Look, if the AMA can come out with a Food Pyramid, revising it as information and whim suits, I can create my own Book Pyramid for adult fiction. Only in my case, it’s about the hierarchy of respect accorded various types of books, not nutrition; mine runs from most desirable from top down as opposed to the AMA’s least desirable at the top; mine isn’t really shaped like a pyramid. OK, it’s not shaped like one at all. But other than that? It’s exactly the same thing. Here goes.
THE BOOK PYRAMID, by Me
There! We’re done! Have a great day!
Oh, well. I guess I can’t really get away with this as it is, since it’s too short for the specs for a proper LitChat [BiblioBuffet] column. So let’s talk specifics about a few of these categories. (This is probably a good time to point out that opinions offered here are strictly my own and should not be construed as being shared in any way by the management.)
LITERARY FICTION. Q: Just what is literary fiction? A: No one really knows. Oh, people will give you all kinds of things they think make a work literary, but mostly, people are just making stuff up. It’s the vision! It’s the language! You know, because novels deemed not literary have no vision or language. For a good laugh and to see how hard it is to pin down just what exactly literary fiction is, check out the muddled attempt by Wikipedia to define the term: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_fiction and for extra-credit fun scroll down to John Updike’s comment on the issue. (I think that, posthumously, I’m finally falling in love with John Updike.) In a way, literary fiction is like pornography—no one can scientifically tell you what it is, they just know it when they see it. My take? Yes, some books are inarguably literary—The Great Gatsby springs to mind—but the phrase is also a catchall for that which does not fit neatly into any other genre by virtue of stories told and conventions used (or not used). So here’s a tip for all those novelists out there dreaming of having their novels categorized as literary: just make it so it can’t possibly be wedged into any of the other categories listed above. Poof! You’re now a literary novelist! You move to the top of the pyramid! Well, it may not be that easy if you’re a woman. (More on that later.)
Now, don’t think I don’t hear you talking out there. I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Lauren, that’s whack. People don’t get coronated literary novelists just because they don’t fit into any particular genre. If it’s non-genre but it doesn’t meet a certain literary standard—and no, I can’t draw a graph for you, something along the lines of your stupid pyramid, because there’s no science about this stuff—then it’s not literary fiction. It’s general fiction; or commercial fiction, if you will.” Man, I let you have the mic and you do go on, don’t you? No, it’s not general fiction or commercial fiction. Publishing types, novelists, chain bookstores, and people like you and me might use the phrase “general fiction,” but I promise you no general reader thinks of it that way. And they certainly don’t go throwing around the phrase “commercial fiction.” Let’s picture Aunt Fannie, strolling or rolling into the local bookstore. She goes up to the counter and asks—what?—“Do you have any good commercial fiction? Or maybe you call it general fiction here? I’m really in the mood for something commercial. General too, if you have it.” Aunt Fannie might ask by name for any of the categories in the Book Pyramid above but she will not say that ridiculous thing I have her saying.
SUSPENSE. I have no idea who Suspense slept with to get to the No. 2 spot on the respect pyramid but there you go. Oh, and if you’re a novelist and you can somehow persuade reviewers to label your books “literary suspense,” you win the double gold star because you will receive respect and make money. A prime example of a literary suspense novelist would be Arturo Perez-Reverte whom I feel deserves every bit of the critical acclaim and financial rewards he receives. Okay, I have a literary crush on him.
MYSTERY. It’s a mystery why Mystery is so high on the list because when you think about it, a mystery is no better than a romance in criminal clothing, from the Meet Cute (detective encounters a corpse) to the Happily Ever After (detective solves crime). And look where poor Romance is—why, if not for Chick Lit, Romance would have no one to look down on!
THRILLER. You know, I’m not sure there’s sufficient difference between Suspense and Thriller for them to be separate categories so I’ve got nothing to say here and will revise the Book Pyramid accordingly at a later date.
HORROR. What with Stephen King receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Book Award ceremony a few years back, you might think that Horror would have risen higher than the center of the Book Pyramid, but Horror is filled with far too many not-Stephen-King writers plus it’s got one too many laughable book jackets working against it. Sorry, Horror.
SCIENCE FICTION. Like with Horror, a case can be made for Science Fiction rising higher. It’s written by wicked intelligent people—they know science! But Science Fiction has spent much of its life shackled into the bookstore coupling of “Sci-F-/Fantasy,” so I’m guessing Science Fiction will just gracefully accept its lot.
FANTASY. Hobbits. Dwarves. Elves. Seriously? Sure, what you do takes a boatload of imagination, arguably more imagination than yet another novel about a middle-aged man having a midlife crisis. But you’ve got hobbits. And dwarves. And elves. Y’all are just lucky there are enough non-genre women novelists in the world to form their own category, which brings us to…
WOMEN’S FICTION. It actually makes me crazy that such a label even exists. What is Women’s Fiction anyway? More easily defined than Literary Fiction, it’s non-genre fiction of a serious or earnest nature, written by women, primarily about women, and primarily purchased by women. But take out the word “women” and… Hmm…I’m getting the glimmering of an idea here. If I can put a few more of those together, I might have a whole thought.
ROMANCE. On behalf of every sensible-minded person in publishing, Romance, I’d like to offer my apologies. You make countless people happy and you make more money than any other category. In fact, it’s thanks to you and all the money you bring in that many other books are even published. You, in effect, pick up the tab. So you deserve better than being next to last. That said, you’re sensible, Romance, far more sensible than many give you credit for. So I know you’ll understand it’s not me putting you so close to rock bottom, but rather, I am only the messenger who has designed the Book Pyramid which merely depicts the reality you already know all too well: that what you do does not receive the respect it deserves. Now, please. Go do something about the worst of those covers. You’re practically as bad as Horror.
CHICK-LIT. Do I need to explain why this is at the very bottom of the pyramid? Do you need to hear it one more time? Do you need me to explain once again that all Chick Lit means is books written primarily by and about women facing contemporary problems, characterized by humorous or edgy writing? I think you can see why this should be at the bottom, hateful as it is. Oh, wait. Take out the word “women” and suddenly you’ve got a description that fits writers like Tom Perrotta and he’s…Literary Fiction, right?
[Sidenote: The Thurber Prize for American Humor has been awarded annually since 1997. A woman has yet to win the award.]
And now my glimmering of an idea has gotten together with another glimmering and has emerged as a full-blown thought. Hell, if the AMA can re-structure their Food Pyramid, I see no reason why I can’t restructure my Book Pyramid. So, voila! Henceforth, it shall look like:
THE New and Improved BOOK PYRAMID, by Me
I just waved my magic wand and—poof!—gone are two odiously titled categories. As a result, everyone whose books have ever been categorized thusly has now leapfrogged all the way to the top of the Book Pyramid. That’s right. Jennifer Weiner, you’re now a literary novelist! Jodi Picoult, you’re now a literary novelist! Wow, I feel like Oprah, giving everybody cars… only without the cars!
Sorry, Romance, you’re still screwed. You and Fantasy, discuss amongst yourselves.
[Note: The above is a reprint of an essay by Lauren Baratz-Logsted that originally appeared on October 17, 2010, on BiblioBuffet, which sadly ceased publication of new material in January 2013.]
Lauren Baratz-Logsted is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read more about her here.