Readers of my blog know I am an emerging advocate of independent authors of literary fiction. A few months ago, I published a post called Tearing Down the Wall: Why the Literary Community Should Embrace Indie Authors. In that post, I decried the resistance of the traditional literary community to independently published works of literary fiction.
Well, so now that I’m done bitching about the problem, it’s time to act. So I’m about to try an experiment and I hope that independent authors of literary fiction will help by playing a role.
I’m launching a survey in which my goal–my AMBITIOUS goal, I should clarify–is to publish an epic roundup post highlighting 75 independent authors of literary fiction.
Why 75 authors? Why not 75? It’s certainly more than anyone will find in Amazon’s Kindle store.
Read on to learn more.
Calling Independent Authors of Literary Fiction
Readers checking out the “literary fiction” category in the Kindle store will primarily find books published by the Big 5 traditional houses–Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan and Simon & Schuster. Book purchasers here end up “feeding the beast”, that is, they support the mighty gatekeeping publishers who decide who does and doesn’t get published.
Finding any worthwhile list of literary novels–or novels with a literary bent–that have been published independently in the Kindle store is just….
….whoops sorry about that. I just started laughing too loud to continue.
So in the interest of pulling together such a list of independent writers of literary fiction, I am introducing this survey. It is currently open to writers who believe their books–even if classified in the Kindle store under a specific genre–have some literary quality.
What Literary Fiction is Supposed to Do
So okay…more about how this survey came out.
As a genre–if one can really call it that–literary fiction is supposed to capture in some written form and offer a treatment of at least one major theme in life. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary zeros in on the social oppression of a wilful and passionate woman in the 19th century. The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s treatment of the exploitation of rural workers. Using a more contemporary example, Louise Erdrich’s stories, such as Tracks and Love Medicine, highlight the challenges facing individuals with various American Indian communities.
The “specificity” of each of the above-mentioned stories is meant to be traced, at some higher level, to themes common to the experience of every individual. That’s what makes them literary.
Everyone has faced oppression or rejection of one sort or another (as did Madame Bovary), simply because they didn’t believe (or behave) a certain way. This might have ranged from ostracization from a group of friends to rejection or punishment from a religious institution. Workers can be exploited by institutions, or family members by bullying patriarchs and matriarchs. If you, the reader, discover upon reading Erdrich’s novels, that the challenges facing the Anishinaabe family resemble something you have experienced, then maybe–just maybe–your beliefs about such communities of American Indians might make them seem less foreign.
And that leads to the point about what literary fiction is supposed to do.
Once you strip away all the social, ethnic, national and gender differences between individuals, you’ve got human beings. And human beings, for the most part, are pretty much the same. Our experiences are the same. Yes, elements of culture mean communities have different traditions, behaviors and beliefs. Differences in values mean people approach problems and challenges with different kinds of solutions.
But for the most part, we’re all torsos with eyes and appendages seeking love, acceptance and safety.
Reading literary fiction is meant to be a transformative experience. It is supposed to develop a greater sense of connection between characters and the reader–even if the characters’ experiences in the novel personally have NOTHING to do with the reader’s. It is that deeper meaning–that great theme–that readers can attach, on a deeper, more fundamental human level, to their own experience.
The great power of reading is that it brings an individual’s internal experience to others. And, in doing so, it demonstrates the shocking amount of similarity between people’s desires. People, for the most part, want like things even if their approach and the manner of their approach to achieving those goals is different.
Hopefully…and I say HOPEFULLY…that makes the reader more sympathetic and compassionate, and drawn toward a greater understanding of others, in social situations. Out and about, when we are with people, we only have a chance to meet the “external mask” that others hold up for the benefit of others.
If we know that under those masks are desires, hurts and fears so like our own but which we cannot see except through the proof of our reading experiences, we develop a sensibility–a literary sensibility, if you will–that helps us recognize the world that lives within each person.
This is how literary fiction is supposed to make readers, and people, better human beings.
What Literary Fiction Is Doing in the Age of Independent Authors
Literary fiction has also suffered in reputation as the reading interest of the erudite and snobs. Non-literary readers have long wondered why readers (and writers) of literary fiction are drawn toward “certain kinds” of books, whether they be difficult to read–as in Ulysses by James Joyce–stylistically unique, which can also make them difficult (think Thomas Pynchon) or just plain boring as in…well, I can’t name anything, because I happen to enjoy literary fiction and I DON’T think it’s boring.
I personally think many arguments (or attacks, maybe?) against the literary sensibility are not well founded.
But what’s interesting is that, in recent years, as independent authors have become a legitimate force in book publishing. the world of literary fiction has stayed behind in the traditional publishing world.
Independent authors of genre fiction are benefiting in leaps and bounds from the fact that readers are buying e-readers and books online for a fraction of what they would pay for a printed, bound version in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Those readers are buying, well, genre fiction.
My novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, though, is a literary novel. One might argue that if I’m simply looking for readers for my books–and as a student of Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10,000 Readers course, indeed I am seeking readers–then I should just start writing thrillers, or mysteries or horror, since they are already selling in an electronic form.
But that’s not who I am.
So why is the literary community so averse to hopping on the bandwagon? Here is a brief Twitter exchange I had with M.M. Leonard a few weeks ago.
@jay_lemming nope. Prizes are biased
— MMLeonard (@Matt_M_Leonard) April 18, 2016
@jay_lemming it's a New York scene. The panels who pick winners are kind of in social circles
— MMLeonard (@Matt_M_Leonard) April 19, 2016
Well, that smacks of the same elitist sentiment I mentioned above. Is the literary community simply made up of a coven of self-congratulating individuals who brook no engagement with others?
Or is it something else? And if so, what else?
Is it a fear of the “quality” of independently published books?
Ten years ago, hardly anyone would touch the work of independent authors with a twenty-foot-pole without presuming these were screwball writers with no talent or quality writing to speak of who went to Xlibris because they had no other choice. Well, the tireless, professional and persistent efforts of legitimate independent writers, the vocal advocacy of groups such as the Alliance of Independent Authors, and the advent of vendors who sprang up to serve independent authors, upped the reputation of this community.
Except among the literati. Sigh.
In the end, the reason the literary community is still stuck in the Stone Age of publishing, where writers are at the mercy of some agents and publishing houses, doesn’t matter. Many theories abound about this phenomenon and, at the end of the day, theory doesn’t matter as much as reality.
And the reality is that the literary community has largely stayed on the sidelines during the independent writing game.
This thing really needs a shove. It needs momentum. It’s time to kick the fucking door down.
Indie Writers of Literary Fiction: High-Pressure Situation
Whenever someone tries to change the culture of an institution or a community, the innovators need to be the first to change. They need to behave in the “new” way they want others to think of them, and they need to speak about and engage with a kind of community that may not even exist yet, but which they are attempting to bring to life through their new behavior. They are trying to fake it so they can make it.
And that’s difficult. The world around innovators expects them to snap back into place, to resume their role within the status quo. Everyone watches and expects and perhaps even hopes for failure. Because no one likes change. A single slip-up by the innovator and the world pounces and says “I told you so”. The status quo is familiar and why in god’s name would anyone want to rock the boat, anyway.
So as far as creating a list of independent authors of literary fiction–a list the Kindle store knows nothing about–here is my challenge to potential survey respondents.
Don’t just fill out the thing. Fill it out because you offer high-quality work. Yes, I’m the one up here on my platform ranting and raving, not you. But if you write literary fiction, you write it because that’s what you love writing. And you would, presumbly, like to have readers.
So you have to bring heat. You need to show the world you deserve recognition.
I don’t know what high quality means yet as far as this survey goes. I didn’t include any questions asking about professional credentials. Maybe it will mean an included’s author’s independent books have a certain number of reviews, or that the author should have a certain number of Twitter followers or subscribers to her email list. Maybe the author should have some publications in literary journals under their belt. I just don’t know yet–this is new to me. If any reader has suggestions about what those standards should be, by all means email me your suggestions.
But I believe a piece-of-shit book is a piece-of-shit book, and I don’t believe a book should be considered literary fiction just because a writer says it is. Because a low-quality book will just validate those who believe independent authors of literary fiction should just stay where they are: unpublished.
But I know that’s not you. I know you will bring more.
Because I also don’t believe that independent authors should simply be equated with low-quality writing. That’s not right either. I don’t buy it.
So if you want to participate, make sure you have something to offer that’s going to push the walls back a little or, even better a lot.
Let’s build this thing.
Survey time. Here’s the link one more time.
Comment: Please share your thoughts below about developing such a roundup post of independent writers of literary fiction. Is it a good and worthwhile idea and why?
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