point out the simultaneous helpfulness and uselessness of publishing categories for conducting literary discussions: I myself consider myself a writer either ignorant of or heedless of many a marketing category proffered by many a publisher’s marketing representative.

    So I’ll cite my case: I write flash fiction, not exclusively but practically exclusively over the course of the past eight years or so (I stopped writing screenplays after my first four were completed c. 2000 CE). My flash work studiously defies categories, which very likely explains why my work has never been published, and when I speak now of “being published”, I do mean exclusively “with work appearing in print, on paper, whether in book or magazine or journal form”. (I even fail to adhere strictly to Chicago Manual of Style form these days, shame on me.)

    Some of my flash fiction (a “genre” not treated the first time in Michel’s piece, perhaps because it continues to be appear only in online venues) treats science topics: does this make those pieces “science fiction” pieces? A publisher’s marketing person would want to say so, perhaps, but I would differ: while I write fictions about science, I construe those works almost entirely as “science satires”, because I am quite skeptical of our sciences as intellectual disciplines and so I mock and ridicule our sciences or have fun at their expense as much as possible. I’ve begun to dabble in horror fiction: but even here, satiric intent often overcomes strict appropriation of horror methodologies and typical horror narratives. Much of my work qualifies as straight absurdist prose (which gives me plenty of room to strenuously deny surrealistic capability or intent): but all of the work I’m doing these days is flash fiction (even the 3600-word piece I did last year I saw fit to construe as “a flash novella”, not as “regular short story”: a recent 2100-word piece I construe as flash, also, because it consists of four distinct sub-sections).

    I consider myself as true a writer as can be found anywhere because of the contempt I reserve for publishers, which as I continue to breathe I find applicable also to literary agents, to university MFA programs, to university publishing, to university writers’ symposia, to booksellers, to reviewers (to reviewers much more so than to literary critics of any actual attainment or practice: perhaps most sadly, Michel failed to treat literary criticism as a genre worthy of the pursuit, and it is likely to my provincial mind that the failure to nurture sound literary criticism is a mark of the extreme peril writers and readers are prone to).

    But I do appreciate Michel’s work here, his efforts I can only hope will continue, and I will perhaps now consult electricliterature.com with some frequency now that I have come across it.

    Reply
    • KD Rose

      I know I cherry pick, and your whole reply was thoughtful and interesting, but I wanted to say I very much agree with this: “the failure to nurture sound literary criticism is a mark of the extreme peril writers and readers are prone to).”

      Reply
      • Edward Burke

        Thank you. I was not appalled at the time (but I am now) that I was able to earn a B. A. in English without a course in literary criticism, a lack I’ve since made up for formally and informally.
        If the world of writing is much larger than the world of publishing, I suppose the world of literature must be larger than the world of literary criticism.
        (This aside, a motto I coined from my days in publishing: “Once a writer, always an editor”. –Not a critic, necessarily, but an editor, necessarily.)

  12. Nick Morgan

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. I’d love to see your ideas along the same lines applied to the current state of YA books and sales.

    Reply
  13. Saturday Miscellany – 12/5/15 | The Irresponsible Reader

    […] When Popular Fiction Isn’t Popular: Genre, Literary, and the Myths of Popularity — Because it’s been, what, a week? since I posted something on the genre-wars, Lincoln Michel on Electric Lit calls for more facts and stats and numbers to be used in the discussion. I’m not sure it’ll help, but it’s interesting. […]

    Reply
  14. Lindsey

    Completely unsurprising that puppy supporters showed up with their usual defensive figleafs. “Nutty nuggets” pretty much showed their colors despite all the protests.

    This article nicely lays out a lot of the problems with how we define books and why we use labels like ‘popular’ and ‘literary’. Even farther, genre labels are themselves often a huge grinding bother, and sometimes a straitjacket limitation on authors who want to step around marketing boundaries.

    The huge upsurge in YA fantasy/SF has been interesting to watch, and there’s a lot of debate on why it became so–there’s that word again–popular, with a lot of disdain for the books and for those who read them coming from very jealous quarters. I don’t even like most YA myself but the attention it has gotten from the audience makes it at least worth watching. There’s some suggestion that the simpler writing is part of the attraction, as much as the hopeful-teen narratives. Some readers love the challenge of a tightly-knotted sentence woven into a long tapestry of a paragraph, others don’t. But for an author who wants to write YA, it’s a prescription and a limitation–I don’t know if that’s the right way to go either.

    Anyway, good article.

    Reply
  15. Michael Harold

    Thanks. I’m glad you said something. Last year Jaded Ibis Press, Starcherone and a number of other lit only publishers closed their doors. But the last sentence of this story has always been and will continue to be, “Writers gonna write.” That’s how it works for art, science and any other creative act. We’re wired for it.

    Reply
  16. Jadakiss

    Here we go again with this BS. I honestly think that people who attack literary fiction are just feeling salty about this conception they have imagined in their mind that people don’t take their favorite books seriously. That’s where it all stems from. When people praise book X, in their mind, because they percieve this to be a kind of zero sum game, that devalues book Y that did not get the same kind of praise. So they must find another metric by which to evaluate their favorite books, so they go for popularity. Only, their favorite books are not actually popular. This leaves them with an interesting conundrum. They aren’t popular like the best seller books. They aren’t praised by the “literati.” What is going on??? Clearly, these books are objectively the best and everyone who does not agree must be a moron or is being deceived by the workings of the literary establishment, or both. And so they create these myths to justify themselves and their favorite books.

    Reply
  17. Nickos Ventouras

    “””The underlying argument seems to be that even if these books aren’t actually popular they are still popular in some theoretical sense, because they are the kind of books that could be popular in some alternative world.”””

    You make it sound like some new kind of sophistry, but it’s the classic distinction between being popular in the market and having popular ambitions which doesn’t always coincide.

    John Coltrane sold decently well, but he didn’t make “A love supreme” with concessions for selling more copies. At the same time, there were many sterile bubblegum pop acts, devised by management types to push albums, that didn’t do well in the market.

    The same can and does happen with books.

    “””In this way, all “real” genre is popular because it is all theoretically accessible and written to be fun and engaging. Only someone who doesn’t read widely in genre fiction could actually think this. Plenty of genre fiction—especially in the SF, fantasy, and horror worlds—is as inaccessible as the most avant-garde poetry chapbook. Epic fantasy series often include detailed encyclopedias of their fictional worlds, hardly something accessible to casual readers.”””

    That’s a different kind of “inaccessible” than “literarization” creates though. For genre fans, this “detailed encyclopedias of their fictional worlds” are very accessible and enjoyable even — same way Star Wars fans talk of extreme minutiae of the SW “universe”.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      “For genre fans, this “detailed encyclopedias of their fictional worlds” are very accessible and enjoyable even — same way Star Wars fans talk of extreme minutiae of the SW “universe”.”

      Of course, and fans of abstract poetry enjoy abstract poetry. Fans of dense postmodern novels enjoy dense postmodern novels. The point is that plenty of genre fiction is not aiming to be popular to the masses. Much genre fiction, like much literary fiction, is only written for a small subset of readers.

      Reply
      • Edward Burke

        –and a question that persists is whether or why publishers routinely fail to identify the “readers’ market” and serve published work to identifiable subsets of readers. Publishers can serve readers with a variety of print formats, not every edition has to conform to hardcover or trade fiction formats.

        I remain persuaded that unit costs can be found to bear print publication for any work in whatever format makes it profitable for the publisher: whether the author will earn appreciable income may remain negotiable, and writers eager and willing to see their work appear in print (many writers remain confirmed bibliophiles dedicated to paper and print) may justly be expected to forego royalty advances of any kind and to accept lower rates of royalties or residuals going forward.

  18. Anthony

    It’s not snobbery to figure more people try to look highbrow by buying Rushdie than by buying Grisham; a real literary critic with his aura of intellectual authority is indeed likelier to browbeat people out of their authentic taste than a cheesy old Times Square commercial.

    That Rushdie costs the same as Grisham is irrelevant. Rushdie is marketed not to the rich as a socioeconomic status symbol but to the pretentious as an intellectual status symbol.

    I doubt we’re more apt to find Grisham favored over Rushdie in a politician’s house than in a plumber’s house. And the most relevant elite–literary authorities at Harvard, Yale, the New Yorker, etc.–clearly favors Rushdie.

    There’s no cognitive dissonance in observing that generally Rushdie is mainstream and Grisham is ghettoized in terms of critical acclaim–and vice versa in terms of popularity.

    If elitists claimed “the only quality basketball is that played by the Raptors” it would indeed be valid to weigh the scores of the whole NBA against that claim. Similarly, it’s valid to point out that most readers read stuff other than literary fiction. The point is not that scores or sales are a magical key to quality, but that an unreasonably restricted little clique like literary fiction isn’t one either. Rather, it’s one little genre (or family of them) just as the Raptors are one team.

    Old-fashioned westerns and sci-fi may not be selling this year. But people can only buy what they’re sold. The not-so-distant past success of more user-friendly kinds of fiction at least suggests the possibility that their “alternative world” of popularity (or perhaps even literary respect) might just be today’s world–freed of the inauthenticity of literary fiction looking down its nose at genre fiction and genre fiction sucking up to literary fiction.

    Whether that’s right or wrong, it does not inherently amount to “wanting book coverage to focus even more on the handful of white American authors who dominate sales” or some form of right-wing bigotry, regardless of what assorted Puppies might be saying. It just amounts to doubting whether the Raptors have more to say about basketball than the whole history of the NBA.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      I responded to most of this in the essay, but I most of what you are saying is simply not the same thing as the people I’m responding to. But I will say:

      “It’s not snobbery to figure more people try to look highbrow by buying Rushdie than by buying Grisham”

      It is very much snobbery to argue that people can’t authentically like work you don’t like. It is snobbery when literary critics say genre readers are “duped” or merely haven’t experienced better work, and it is snobbery when genre readers claim that literary fiction readers are “fakers” who lie about the books they like and only buy those books to look cool. (I cover that more here.)

      “If elitists claimed “the only quality basketball is that played by the Raptors” it would indeed be valid to weigh the scores of the whole NBA against that claim. ”

      Yes, it is ridiculous to claim that there is no quality work published as genre, as I said in my essay (and in many other places.)

      “Similarly, it’s valid to point out that most readers read stuff other than literary fiction.”

      Yes… but it is not valid, factually, to claim that literary fiction sells worse than fantasy, SF, and other genres, nor to claim it doesn’t sell well in general. It is a big part of the adult fiction market.

      “Whether that’s right or wrong, it does not inherently amount to “wanting book coverage to focus even more on the handful of white American authors who dominate sales” ”

      You are conflating some different points. Wanting a diversity of genres covered in magazines is very different from saying that the NYT should focus only on popular books. As the essay notes, many genres aren’t very popular, but they still have worthwhile work we should be talking about. But, yes, if you argue that book reviews should be based on popularity, then you are, by default, suggesting book review sections should focus on the rich white American (and some UK) authors that dominate the best seller lists week after week.

      Reply
      • Anthony

        It’s snobbery to say no one can possibly like literary fiction, fine.
        It’s naivete to say no one pretends to like it. Are there no fakes in the world, on your view, or simply none who read?

  19. Thomas

    Isn’t comparing literary critics and awards “artificial” inflation of literary fiction to marketing for commercial fiction misrepresenting the motives of commercial fiction publishers? Surely, they are looking to increase sales while literary critics and awards are looking to elevate their selected literature to art.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      The numbers on the chart are the number of bestselling books in that genre. So there were 126 adult fiction books that sold over 50k on Bookscan.

      Reply
      • Mackay Bell

        For someone who is arguing we should look at the facts, the numbers you supply are rather shifty and incomplete. What significance is it to your argument there are 126 books that sold over 50,000 copies, if some books, say genre books, sold 200,000-300,000 copies while others, say literary fiction, sold only 50,000-60,000? You say that some of that big pie chunk of “general” may be commercial women’s fiction. How much exactly? What are the facts? And are those women’s commercial fictions books selling ten times more than the male oriented literary fiction? As for classics, many books that are now considered classics were one considered genre, so without a breakdown of titles its hard to make the argument they are literary fiction. I’m not saying your numbers are cooked, but if they were, we would have no way of knowing. Finally, you argue that literary fiction does sell well, (without providing any real facts) and yet you say it shouldn’t matter. Seems like you should make up your mind.

        In my opinion, what is really going on here, both in your piece and Damien Walter’s, is that writers and critics who have for years held up literary fiction as the be all and end all, can’t justify their position any more because readers have completely abandoned them. So many literary types are trying to reposition themselves by claiming they should be free to move into genre and they were never against it to begin with. This because they would like to write books people actually read. It’s kind of like the losing side of a war surrendering and trying to say they were never at war to begin with.

      • Lincoln Michel

        It isn’t my “argument” that 126 books had sold over 50k copies, that’s what BookScan’s data said. The ratio of genre sold pretty much holds whatever you put the cut-off at (ie, there were literary titles that sold over 200k), but 50k felt like a good one. If you put the cut-off at 300k you’d just have like a dozen titles, which is too small of a sample.

        “Finally, you argue that literary fiction does sell well, (without providing any real facts) and yet you say it shouldn’t matter. Seems like you should make up your mind.”

        There’s no contradiction here. 1) Sales are a matter of luck and marketing, not an indication of quality. 2) People shouldn’t lie about the facts. When Walter writes about fantasy and horror books being more popular than literary fiction, he’s just wrong based on the actual sales data we have. There’s no contradiction pointing that out AND saying that sales shouldn’t be the focus of the critical discussion.

        I think your talk about literary types “repositioning” or the soldiers of the losing side is, again, like trying to turn this into a GOP vs. Democratic battle where it’s all about your “team” winning and facts are irrelevant. In reality, the writers who have broken down the genre/literary wall are writers who grew up reading and loving both. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and the rest have spent their whole careers saying how much they loved genre fiction and championing overlooked writers. Even the older writers like Don DeLillo who have done the crossover have been doing it for decades. DeLillo wrote Ratner’s Star, a SF book, in the 70s. And the crop of writers my age weren’t even alive for the literary battles of the 60s and 70s. We didn’t lose or win any war, we weren’t around for it.

        Who are the anti-genre literary realist writers who’ve suddenly changed their mind? Are there any literary writers who attacked genre for decades and then suddenly started writing fantasy and SF novels in the last 10 years? Or is that just a straw man?

      • Lincoln Michel

        To your question of what Fiction General titles are normally classified literary fiction, there were books by Anthony Doeer (the #1 bestseller in that category), Donna Tartt, Lily King, Celeste Ng, Mark Haddon, Elena Ferrante, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Lauren Groff. So those are 10 pretty unquestionably literary titles from authors who publish in literary magazines, have MFAs, and/or won major literary awards.

        After that it gets murkier. Chrstina Baker Kline has an MFA, but maybe you’d want to label Orphan Train as historical fiction. There’s Paulo Coelho, Frederick Backman, and Sue Monk Kidd who are all shelved in literary on amazon but I suspect some people would disagree.

        Even only counting those first 10–and not including any of the classics–still leaves literary fiction with more titles than fantasy, horror, and westerns put together.

        As for the rest of Fiction General, it’s a mixed bag. There’s Vince Flynn, Kristin Hannah, Jodi Picoult, Glenn Beck, Garth Stein, Jojo Moyes, Fern Michaels (x 2) and 3 Liane Moriarity (x 3).

        But please keep in mind that part of my point is that genre divisions are highly debatable and often unclear. As I noted in the article, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is shelved as Science Fiction by bookscan, but many people both in the literary world and in the science fiction world would say it was more properly literary fiction. The one horror title is probably properly a thriller (Flynn’s Sharp Objects.) Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchmen, the #1 seller in any category, was shelved in Classics despite being published this year. But no matter how you slice it, literary fiction titles make up a big chunk of the best sellers.

      • Mackay Bell

        “It isn’t my “argument” that 126 books had sold over 50k copies, that’s what BookScan’s data said. ” But that information, that BookScan collects the data, doesn’t support your argument. Exactly how many of those 126 are literary fiction and what are the total sales of those books? (Provide a link to your sources if you don’t want to do the math.) If there are 20 literary fiction books that sold over 50k copies and their total sales are two million copies, that’s significant. Unless there are 20 contemporary women’s books whose total sales are 10 million, and 30 thrillers whose total sales are 30 million, etc. You talk about facts but you aren’t providing any but a kind of bogus pie chart. You’re cherry picking details.

        Also, I don’t believe the argument that the genre breakdown is the same wherever your made the cut off (say at 10,000 sales). You have to provide data to support that.

        The argument against literary fiction is that it doesn’t sell, except when it gets a huge marketing and promotional push by big publishers to favor literary darlings by buying self space in bookstores and getting critics (and Oprah) to promote it. (Arguably to people who don’t even read the books, but simply buy them to seem like they’re literary.) That argument wouldn’t be contradicted by a small number of literary fiction titles breaking into the top 50K. But I’d still like to see the actual numbers you’re tossing around. (The fact that Bookscan lumps literary fiction in with other titles is also suspicious, and supports the argument that there is an effort to conceal low sales. And let’s not even get started with the fact that Bookscan is undercounting indy ebook sales, which are often genre.)

        As for listing literary fiction types who have shifted gears, I frankly don’t read literary fiction, so I haven’t kept track of what those writers opinions are or how they might have shifted. No one cares. I’m making my observation based on articles like yours that are trying to say there isn’t a war between genre and literary fiction. But there is, and was. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be talking about it. Nor would you be talking about “genre blending” literary fiction.

        If literary fiction was selling, there would be no need to try to point that out. It would be common knowledge and publishers would continue to buy and promote it. But it isn’t selling, that’s why you have to play around with numbers to try to prove that it kind of is, while also opening the back door to for everyone to flee to the safe comfort of popular genre. (Blended in a “literary” way, so we can all still feel superior while also selling books and having actual readers.)

        The term literary fiction has become toxic for good reason. It’s a failed non-genre genre that was shoved down a lot of writers and readers throats by college professors and big newspaper critics in the thrall of the New York literary scene. There’s nothing wrong with great writing, and nothing wrong with writers who write genre in sophisticated ways. But it’s silly to pretend there wasn’t an army of college writing professors who didn’t hold up their noses whenever someone dared to write about zombies or wizards, and encouraged countless boring novels about college professors having midlife crises or the difficulty of fitting into prep school. Nothing much came from that grand experiment in navel gazing literature.

        There’s still a little life left in the squeaky old machine that promoted literary fiction. So the new literary darlings trying to make it today can try to mobilize the few remaining newspaper critics and literary award establishment types in a desperate effort to be relevant with serious zombie and wizard books. But I think they’re going to have an uphill battle against the writers that haven’t been damaged the disconnect between making readers happy and satisfying a snobby elite.

      • Lincoln Michel

        I’m afraid I think you are kind of proving my point. You are making sweeping generalizations without any data or evidence to support you. For example: “If literary fiction was selling, there would be no need to try to point that out. It would be common knowledge and publishers would continue to buy and promote it.” How can you say that when the Big 5 regularly buy literary fiction and several high profile debuts have sold for over 1 million in the last two years? (There’s a link to that in the article). Do you really think that it’s easier to sell a horror novel or a non-YA fantasy novel to a big 5 publisher? On what basis?

        I’m afraid Neilsen BookScan is not public, so I can’t link you to it (although every publisher has access, so if someone with access wants to disagree with data they certainly can.)

        I can say, though, that if you think there are 20 commercial women’s fiction authors combining for 10 million bookscan you have an unrealistic view of the market. When I collected the data for this article, there were only 3 books in any genre that had sold over 1 million: Go Set a Watchmen, Grey, and Girl on a Train. No women’s fiction title sold anywhere close to even half a million. The top 20 titles in that genre are more likely to combine to 2 million than 10 million.

        “The argument against literary fiction is that it doesn’t sell, except when it gets a huge marketing and promotional push by big publishers to favor literary darlings by buying self space in bookstores and getting critics (and Oprah) to promote it. ”

        I’d say that argument would strike against genre fiction just as strongly or even stronger: genre fiction almost never sells hugely unless there is massive marketing or else a film/TV adaptation. That’s especially true in the genres I love: SF/F/H. As I noted in the piece, there was only 1 non-George R.R. Martin title over 50k in fantasy, and the SF bestsellers were books like The Martian (Matt Damon blockbuster), Jurassic Park (biggest pre-Star Wars blockbuster of the year), and so on.

        But again, this was a point I made in the article. A huge marketing campaign for a genre book is considered “natural” but a big marketing campaign for a literary title means the sales are artificial somehow.

      • Mackay Bell

        “I can say, though, that if you think there are 20 commercial women’s fiction authors combining for 10 million bookscan you have an unrealistic view of the market.”

        I don’t think that. I threw that out as a possible example of a number because you aren’t providing any numbers. You aren’t providing any facts. You’re giving incomplete details out of context. If you can’t back up your numbers, you haven’t proved your point. Exactly how many “literary novels” sold over 50k? Exactly how many copies each? If you have access to the data, then share it so we can see if it really says what you say it does.

        Are you counting “Go Tell a Watchman” as literary fiction? That’s kind of a stretch given it was really a rough draft dug up from a grave, but okay. How big a piece is that one book of your pie chart? Is Grey also included in the general pie chart?

        I never said it was easier to sell genre to big publishers. I assume it’s harder. It’s hard to sell anything to big publishers, unless you’re an insider. Because it’s a rigged game more interested in feeding favoritism, nepotism and influence peddling than servicing readers. (And it has little to do with good writing.) The bulk of the money in big publishing is coming from their back catalogue (and mostly genre in the back catalogue). The profits from that cash cow allow executives to play literature curators and reward their favored literary darlings. So yes, they’ll pay a ton of money for a piece of literary fiction if it suits their egos, and they’ll buy shelf space and promotion to force it out into the market place. (Along with some Hungry Games and Fifty Shades of Grey to make sure the bills are paid.) But there isn’t a natural fan base for literary fiction, and interest in it is declining.

        The most important phenomena right now in writing and reading is self-publishing and digital ebooks. In that world, it’s very hard for the big publishers to gain advantage by buying front shelf space in bookstores to give prominence to specific books, and readers are less influenced by snobbish book critics in dying traditional newspapers. In that world, according to the Author’s Earnings reports ( (you can google Author’s Earnings for the actual data), Genre Fiction accounts for 69% of all ebooks being sold. Fiction and Literature (which includes classics) accounts for 5%. So in the digital world, literary fiction is a very tiny percentage, despite some heavy hitting promotion by big publishers for the most well known titles.

        It is very possible that lovers of literary fiction are more drawn to paper and therefore there is a lot more of it being purchased in print. But I still think it’s probably a small percentage of total print book sales, and likely shrinking.

        The irony of all of this is that the supposed goals of literary fiction, striving for art rather than following popular formulas, is now completely attainable by any writer. The writers of literary fiction are completely free to self-publish and connect with readers who love that kind of work. (And yes, there is print on demand for lover’s of papers.) There should be a huge renaissance in literary fiction. There should be tons of blogs devoted to the best new writing, and plenty of independent criticism and analysis. The writers of it should be thrilled they can create and publish without permission from gatekeepers and connect directly to readers.

        Unless, of course, it was all a fraud that was started in the cloistered world of academia and promoted by snobby ego driven publishing executives (graduated from big universities). Unless there isn’t a natural reader base for it, and it required the monopoly powers of big publishing to promote and exaggerate it’s importance. Unless the writers drawn to literary fiction aren’t really interested in the art of it, but require outside validation from the New York literary scene and expect mainstream success and adoration for their “art.” Then, there is a problem. A problem that is made worse by the fact that all the big New York publishing companies are now owned by huge international media conglomerates that aren’t so interested in wasting money to promote books simply for prestige value at cocktail parties. A problem made worse by the internet’s ability to cater to readers real interests.

        So if literary fiction was a huge fraud, and it really wasn’t about the art of it all, then what becomes of all those academic circles and literary influencers when anyone can publish anything and all that really matters is what readers want to read? What do all those educators and gatekeepers and curators do when it becomes obvious that no one is interested anymore. Why… move toward genre. Literary genre! And, of course, claim they weren’t against genre to begin with.

        Fine. In the meantime, if you have any actual data proving that literary fiction (propped up by big traditional publishing) is actually selling well, I’d love to see the details.

      • Lincoln Michel

        I already listed out the literary novels by name. I’d say it’s about 12 new books and 18 from the classics, depending on what you want to count.

        I fundamentally disagree with your idea that there are “natural” bases of fans for anything. Fandom is complicated, but it is driven by different forces and doesn’t occur spontaneously. It isn’t a genetic feature of human DNA. The fandom of literary fiction is created from writers, readers, critics, professors, and so on. Similarly, the fandom for epic fantasy or anything else is created by writers, readers, critics, successful adaptations, and more. You use of the word “natural” is entirely artificial, and a substitute for actual data.

        “Why… move toward genre. Literary genre! And, of course, claim they weren’t against genre to begin with.”

        Again, who are these straw men you keep attacking? Who are the anti-genre snobs who now embrace genre?

        I find your explanation ahistorical though. The trend toward literary genre crossover fiction started way before Kindles and ebooks. The Kindle didn’t even come out until 2007, and ebooks didn’t comprise any significant part of the market until 2010. Jonathan Lethem had published like 10 books before 2007. McCarthy had already won a Pulitzer for The Road. Michael Chabon had published a bunch of novels and won a Pulitzer and a Hugo for genre-bending work. Ishiguro had already published Never Let Me Go, which was on like every award shortlist. Karen Russell, Kelly Link, etc…. all the authors associated with the literary genre crossover work pre-date the rise of ebooks and self-publishing. Critical praise and major awards going to literary genre crossover stuff pre-dates ebooks and self-publishing. There is no reason at all to believe that the trend occurred because of events that hadn’t happened yet.

      • Mackay Bell

        “I already listed out the literary novels by name. I’d say it’s about 12 new books and 18 from the classics, depending on what you want to count.”

        About 12 books? Still not big on doing the math… but okay. I’ll do some. 12 books out of a total of 126 means about 10% of books selling over 50K are literary fiction. Does literary fiction get more than 10% of discussion in book reviews in the New York Times? I would say so. Does it get more than 10% of attention in university writing programs? I would say so. Is there more attention on literary fiction that it deserves relative to it’s sale? Your numbers seem to indicate so, but you are arguing they prove the opposite. (Even if you double it by tossing in classics.)

        Is that 10% growing, or shrinking compared to years past? I would suspect it is shrinking. And I still maintain that even achieving that 10% number requires traditional publishers putting more effort into marketing and promoting literary fiction that the actual sales justify.

        As for the trend of literary genre blending, I didn’t say it was in response to ebooks. It’s more in response to the fact that since it’s creation as a term back in the 60’s, literary fiction has never proven to be popular and always required great efforts, mostly by universities and book critics, to prop it up. But, the internet, falling print sales, and ebooks, is certainly accelerating it’s decline. And it doesn’t help that the influence of big papers like the New York Times is also rapidly declining.

        There’s nothing wrong with literary oriented writers writing genre. Just like there’s nothing wrong with classically trained opera singers putting up You Tube videos singing Taylor Swift songs. If that gets some people to attend opera, fine. But at some point you have to ask why these people are bothering to train themselves to sing opera if so hard to get anyone to listen to it.

        As for fandom, absolutely there are natural fan bases. Steam Punk wasn’t pushed on writers and readers by a bunch of college professors and snobby publishing executives. It evolved naturally from mashups of various artistic sources. The trend of young girls fighting in dystopian worlds evolved naturally and gained fans under the radar without some literary critics promoting it the public. Sixty Shades of Grey was viral, and not only did it find a natural fan base of readers, it had to fight the trend of main stream media mocking erotic writing.

        And, in fact, women’s fiction in general is downplayed, both by publishers and book critics. Science Fiction also used to suffer from being stigmatized.

        Very few people would have ever heard of Jonathan Franzen if it wasn’t for Oprah. And Oprah wouldn’t have had a career if she hadn’t started with a show that borrowed a lot more from Jerry Springer than Dick Cavett.

        As I said, if literary fiction has a real fanbase, now should be a golden age for it. Readers can find and read any of it they want. Writers can publish and promote their best work without worrying it will disappear in slush piles. Critics and fans can point others out to the best material.

        But, in reality, getting people to buy literary fiction requires publishers paying bookstores what amounts to payola to give special provence to selected works, which are then promoted with expensive ad campaigns in big newspapers and print publications which scratch the backs of the publishers by writing glowing reviews about the importance of the books. Even so, most of the books are shifted around the paper distribution system until they are pulped. But, okay, 12 managed to sell over 50K. Fine.

        But the mere fact that you are writing about this shows the pressure that literary fiction is under. If it was doing well, there wouldn’t need to be articles like yours talking about how it’s doing just fine, really! And about how there really never was a battle between literary fiction and genre. It’s like Prussian miltary advisors saying the invention of the machine gun doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still learn how to do calvary charges. While pretending to laud literary fiction’s merits, you’re mostly pointing toward the genre exit doors. The straw man I’m taking about is you.

      • Lincoln Michel

        Merry X-Mas Mackay,

        I, not surprisingly, disagree with most of what you are saying and find that most of these statements seem to be going of your hopes and biases instead of actual data or objective reality.

        For example, why ask if 10% of NYT coverage is literary fiction? That’s the wrong way to look at it on two levels: 1) The NYT’s job is not to cover all books that are released in the exact proportions that they are released (or sell), but to cover what their readership will find interesting. 2) Conversely, there are tons of magazines and that disproportionately cover genre fiction or commercial fiction, so why aren’t you asking why those magazines DON’T cover literary fiction with 10% of space?

        Why is it artificial and bad for the NYT to cover more literary fiction but natural and good for Oprah to select more commercial women’s fiction than fantasy fiction or SF?

        That 10-30% (depending on whether you count classics) being literary fiction is still, I feel the need to emphasize again, more than SF, fantasy, horror, western, or most genres. My point was never that literary fiction is THE most popular genre. It isn’t. Thrillers/mysteries are by far the most popular. But literary fiction, considered as a genre, is still more popular than most.

        What one need to keep in mind here is that the average reader isn’t a teenage SF/F nerd OR an MFA touting literary fiction writer. The average reader is a middle-aged woman. They are who buys the most books. Once you realize that, it isn’t confusing why middle-brow realist books sell more than epic fantasy or hard SF.

        “Very few people would have ever heard of Jonathan Franzen if it wasn’t for Oprah”

        Franzen was a best-seller before Oprah picked The Corrections. Also, Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom both sold WAAAAY more than most of Oprah’s book picks. His success can’t be entirely attributed to Oprah.

        But, in reality, getting people to buy literary fiction requires publishers paying bookstores what amounts to payola to give special provence to selected works, which are then promoted with expensive ad campaigns in big newspapers and print publications

        !

        Are you under the impression that big publishers DON’T pay for prime bookstore space for commercial books? You think publishers DON’T have huge ad campaigns for the latest big thriller or commercial women’s fic book? I regularly see ads for commercial books on the NYC subway. There are billboards, sometimes even in Times Square, for big commercial fiction books! The publicity and marketing spent on genre fiction massively dwarfs what is spent on literary fiction.

        But again, ad money spent on commercial fiction either doesn’t count or is “natural” while ad money spent on literary fiction is proof of a grand conspiracy to trick the public into buying Franzen books.

      • Mackay Bell

        Happy Holidays Lincoln!

        Yes, it is possible to make money writing literary fiction (like it is possible to make money singing opera). With the right marketing, some publishers can actually build successful business models around it. And, I hope it goes without saying, there is some terrific literary fiction out there that deserves good marketing.

        But saying that as a genre, literary fiction is doing better than westerns isn’t saying much. I also don’t think you’ve made a successful argument that it sells better than sci-fi, because of your arbitrary 50K cut off (I think it’s possible a very large number of sci-fi titles might be doing better on average in the 10K-40K range) and because you aren’t counting indy digital titles. In sci-fi, in particular, self-published books are huge (see Hugh Howey) and in digital literary fiction is a very tiny percentage. I’d also have see more details about how everything is categorized, because a lot of YA fiction is really science fiction.

        The bigger question, raised by your post, is where is literary fiction going. You mention that the New York Times is entitled to favor literary fiction in their reviews, which clearly they are. But the New York Times is in trouble. It’s print version is fading and it’s not growing on the digital side as much as competing news sites (in particular the Washington Post, which is clearly focusing more on pop, genre, entertainment). The NYTimes relevance to the larger public is shrinking, and with it, the ability to promote literary fiction over other alternatives. Other traditional newspapers in big cities, that similarly gave extra time to literary fiction, are in even worse shape or have closed.

        You mention there are lots of publication devoted to various genres, and that’s correct. Many new ones are appearing. That’s a healthy sign for genre. What is not a healthy sign for literary fiction is that, other than the fading NYTimes, it doesn’t have a lot of well trafficked promoters on the internet. As I said before, the digital revolution should be wonderful for literary fiction, more writers can get published, readers can find anything they want, etc. Unless, it really was all, for some “readers,” about having a pretty printed book on your coffee table that said you were a serious literary type. The tools that traditional publishers have to get those kinds of books on coffee tables are becoming less effective.

        The market for print books is shrinking and will likely continue to shrink. Yes, the New York Times is trying to claim that it’s stabilized, but even if that were true, the fact is it’s relevance to world culture will shrink compared to other forms of entertainment, including genre writing.

        Another growing problem is that Hollywood is shifting away from making films based on literary fiction. That used to be a home run for writers and publishers, getting the book produced as a feature film. Options for that are shrinking, as Hollywood not only shifts more toward specific genre offerings, but genre films do much better box office. (In terms of whether a writer should focus on writing sci-fi or literary fiction, total prints sales would be only a small consideration compared to the potential to sell the IP to film and television. Sci-fi is unquestionably a better choice.)

        The real question is whether literary fiction, as a genre, will survive in the digital age. I don’t see any thing in your statistics to indicate that it will. The trends I see are all negative.

        The problem with literary fiction is that it claims not to be a genre. It’s an artificial genre basically invented in academia. (With a little help from the CIA, google CIA and literary fiction if you doubt that.) Basically, it’s defined by what it isn’t. It doesn’t use popular story formulas. So… that pretty much dooms it as popular entertainment, short of heavy promotion by interests with more concerns than money. It follows in the great tradition of out of touch academics and critics who love plays without actors, paintings without paint, music that doesn’t sound like music, films without plots. And that’s a dead end, because it simply exists as a counterpoint to the popular.

        None of which is to say there aren’t some great plays that don’t have actors, or music that doesn’t sound like music, or films without plots. Or great books that don’t follow any story formulas. It’s just that by their very definition, those kinds of things are less likely to be popular.

        Likewise, arguing the merits of literary fiction based on popularity is inherently doomed, because the strongest adherents will question the “literary” qualities if writers start to follow popular trends. This has already happened with the trend to dismiss “chic lit.” The same will happen with literary writers who delve into sci-fi too strongly, if they become truly popular they will simply be recategorized as sci-fi writers.

        As for my biases, I didn’t attend an MFA writing program, and I don’t follow the literary scene. So my comments are based primarily on two things:

        1. The complaints by people in the literary world who feel threatened by the digital revolution, including those complaining of smaller advances and the difficulty of getting publishing deals. The unconvincing arguments by people like yourself that literary fiction is not in trouble. Also the efforts to justify “literary fiction” adopting genre elements, IE the rats leaving the sinking ship defense.

        2. The incredible rise of indy self-publishing, which is primarily genre. It has gone, in about than five years, from effectively zero to a billion dollar industry. It is still growing rapidly, and enriching many writers. (Stock disclaimer, not everyone gets rich, etc.) More importantly, readers are now presented with a lot of variety and choices. This is a hugely exciting, growing world of writing and reading.

        Frankly, I would love to see literary fiction become a big part of the self-publishing success story. I’m not rooting against it. But I’m skeptical based on #1, all the bemoaning of writers and literary fiction advocates who either don’t talk about self-publishing or actively fear it is undermining “literature.” Which makes me think they really pine a fading world were piles of “serious” books are placed in the windows of bookstores as the NYTimes lauds them as being must reads. Whether anyone wants to read them or now.

        As for westerns, there are some who claim that it is gaining popularity in the digital age. Some older writers are having big success self-publishing their back catalogues. There are those that argue that publishers unfairly rejected it in the past, and now some readers are flocking to it. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s significant that writers and readers of that genre are optimistic about the digital future, rather than the pessimism that seems to surround literary fiction. Including, the arguments, like yours, that the pessimism isn’t justified.

        Am I wrong? Are there some literary fiction writers out there who are raving about the fact that they have self-published their old books and doing well? Are there others that are thrilled they don’t have to send out submissions and can go straight to readers? Are there self-published literary fiction writers who are doing well?

        Because if there aren’t even a few of those success stories, it seems to indicate that without the assistance of a big publishing company, literary fiction won’t survive the digital age other than as an artifact of another time.

      • K. D. Rose

        I was just having this discussion with another author (one that actually sells well.) I wish there were not such a war when the terms “literary” and “genre” come up. It makes it really difficult for those of us who want to write literary fiction to find support anywhere and keeps the myth (?) or trend (?) going of agents not really wanting to read or accept Literary fiction.

        In the end all we can do is believe that a book will eventually make it through on its merit, but must there be such a nightmare bedtime story (true or not) of squashing?

  20. Evilmale

    “Sometimes it feels like there are only five topics the literary world can write about”

    You mean:
    – Why aren’t there more women writing?
    – Why we should stop reading book by white men
    – Women writers you should be reading
    – Dead writers who were problematic
    – Problematic! Writing! Women

    I mean, look at your top 10 most read article list FFS

    Reply
  21. Bookish People #59 – Bored to Death book club

    […] Lincoln Michel on the myths of popularity. The massively popular books are very rarely among the best, whether shelved as “genre” or as “literary.” Want to know what the best-selling book of the year has been? Go Set a Watchmen, a cash-grab novel that many have argued was unethical to even publish. The second? Grey, another cash-grab where E. L. James rewrote 50 Shades from a male point of view. (And, yes, Hollywood “reboot” culture is absolutely coming to the literary world in the near future. I mean, hey, it’s popular.) […]

    Reply
  22. #7 Mystery | julietsbookblog

    […] Hill Mystery. It was considered the first mystery book. Ever since then mystery books has been a popular and interesting genre.  Some of the more popular recent popular mystery books are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, And […]

    Reply
  23. #7 – Mystery | Trishna Text

    […] Hill Mystery. It was considered the first mystery book. Ever since then mystery books has been a popular and interesting genre.  Some of the more popular recent popular mystery books are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, And […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.