Stay with me while I set this up, because I'm really pissed off:

UT's Michener Center last night brought Denis Johnson last night to read. He's the author of a book of short stories "Jesus' Son", the novels "Resuscitation of a Hanged Man", "Angels", "The Stars at Noon", and more. He's got Faulkner Awards and National Book Club awards. He's taught at UT's MFA program which is pretty prestigious (I mean you really have to be something special to get in, there are like 6 seats and 2,000 applicants, because acceptance supplies a grant that covers the entire tuition.) Recently, Johnson's novella "Nobody Move" was serialized in four issues of Playboy and from this he read for forty minutes.

Now, I just finished editing Out of the Gutter #5: The Revenge Issue, with Matt Lewis and it is going to press in the next few days, but I couldn't hear any difference between what we or any writer on Crimespace is doing and Denis Johnson's work, but he doesn't get dismissed as a pulp/suspense/thriller writer. He gets academic approval and literature status. I've read his short stories in" Jesus' Son" and I don't understand how L.A. Weekly quoted it as "In a world of predictable fiction, Jesus' Son is a point-blank godsend."

A student after the reading asked me what I thought and I was in a daze and said, "It's just pulp fiction."

and he said, "Yeah, but it's good Pulp Fiction."

and I said, "Then don't bill it as anything else than pulp fiction otherwise he's slumming."

and he got all defensive, "Yeah, but the voice is raw and real."

and I told him to go to a soup kitchen six blocks over and steal their stories.

He turned away and the entourage of MFA's slipped off to a closed party with Denis Johnson.

So here is the question, what with Tin House and others using genre sponsored contests to exclusive writing programs, have any writers here been able to cross the line or even want to into the fiction/lit shelves of the bookstore? Have they been able to get grants or lit based awards? Or are they stuck in a genre section? Who is in charge of labeling and pigeon holing novels?

Just note, I'm not attacking Denis Johnson personally, it's just the shorts I have read of his were more like character studies and impressionistic forages into degenerate portraits, but not completed stories.

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I think you may have inadvertently hit the nail on the head. I've always suspected that the main difference between genre fiction and "literary" fiction is that the in genre fiction, something has to happen outside the emotional development of the characters.

Some of the "literary" fiction I've read, can go on for hundreds of pages with lots of emotional development, ennui, and angst, but very little physical activity going on. It's like reading half a novel, you have the characters, their damaged psyches, angst, and ennui, but no plot.

Maybe that's just me.
I read Denis Johnson's Angels not long ago, after a high recommendation on Ed Gorman's blog. I figure if Ed thinks it's great, it is. In this case, though, I didn't entirely agree with Ed. The book was pretty much like your description of literary fiction, lots of angst and character development, but not much action. The style was a bit more dense than pulp fiction, if that matters. I found after reading about a hundred pages that I didn't much care about the characters being developed, and that didn't change by the end of the book.
In the end, only the numbers count. How many copies do the literary authors sell? And having asked that, I wonder if the literary lions don't get better publicity than we do. The publishers like to demonstrate that they support artistic excellence. There is one British author (Banville) who also wins nominations with his crime novels written under a pseudonym (Black). The insiders assume that the literary award-winning author must also be an outstanding mystery author. I checked and couldn't get through his crime novel, though I admire his language in THE SEA.
Having said this, I try with every book to do a bit more than the minimum which might suffice in the average crime novel. I'm not sure that it helps sell novels, but my small following of fans seems to appreciate it.
It's like Hollywood's, "Be careful how you arrive, it's what you'll always be." This is usually said to a young actress considering sleeping with someone for a part - no matter what success she goes onto after that, she'll always be a whore.

You can go from lit to genre, happens all the time. I find Margaret Atwood's sci fi books rather ordinary, but I bet I've read a lot more sci fi than the folks who review her books. But she was smart enough not to arrive as a sci fi writer. John Banville. Whoever the fuck Inger Ashe Wolfe is. "The Killers" sure wasn't Hemingway's first published story.

The problem is, as JonL points out, the writing has to, "satisfy a specific set of conventions," and in the real world, so does the writer. You can carry yourself like Bukowski all you want, but your characters better not be together enough to rob a bank or deal a little dope at a profit, they better total constant fuck-ups that end their stories even more pitifully than they started, you better not have a plot (theme is king in lit, remember that) or any kind of resolution. If you want your pulp fiction to be taken seriously, then you have to walk the academic walk and talk the academic talk.

Look, if you take Out of the Gutter and change the title to something classier and put classy covers on it, you can call it literature, too. As long as you've got cartoon blood and gore on the cover I will respect you a lot more and read the magazine, but that's the way it is.

Sorry, I'm cranky today.
Um.... no one...

At Bouchercon Declan Hughes was doing a little ranting about the whole genre-lit thing and the comment about a book, "transcending the genre," and he wanted to know if a jazz album was so good, could it become a classical album?

John Connolly also has some of this stuff on his blog.

Here, let me brag a little. In the current issue of Canada's book magazine, Quill and Quire, they name their 15 Books of the Year for 2008 and mine is one of them. In the description they say my book is, "a sprawling portrait of the city that's rare for any novel, genre or literary." At first I was thinking, why bring that up, but then I realized I don't care, man, they only picked 6 novels from the whole year and one of them was mine.

Whoever said that about looking at the world like high school made a lot of sense. Lit isn't the smartest kids but it is the coolest, best-dressed kids (I've beento their festivals). Now, when you try and hang around with them if they don't like you there's nothing you can do. Just ignore them and find some kids who like you for you and don't worry that they aren't cool enough.
Oh, nice, John! Major compliments! And yes, I love praise better than sales figures, but in the end you can't have one without the other.
As for "theme", why can't there be a theme in a crime novel? Why can't there be characters who exemplify aspects of the human condition? Why can't there be the occasional lousy ending (or dead cat)? For that matter, I also like some imagery now and then.
And quite right about concentrating on the audience that appreciates you.
Well, who cares what we say. But like you said, "it has to satisfy a specific set of conventions; each genre and sub-genre has its own set," and I would say that lit fic is just another genre with its own set of conventions. Failing to satisfy those runs the same risks as you mentioned for genre fiction, so I hope you avoid that with your stories.

By an odd coincidence there's an almost literary debate going on in Canada right now over a review of the new Alice Munro book of short stories. She's almost the definition of literary short stories, being doing nothing but for what, thirty years? And now she's got what may be her first negative review (in the Calgary Herald):

Alice Munro’s world is unremittingly grey. It may be one of the seven deadly sins of CanLit to utter a critical word about Munro, but the sin of a scanty plot is an even bigger one. This collection can’t rightfully be called stories. They’re unsatisfying sketches of characters who wander through depressive environments, observing the idiosyncrasies of those around them. Yet, those idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements.

So, in defending Alice Munro (as if she needs defending) someone wrote:

However, it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasn’t read much literary fiction before. Which is the real issue here: surely some sensitivity and expertise should be a prerequisite for a book reviewer?

I guess they mean expertise in literary fiction - a genre unto itself and they'd like to see it reviewed by someone who understands the conventions, the same way we'd like to see someone who knows something about crime fiction review our work.

Now I'm going to go to the end of this thread and also agree with John Dishon about crime writers being too sensitive.
I love Hemingway's short stories. Though I prefer his genre stories like, "Fifty Grand," and "The Killers." (okay, that was a joke)

I do disagree about the coneventions of genre though. I think the crime genre, at least, is far less restrictive than you make it seem (I understand you're exaggerrating for effect, of course). There's "mystery" which has pretty tight conventions, sure, but then there's "crime," which is a lot looser.

I can use myself as an example. My books have lots of crimes but very few of them get solved, there's no main detective character, no following of clues, the reader knows pretty much everything about the crime from the very beginning and so on.

Of course, I didn't know I was writing mystery fiction until the publisher put the words, "a mystery" on the cover. I was worried that people looking for a mystery novel wouldn't find one, I'd fail to satisy that specific set of conventions and no one would buy the book. The publisher told me not to worry. I still don't think many people have bought the books, but the reviews have been good and no one has complained about all those conventions I failed to satisfy.

Now, though, I think the publisher was right because if we'd try to sell the book as literary fiction I don't think the reviewers and readers of that genre would have been as accepting of my cop and professional criminal characters or of my breaking of the literary genre conventions.

But I could be wrong about that, too. This thread did start with somebody talking about a writer they felt was a crime writer being called a literary writer. I hope you don't get referred to forever as, "mystery writer Jon Loomis trying a literary novel."

We had something like that in Canada this year, too, a guy named JD Carpenter had written three mystery novels and then he wrote a literary novel featuring one of the minor characters (guy who hangs out in the same bar as the detective) from his series. His literary book, though not having any crimes in it, only got reviewed in the mystery sections of papers and I think it failed to find much support in the literary world even though it's a terrific book and doesn't say "a mystery" on it anywhere.

I guess what people are saying is that this is a distinction that only happens in books. The movie of The Godfather can win an Academy Award, but the book won't win the National Book Award.
I re-read The Godfather about ten years ago, and heartily concur with a commentator whose name escapes me: it may be the greatest bad book ever written.
To me, there are two primary differences. In genre fiction, stuff has to happen, and it has to make sense. (Even in sci-fi, the conventions of the author's fictional world must be observed.) To read that from the opposite end, in literary fiction, nothing has to happen, nor does it have to make sense. Not to say that it never does, but it doesn't seem to be expected. Hard core literary writers have become like classical music composers, writing only for themselves and the few cognoscenti worthy enough to comprehend and acknowledge their greatness, the general public (read: paying customers) be damned.

Personally, I don't need to read to be involved with something where little happens, and what does happen makes little senseI I have my life for that.
George Pelecanos from his introduction of "The Best American Mystery Stories 2008"

Which brings me to next point. There is another book out there, from the same publisher as this one, called "The Best American Short Stories." I would contend that several stories in this collection are among the best American short stories of the year. So why two books? The short answer is marketing. There are folks who fancy themselves too erudite to try a volume of mystery stories. They believe that one is mere entertainment, and the other is good for you. It's my opinion that any kind of reading is good for you but, rather than reopen the literary-versus-genre can of worms, I will again defer to Raymond Chandler, from a section of his landmark essay "The Simple Art of Murder";

As for "literature of expression" and "literature of escape" -- this is critic's jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythms of their private thoughts.

It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently -- one can never be sure -- is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure as escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or the Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.
Genre writers are so insecure (generalization). If you like what you write, why isn't that good enough? Why is literary fiction's respect so worth having for you guys? There's all kinds of slams about how boring and navel-gazing literary fiction is, how nothing happens, blah blah blah, yet you all still want to be held as equals? If it's so bad, why would you want your work compared to it? Get that chip off your shoulders.


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