On Being Literary
People at cocktail parties often ask me what my books are about. It’s one of my least favorite questions because it’s so hard to answer pithily, so recently I decided I had to come up with a rehearsed response. “I write literary novels about family,” I have started to say. “Literary novels about family secrets, dysfunction…” Which is true. My books tend to be about family. But what exactly do I mean by using the term literary? And why does it seem, as soon as I say it, that I detect a certain nervousness and boredom in my polite questioner? Could it be that literary immediately sounds…small? And possibly difficult? And maybe a bit dull? What am I even saying, really, when I call my books literary? What I intend to convey is that they’re not potboilers, or romances, or mysteries, or thrillers, or any kind of genre fiction. But I seem to be saying more than that.
When I was first starting out, my MFA friends and I wanted nothing more than to be literary writers. Literary–at its pinnacle–meant reviews in the New York Review of Books and Bookforum. It meant grants and awards and fellowships. It meant invitations to George Plimpton’s brownstone for his legendary Paris Review parties. But as the years have gone by, I find myself questioning my younger freshly-minted MFA ideas. Honestly, I think I was being a bit of a snob. I now know that calling a writer a “literary novelist” usually means that no one has ever heard of her. It means “destined to sell under 4000 copies unless something really unusual happens.”
Especially these days, I get nervous when I hear myself described (even by myself!) as a literary novelist because readers are very important to me, and I want lots and lots of them. I want it both ways. I want the New York Review of Books AND the stacks in Barnes & Noble. I want to write page-turners that are also literature. I used to be insulted when I would hear from readers that they couldn’t put my books down, or that they read a book of mine in a day. Now I love it — because I know how rare that is, especially in our culture of distraction. Books compete with other, easier forms of entertainment, and so if a reader feels compelled to keep reading, something good is happening. Call it whatever you want.
Maybe the next time someone at a cocktail party asks me what kind of books I write, I’ll just answer: hopefully good ones. And leave it at that.