I made up this word to help me express a fear I never knew I had.
I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly literary writer. This wasn’t an intentional decision, much the opposite. Being literary seemed like a more intentional choice to me. It felt like it was an active decision to wrestle with big ideas, to seek out the ‘important’ stories, to chase literary awards and load my work with words like ‘transcendence’ and ‘gravitas’. I got all the way through a master’s degree thinking this. I’ve never been opposed to reading what you might call literary works, but I never really thought I was writing them. At the same time, I was never really certain I was writing genre fiction. Those books have a very clear-cut set of rules, and I’m not sure I was ever playing by those either.
So, what have I been doing?
I recently submitted one of my novels to the Grattan Street Press. It was well-timed, coinciding with the end of my post-grad, and they offered some great feedback. Among that feedback was a suggestion, ‘how about we try a change of narration, from third to first person’. That’s a pretty major re-write.
I think in that moment, I probably looked like the metaphorical deer (or kangaroo) in the headlights. Had I seen my reflection, I’m sure I would have been paper white, with spotlight eyes and a quivering, pre-tantrum lip, because that’s how I felt. Two years ago, had someone said that to me, I would’ve gone fetal. This is why I say it was good timing, because I had just submitted my last assignment, and all of a sudden, I had all this free time. What’s more, once that moment of airstrike shock passed, I was actually kind of excited. It was a challenge, and an opportunity to work with a hands-on editor. The latter is something I’ve considered the ‘next step’ for quite a while, and have been bending over backwards to line up. Now, the realities of that relationship have set in. I’m half-way through a 300-page rewrite, and truthfully, I think it’s made it into a better book. What the editorial opinion is at the end of the thing we shall see, but I’m optimistic.
Here’s where the literary part comes in.
Last week, Grattan Street invited me to pitch my book at a Melbourne Writers Festival event on getting published, to a panel consisting of Claire G. Coleman, author of Terra Nullius, her publisher from Hachette, Robert Watkins, and one of Grattan Street’s authors, Emma Marie Jones, who just published her ‘experimental memoir’, Something to be Tiptoed Around.
It was a big moment for me, big enough that I hauled myself out on a cold Friday night, with a nose so blocked I couldn’t breathe. I also dragged Cheree along for moral support.
My question for the panel had to do with pitching to publishers and agents, ‘should I frame my book – that toes the line between the two – as genre fiction or literary?’ As I was limited to breathing through my mouth at the time, it took me a little while to get it out between gasps, but once it was with the panel they didn’t hold back.
To quote the girl from the Old El Paso ads, ‘¿Por que no los dos?’
Cue the cheering crowd in my mind. ‘There is such a thing as literary genre fic’. I felt validated in a lot of ways, but not vindicated and responsibility free. They all agreed it was ultimately up to me, and it was in fact a decision I needed to make, and discuss with my editor, as it was a discussion that would shape the editing and future of the book. It was another consideration for what was already becoming a massive project, but Claire’s parting words were inspiring enough that it made me hopeful for the fate of my rewrite. ‘Don’t be afraid of being literary’.
‘Literary’, is a big umbrella. Robert Watkin’s added ‘if you ask me what literary is, all I could really say to you is “the books I publish”’. This was refreshing. It took the ‘gravitas’ away from the term. No longer did it strictly belong to the greats of the twentieth century, or the niche writer’s so far outside of my experience I felt like a fraud.
It was just another word, one that represented space, room to move, and play… and I do love playing with words.
My editor was also at that event. She came up to me afterward and said ‘Seth, of course it’s literary! I can’t believe we hadn’t discussed that!’
Truthfully, it was my fault, I hadn’t asked her.
Now, the re-write goes on. I’m about half-way through, but I don’t think this will be the only re-write. I foresee many changes and evolutions. It’s very Darwinian. I think when the book is finished, and it eventually goes to print, it will be a very different book to the draft I finished initially, and I’m okay with that. The idea of taking on something this big doesn’t freak me out, and that feels like a win in itself. It turns out there might be a cure for Literophobia.