Today I am proud to report my first official rejection from an editor at a major publisher. It reads: “Thank you for sending me FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN by Anjali Mitter Duva. Ms. Duva is a beautiful writer – her prose is evocative, and her descriptions are riveting. There is such haunting atmosphere in these pages, and she truly has created an entire world that I know many readers will love getting lost in. But at the end of the day, this simply felt too literary for us at [pulisher name], and I unfortunately don’t see us being the right home for the novel. With that in mind, I’m going to be stepping aside.”
“Too literary.” What does that even mean? And “too literary” for what? I ask this not out of anger at all, but out of genuine curiosity. (In fact, I found this to be a tremendously encouraging rejection.) If my work is too literary, how does one define some of the far more esoteric, languid, artistic works out there?
The supposed definition on Wikipedia is anything but. Which is funny, when you think about it, because who out there felt enough of an urge to put in an entry without actually having anything substantial to say, whether factual or opinion-based?
A common differentiation is made like so: literary fiction as opposed to commercial fiction. I.e., fiction for the purpose of being “writerly” as opposed to selling well. (And by well, the implication is: money-making.) So then, is something that sells well automatically excluded from being literary? Of course not. Then there’s the definition of literary fiction as being that which is not genre fiction, i.e. not romance, not science fiction, not chick lit, not horror, etc. What, then, of historical fiction? That is most definitely a genre, one with with ardent devotees and clubs and societies, but surely fiction set in another time, aligned with historical events and mores, can be literary?
Former agent extraordinaire Nathan Bransford offers his own definition, which I quite like: “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” (Although by this definition, mine is not literary fiction. Not to give anything away, but stuff does happen. Plottish stuff. People do bad things, heroic things, destructive things.) This ties into another school of thought, that genre fiction is plot-based whereas literary fiction is character-based. Hmm. Maybe literary fiction leads the reader to some kind of realization about life or the world in addition to entertaining him/her with a story?
The one characteristic of literary fiction that is consistent regardless of the definition is that it is increasingly hard to place for publication. And I wonder, how much of this can we attribute to the shortening of the public’s attention span, the desire for instant gratification without expenditure of much effort, the frenzy of activities that threatens our ability to curl up onto a couch and spend some serious time with a book, and how much of it is due to the publishing and media industries not yet having found the ways to present and promote and enrich literary fiction through innovative methods that are more connected to how people spend their leisure time and source their media now. And how much of the onus of the latter lies on the publisher as opposed to the author? And so I embrace the challenge of pushing my “too literary” novel, FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN—and the related artistic products it may inspire—to be something “successful” in today’s media and entertainment world. Call it hubris, naiveté, hopeless optimism, whatever you’d like, but I have to see this as an opportunity for creativity.