Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Literary Fiction in a Fantasy World

I almost hit the roof today when I got a response from a well-known literary journal in Wales following an innocent enquiry from me as to whether they would like a review copy of "Conspiracy of Angels."  It wasn't the fact of getting a response that got me going -- it was the nature of it.  What the Editor said, in effect, was that it was journal policy only to review "literary fiction" -- and that since I wrote "genre fiction" I was not entitled to any space in the hallowed pages.

When I came down to earth, and had recovered somewhat from this extraordinary put-down, I thought I'd better check up and see why literary fiction is so wonderful and why genre fiction is so inferior.  Off I went to Wikipedia, and discovered that literary fiction supposedly has "literary merit" and is supposed to be "serious". Then the entry says this: "In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character. This is in contrast to mainstream commercial fiction, which focuses more on narrative and plot. Literary fiction may also be characterized as lasting fiction — literature which continues to be read and to be in-demand many decades and perhaps centuries after the author has died."  Another writer says this:  "Literary fiction is more character-driven and less concerned with a fast-paced plot than genre fiction." Literary fiction is then supposed to be more "meaningful" than other fiction, and to contain more "fine writing." It is supposed to break all of the conventions and rules that govern genre novels, and this is supposed to make it more "ground-breaking" or radical or exciting to read. (In reality, of course, some literary fiction is so self-indulgent, with plots that are so thin as to be almost invisible, and so self-consciously poetic or convoluted, that hardly anybody has the stamina and the determination actually to read it.  I have tried, and have given up on a good many such novels, on the basis that I have better ways of spending my time.)

So what does a lowly writer of "genre fiction" make of all this?  For a start, I feel insulted that the Editor of a well-known journal in Wales should assume (possibly not having read any of my novels) that my writing is somehow inferior to that of some young whippersnapper straight out of a creative writing course, who is deemed to be a "literary novelist";  that my craftsmanship and use of language is somehow inferior;  that my characterization is lacking in complexity or subtlety;  that my stories emphasise plot at the expense of anything more deep and rewarding;  and that my stories will not survive in the longer term.  I would dispute each and every one of those propositions, with a fair degree of confidence, based upon the responses of my faithful readers.  Some of their reviews are posted below.

I write stories as they come to me (as they are given to me?) with as much skill as I can bring to bear, and in a style that suits me.  I do NOT write for a particular market, or in a particular "genre" -- but I do try to write something that people will want to read and that they are prepared to pay good money for.  I want them to empathise with my characters, and it is a source of great satisfaction to me that readers -- in quite large numbers -- seem to have fallen in love with Mistress Martha and one or two of the other characters from the stories.  Over the course of eight novels I have now been able to explore Martha's character in far greater depth than any author is able to do in a "one off" literary novel.  As far as I am concerned, I am writing literary and high quality fiction -- and from the many comments I have received it appears that my readers agree with me.

I don't know whether "literary fiction" exists in a more rarified form in Wales than it does in England.  I suspect so.  After all, most of the novels published in England have to compete in the market-place, and neither authors nor publishers are subsidised.  That means, I trust, that nothing gets into print unless somebody is prepared to put good money into author advances, publishing and marketing.  Mistakes are made, inevitably, but one hopes that overall the "literary fiction" successes more than make up for the failures.  If they don't, editors are fired and publishing houses go out of business.  In Wales the market-place is much smaller and the rules of commercial publishing do not seem to apply.

One has to wonder why a leading Welsh literary magazine should concentrate on publishing reviews of English-language "literary" novels from Wales which may or may not be of high quality and which may or may not turn in profits for both writers and publishers.  It seems to me that English-language  literature in Wales is grotesquely distorted because of the culture of subsidies and grants which has spread like a plague through the whole population of writers, publishers, designers, printers, wholesalers, literary agencies, and even booksellers.  There seems to be an assumption that nothing can, or should, be published without subsidy.  I can understand the thinking when it comes to Welsh-language publishing -- which deserves heavy support within a strategy designed to keep the language alive.  But hundreds of English-language books are also published in Wales every year which would have no hope at all of turning a profit in the real world of commercial bookselling.   Some of these books are exceptional, and deserve financial aid; but many of them are not good at all, and meet no particular demand from the reading public.  They are pushed hard for a week or two, sit on bookshop shelves for a while, and then get returned to the wholesale warehouse and eventually to the publisher ........  the scandal is that some of these titles are then classed as "best sellers" because initial stocks put into shops are recorded, but not returns.

This is a book fantasy world, and within it the inhabitants congratulate themselves on what a "vibrant publishing scene" we have in Wales.  Vibrant at one level, yes, but at what cost to the taxpayer?  And would not this publishing scene be somewhat healthier if every English-language book printed had to sell in sufficient quantity to make a profit, as happens out there in the real world on the other side of Offa's Dyke?

This is the context within which our literary magazine Editor chooses novels written with grant aid, published with grant aid, promoted with grant aid, and now reviewed for a magazine which is itself subsidized with taxpayers money.  And of course, the most heavily subsidized novels are pushed very hard at every level of the publishing and book trade in an attempt to turn them into best-sellers, because if they flop that will be a sad comment on the judgement of those who paid out all those grants in the first place.  I suspect that the awarding of the annual Welsh book prizes goes on within the same scenario.  So it is a writers' and publishers' merry-go-round or gravy train -- take your pick of handy metaphors.  And there are plenty of people who are enjoying the ride, without ever being brutally exposed to the realities of the commercial publishing and bookselling world.

In this strange land of enchantment on the Celtic Fringe, a book that sells 400 copies is deemed to be a satisfactory performer, and one that sells 700 copies is deemed a best-seller......... presumably on the basis that it might have covered its printing costs.

In the meantime, we "genre writers" get on with the craft of writing good books which people actually want to read, and sell those books in tens of thousands of copies (and sometimes in hundreds of thousands) -- largely ignored by the Welsh literary establishment.

There -- now I feel much better!

Readers' Reviews

"I have just recently discovered this wonderful series and wanted to thank you for publishing such a marvellous story and historical document!"  Helgard Krause

"Your style is so full of the values of goodness, love & care, it's as if you are reaffirming these values in the reader who now seems to live in stress and turmoil - too much almost to hang on to in today's crazy world."  Rob Waygood

"Have just finished reading Rebecca and the Angels. It is wonderful, but do I have to wait until November for Flying with Angels?  Please publish sooner!"  Kate Thompson

"Have thoroughly enjoyed Dark Angel and I am half way through Rebecca.  Will be sorry when this series ends but all good things have to end sometime!!"  Jill Ellicott

"Our family have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Angel Mountain saga and have read all the books in the series."  Leigh Forman

"We had a visit to Carningli on my birthday and it was a very moving experience -- this would not have happened had you not written the Angel Mountain books which have been a source of inspiration to me."  Linda Laws

"The fact that Martha Morgan is a creation of your imagination has, for me, in no way detracted from the pleasure I gained from enjoying Martha's company.  Long may you continue to develop such full and interesting characters!  It makes the reader feel a sense of loss when the story ends...."  Sharron Clement

"The saga series is certainly worthy of classical status, and it is very easy to see Martha's story as a lavish period drama, and indeed a 'block-buster' film with, perhaps, Catherine Zeta Jones as Martha? Can't wait."  Roy Waterford

"I must say once more how both my wife and I are enjoying the series of books, they are bringing to life what it must have been like in the area in past times......." Michael L Whitbread

"I've just finished reading Dark Angel - the story just gets better & better - will poor Martha ever find true happiness!?"  Joyce Lewis

"Tears rolled down my face as the life of Martha Morgan came to an end and I felt a real sense of loss. All of the books have been amazing, enthralling, educational and inspirational. I congratulate you on such an achievement."  Pam Wilson

"I have enjoyed the first four volumes of the saga and now look forward to yet another good read. How do you keep the momentum of the story and the development of the many characters going for so long and in such a lively way?" Heather Gordon

"Once I started reading On Angel Mountain I found it difficult to put the book down, and as I continued through the remaining books it got even harder. The reader gets into the way of life of Martha and all connected with her - it gets into the blood!"  Ileen White

"May I congratulate you on your fascinating Angel Mountain series which has given me many happy hours of reading. I hope to live long enough to see it become an equally delightful television series."  Mair Price

"Congrats to Brian John on managing to draw all my senses into the book!!!  The last timeI was obsessed with a compelling need to read a book from cover to cover was 20 years ago when I read the Poldark novels by Winston Graham.  Long live Martha Morgan!!"  Heather Giles

"I would just like to congratulate you on a series of such wonderful books that you've written. My mother bought the whole series and was completely enthralled with them.  She passed them on to me and I am currently working my way through the second book, which I find difficult to put down!"  Sally Whittock

"I wanted you to know how much I loved your last book in the Martha series. I found I couldn’t stop crying at the end…not because I was sad, but because the completeness of her ending was something I felt said something to me very profound (my 93-year old aunt had just died so perhaps it was on my mind). I think there is a bit of Martha in me.........."  Clarissa Dann

"Today I feel very lonely.  After some months of reading, last evening I completed GuardianAngel, and now Martha has left me. This is only the second time I have been able to read a complete literary Saga, from beginning to end, back to back, and in one complete sitting, as it were, without any other reading in between. It has been a most satisfying, if somewhat tragic, reading experience, for which I offer you my very sincere appreciation."  Neil Carter


Rachel Howley said...

I came across On Angle Mountain a day or so before I left to go on holiday to Porthclais. I bought the book in a local charity shop and didn't actually read it until some time after (by chance) visiting Newport while on holiday. I became totally transfixed by Martha and the descriptions of a part of the world I have come to know and love dearly and have since been compelled to by book after book in the series. I have recently introduced Martha to my mother and she is as in love with the books as I am, in fact she has overtaken me now and is about to finish flying with angels in order for me to take it with me down west this week. Thank you Brian John, I continue to thoroughly enjoy the Angel Mountain Saga!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Rachel -- glad you are enjoying the series! Number 8 is out tomorrow, Easter Monday. Call in at the Boat Club on the Parrog if you'd like to attend the launch!