When asked if she writes literary or commercial fiction, author Jane Davis leans toward commercial fiction for several reasons. For one thing, commercial sells relatively better than literary fiction and allows her to buy random items like food. She’s also slightly wary of claiming the same status as others writers such as Dickens and winners of the Booker Prize.
The author of six completed novels including, most recently, An Unknown Woman, which won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award, Davis does admit to sharing some of the same characteristics as literary writers. Davis writes slow and shudders at the idea of using word count as an effective measure of writing progress.
But, overall, she remains only slightly willing to admit her work is literary. Even if you DO write such fiction, an agent once told her, keep it as commercial as possible.
One element that informed the development of An Unknown Woman came when Jane cut back on paid work, which impacted her economic situation. That made her think about how people can be identified with material possessions, thereby informing the story of a woman who lost her material possessions to a house fire.
Here’s Jane Davis….
1. What novel (or piece of writing) did you author that inspired you to fill out my survey? Include a link so readers can check it out.
I am on my ninth novel, but for the sake of good order I will claim it was my most recent release, An Unknown Woman. Readers can download the first chapter and find all of the links on my website at http://jane-davis.co.uk/books/an-unknown-woman/.
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
For this particular novel, it was an idea. In 2013, I took the decision to cut back on paid work, which meant selling the car and ridding myself of a lot of material baggage. I wanted to explore how material possessions inform our identities.
The action begins with my main character, Anita, standing outside the house she and her partner have lived in for fifteen years and watching it burn to the ground. It is very recognisably my house. My partner and I joked about how I might be tempting fate. But it was just a joke. We aren’t terribly superstitious – although I must admit that we’ve had more near misses in the last year than I’m comfortable with. (There may be some truth in the saying, “You attract what you think most about”.)
Then in February 2014, three months after I had finished chapter one, my sister and her husband lost their house and practically everything they owned to the winter floods. She lived on the island on the Thames that you can see in the first photograph in this article.
At the point when I completed my first draft, I considered if I should abandon the project. My imagined scenario had become reality for someone very close to me. Eventually, I compromised and changed the ending, and that too gave me a new angle to explore.
3. Keeping with one survey question, you identified a great theme for your literary work. Did that theme exist at the beginning of the writing, or did it emerge only through the telling of your story?
For me, books always start with a question, a desire to understand something or how an event could have happened the way it did. I wanted to tackle the subjects that are relevant to the life I am living now, which bears little resemblance to the life I imagined for myself when I was a child, back when my father told me, “When you’re an adult, you can do exactly as you like.” I consider what it’s like to be childless when the majority of friends have children, even when childlessness is a positive choice; the extension of youth into what was previously thought of as middle age; the feeling of being cut off from adulthood. In that sense, it is my most personal novel to date.
But I also have to hold my hands up. I’m a shameless scavenger of facts. There is nothing more flattering than when people tell me their extraordinary stories and say, “I’d like you to write about it.” One strand of An Unknown Woman is based on my elderly neighbour’s experience of what happens when the bond between mother and daughter is absent. In my neighbour’s case, he spent his married life guarding his wife’s secret by being both mother and father. It was only when I sent my manuscript to beta readers that I realised, far from being a ‘small story’, this issue is more common than I could have possibly imagined.
But while the subjects of post-natal depression and delayed bonding are discussed, the sense of shame that a mother experiences when she can’t love a child – sometimes a child who was very much wanted – precludes that same openness. The generosity of my beta readers in sharing their own experiences certainly shaped the final version.
4. Did your perspective on this theme change as you wrote the story? Did you find yourself less in control of your narrative than you expected? Or did you find that you knew all along, based on your convictions, how the story would emerge? Were you, in other words, the “alpha” in the emerging narrative?
Since I don’t plot, my process tends to be very organic. The structure for a novel might not reveal itself until I am several drafts in. Then, when you know your material really well, a single line might leap out at you – something that you thought was quite inconsequential when you typed the words – and you realise that it is the one line the whole novel pivots on. It’s how Howard Carter must have felt when he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.
With an earlier novel, I Stopped Time, I introduced a present-day strand when I realised that I would be unable to say everything that I wanted to in the voice of my main character, model-turned-photographer, Lottie Pye. And so, the revised premise became the story of how the reclusive Sir James Hastings discovers the mother who abandoned him when she leaves him her photographic work in her will.
With A Funeral for an Owl, it was while I was ironing out flaws highlighted by a structural editor that I discovered another major issue: I had failed to take account of the fact that it was thirty years since I left school. The behaviour of two of my main characters, both of them teachers, would have been illegal under current Child Protection laws. The stupid thing was that all of the information I needed was available on the local government website, had I realised. Then it struck me that there was a huge opportunity to be had. I could change the focus of the novel: what kind of boy would it take to make two teachers put their jobs on the line? And it gave the plot a new momentum.
In the case of An Unknown Woman, the house fire quickly becomes the least of Anita’s problems. It’s the psychological fall-out and what happens when she is stripped of her armour that drives the narrative. She has to find the answer to the question, “If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?”
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
You see, that’s one of those questions where whatever answer I give can be used against me. For example, if I refer to the quality of the prose then there will be an example of science fiction with the most poetic language – Station Eleven, for example.
If you remove genre fiction from the equation, we are left what is called ‘general fiction’. If we think of a sliding scale, at one end sits commercial fiction. Modern and contemporary fiction is at the midway point and the other sits literary fiction. But it’s not as simple as that. As we know, literary elements may be found in commercial fiction (and, indeed, in genre fiction). So perhaps a Venn Diagram would be a far better illustration. This offers scope to drill down into the sub-categories, which are often far more telling.
6. Within the scope of that definition, how did you hope to impress the reader? Did you hope to evoke emotion with a story about some element of life the reader would connect with? Or was your mission to challenge and thereby expand a reader’s perspective on a subject most others would feel is already “known”?
Henry James wrote in an 1884 magazine article that a novel is “a direct impression of life”. My own favourite definition of fiction is that it is “made-up truth”. I’ve never shied away from big subjects. Sex addiction, religious visions, prostitution – they’ve all featured in my fiction. But all that I can ever do is to try to make these issues accessible by exploring them through the eyes of one or two characters. I agree with Samuel Johnson that an author only begins a book; it is the reader who finishes it.
7. Do you consider yourself a writer of literary fiction? Or a writer of other genre fiction that carries literary elements? Please provide an explanation for your answer.
When I was traditionally published, it was under the women’s fiction imprint of a major publishing house, but they rejected my follow-up because they said it was literary.
But for the fact that independent publishers are forced to categorise their own fiction at the point of publication, I think it is best left to other people to hold a mirror up to your work. I can safely say that I’m not a writer of genre fiction. I tend to veer towards the classification code for modern and contemporary fiction.
‘Literary fiction’ is a label I continue to feel uncomfortable with. As someone with few formal qualifications, it seems arrogant to claim a title shared by the likes of Dickens, Austen and Booker prize-winners.
I am also aware that it can be off-putting for some readers, who associate it with something difficult or inaccessible, something that will have them constantly reaching for the dictionary. As John Gardner wrote in The Art of Fiction: “I don’t want to be lectured, have issues thrust down my throat or, dare I say it, be called upon to admire the beauty of the language.” While Eimear McBride used her competition wins as a platform to urge publishers to back fiction that is challenging, the fact is that a large section of readers just want to be entertained.
The kind of writing I enjoy – and hope to emulate – presents complex ideas in simple language. My favourite opening line of a novel is from The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies. ‘To lose a small boy in a world so wide is an easy thing.’ Perfect, and only one word contains more than one syllable.
And to throw another sentence into the mix–this one comes from The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham–when one character tries to explain why he has fallen for a particular man, he says, ‘He is not anyone Eakins would have wanted to paint.’ Again, I love that. To use of the word, ‘Oh,’ and have it stop you in your tracks in the way Elizabeth Strout does, a trick she repeats several times in My Name is Lucy Barton, takes real skill.
‘A tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.’
I think one essential element of literary fiction is the feeling that every word is in its perfect place. And I want to mention two indie writers here – Dan Holloway and Rohan Quine, both of them at the absolute top of their game, but at the same time you have the feeling that their best is yet to come.
Another strand I share with literary writers is that I write slowly. I’m horrified when I hear some authors talk about word count as if it is the be all and end all, and say that they publish a new book every 12 weeks. I think it’s only really possible if you are writing a series and already know your characters so that you simply put them in a new scenario and you’re off. At this stage in my writing career, my main concern is not only to maintain the quality but to improve and develop as a writer. I hope that if I had spent two years writing something and felt it was not up to scratch, I would have the good sense not to publish it.
8. How would you discuss your book in context of its genre? If you consider it literary, why? If your book falls more closely within another genre, what elements would you say make it literary?
Asked whether she wanted to market her fiction as literary or commercial, Adele Parks enquired, “What’s the difference?” The reply came: “Literary fiction sells an average of 7,000 copies. Commercial fiction sells an average of 70,000 copies.” There was her answer. She wanted to eat. I would also like to eat.
9. Is the literary community a closed community? Or are there inroads for writers of literary fiction to reach readers other than those reading literary fiction now?
I was discussing fiction with an agent recently and he commented that regardless of genre, regardless of whether you are writing literary fiction, you should make it as commercial as possible. This I took to mean that you should make it as accessible as possible. The literary page-turner is hard to pull off, but there are incredibly successful cross-genre novels out there. I’ve mentioned Emily St John Mantel’s Station Eleven already, but it’s such a gem of a book, it deserves another mention. It’s won an award for Science Fiction, but I don’t think anyone would argue it’s pure science fiction. And yet she’s written something that appeals to the sci-fi community, which is a huge market to break into.
And speaking of Mantel, Hilary Mantel’s move to historical fiction brought her an enormous fan base who will no doubt lapped up her earlier more contemporary and perhaps less obvious work.
10. Is it realistic that the Kindle Store will one day feature more independent writers of literary fiction? Or will that category always reflect traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets? (This question relates to #9, I suppose.)
The Kindle Store already features a great number of independent writers of literary fiction, so I wonder if you mean the Kindle charts.
Traditional marketing budgets are not what they were. In many cases authors fund the majority of their own marketing. Last year, The Telegraph published an article under the heading, ‘Why Great Novels Don’t Get Noticed Now.’ In this case, the great novel had been written by Samantha Harvey, whose debut had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, and had won the Betty Trask Award. Her third novel, ‘Dear Thief’ had a cover quote from Michael Cunningham and scores of glowing reviews following its September release, yet, even with these advantages, it only sold 1,000 copies. Harvey’s editor Dan Franklin explained that, ‘She writes serious books, which is not to the modern taste.’
Let’s not forget that literary fiction has always been a hard sell. A recent re-reading of Diana Athill’s wonderful memoir Stet, served as a reminder that the Booker Prize was founded in 1969 in order to make fiction newsworthy, so that people for whom books are one form of entertainment among many might be tempted out of bingo halls and cinemas.
All that’s changed is that there are now even more alternative forms of entertainment, many of which are free. Athill goes on to describe how, when the typescript of a literary book arrived on her desk, she would hope it was bad, because then the decision was easy. But if it was good, the dreaded editorial conference would follow at which the team would estimate how many copies they thought they might shift, and the answer would generally be, ‘About eight hundred’. The decision was then to turn something wonderful in the knowledge that it wouldn’t wash its face, or to accept that they would make a loss.
I consider myself to be in good company.
Comment: Questions or observations for Jane Davis can be left in the comments section below. If you’re an author who wishes to join the ranks of other writers of literary fiction who have participated in the LitFic survey, click here.
Jane Davis is the author of six novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Five further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and comparisons to more seasoned authors such as Kate Atkinson and Maggie O’Farrell. In July 2016 An Unknown Woman was awarded Self-Published Book of the Year 2016 by Writing Magazine and the DSJT Charitable Trust.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey, with her Formula 1 obsessed, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she is not writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.