By John Gilstrap
I’m getting a little panicky. Tomorrow (Saturday), I am moderating a panel at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, called Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts, an exploration of the truths and truisms of the prejudice we all have felt at one time or another.
I’m one of those people who takes moderating responsibilities pretty seriously, so as I gather research for the panel (two genre authors and one literary author), I’m finding this all to be much more difficult than I had expected. Defining genres is fairly easy. You’ve got your mysteries, your thrillers, you romances and on and on, each with their expected constructs. Okay, I get that. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rules and some crossover authors, but basically genre is, well, genre.
So, what the heck is literary? I talked to my agent today to bounce my thoughts around and hypothesized that perhaps “literary” could be defined as absence of genre. No, she said, that would be “mainstream.” Literary is something else. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a lot of help when it came to putting a finger on a useful definition of that other something.
Some who post on the Internet posit that while a commercial novel stresses plot, a literary novel stresses other-than-plot. Okay, then explain how Harper Lee or even J.D. Salinger can be considered “literary.”
There are lots of throw-away insulting definitions of “literary,” but those aren’t useful to me in my hour of need. Seriously, what makes the difference? Is it merely a matter of personal taste? Surely it has to be something more that merely “well-written,” because most books fall within a ring or two of that bull’s eye.
If a book fails to move me, can it still be “literary”? If a book does move me, can it be anything but? All input is desperately welcome.