Monday, September 22, 2014

The Very Different World of Literary Fiction

Literary Fiction is not my world.  And on some level, it totally boggles me.

Case in point, this weekend I just heard about the book The Goldfinch by Donna Tarrt, which came out last year and won the Pulitzer.  Now, I haven't read it, of course, and can offer no meaningful comment on either it or Ms. Tarrt's body of work.  As evidenced by the fact that I only heard about it this week, what's going on in literary fiction (and especially with the Pulitzer) simply is not in my usual circle of information.

But here's the thing that I honestly do not understand.  The Goldfinch is Ms. Tarrt's third book.  Her other books, The Secret History and The Little Friend, came out in 1992 and 2002, respectively.  So that's three books in 21 years, with a decade between each one.  How exactly does one maintain audience, let alone the interest and patience of one's agent or publisher, with that kind of gap between each work?  It would strike me that in this day and age, one could hardly build a writing career like that.

I mean, I get the literary once-and-done, like Harper Lee with To Kill A Mockingbird.  The lack of follow-up makes it stand out all the more.  But I would think that, say, around 2010, there wouldn't be anyone sitting around saying, "Remember the person who wrote that book eight years ago, and that other one eighteen years ago?  When's the next one coming out, because I can't wait!"

Now, it could be that Ms. Tarrt is an extraordinary talent-- each book was lauded with praise, including the Pulitzer, so I can accept that she is an outlier.  Maybe each of those books stay with the readers so strongly that no amount of time would fade interest.  But it strikes me that the path of "great' literature usually follows along these lines: three or four novels written over the course of a lifetime.  That this is almost what is expected of those authors.

As counterpoint, consider the current leading Grand Poobah in SFF circles: George R R Martin.  With just Songs of Fire and Ice books He's written almost twice as much book (by word/pagecount, not number of books) as Ms. Tarrt in almost half the time, in addition to other writing projects... and yet there is an underlying narrative of George needs to write faster.* And in general, if someone in genre had their last novel in 2002, on the whole the narrative in 2013 would have been that their career was dead.  Heck, I know of one who, because she waited a few years between publishing Book Two of a series and finishing Book Three, was completely unable to sell Book Three, and ended up self-publishing it even many more years after that.

So, is this part of the nature of Literary Fiction?  Does its audience expect their writers to deliver a masterpiece, then vanish for many years while working on the next one?  In those circles, is that the pace of writing they aspire to? 

Now, I'm not saying that genre writers need to be machines, where cranking out product is more important than craft.  But it seems within genre a pace of, say, a novel per year is a lot more common than out in the lit field.

But since I do have a pace to maintain, time to get back to it.  So you in the word mines.

*- And, as they say in the song, in the time George has had, William Shakespeare churned out 35 fricking plays.  Because he needed to pay his bills.


Unknown said...

I think finances is the difference. Literary fiction is not expected to generate enough income for an author to live by writing. I don't know anything about Donna Tartt specifically, but authors of literary fiction in general are expected to make their bread-and-butter money with various forms of teaching (in the best case) or other day jobs. Focused writing has to be squeezed into sabbaticals or in lulls between other responsibilities. They're considered successful by how many awards and accolades they achieve.

Genre writers are generally considered successful based on commercial results, and it's expected that successful genre writers will also be full-time writers. So it's a different set of expectations and responsibilities.

George R.R. Martin also wouldn't face such scrutiny if the gap were between the end of one series and the start of the next. It's the fact that he's writing relatively slowly on the middle of the story that's maddening, especially given the precedent for fantasy series of longer than three novels to fall apart.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Donna Tarrt's wikipedia page doesn't say anything one way or the other, but yeah, I imagine she's also a professor somewhere, or something like that.

Though genre writers aren't typically "full-time", either. The only ones that I know who are usually have working spouses to supplement their income.