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The Not-Quite Novel

In their scramble to find the next breakthrough book, publishers are marketing awkward hybrids that are neither literary enough to last nor commercial enough to entertain.

HERE'S WHAT A LITERARY HULLABALOO looks like these days: In its July/August issue, Quill & Quire magazine (full disclosure: I work there) ran a feature review of Lori Lansen’s The Wife’s Tale by author and Q&Q contributing editor James Grainger (full disclosure: he’s a friend). The review was mostly positive, praising Lansen’s “knack for satisfactorily ending one scene while creating anticipation for the next” as well as the novel’s “irresistible narrative thrust and character arc.” Grainger did find fault with the characterization, but concluded that, given the kind of book it is—i.e., mainstream and commercial—and given the intended audience, it wasn’t a big deal, and maybe beside the point.

In short, it was a review most authors would kill for.

However, Grainger made two errors. The first was getting some incidental facts wrong about the film rights to Lansen’s previous novel, a mistake duly noted and corrected when the review went online. The other blunder was a little trickier: by grouping the novel with the “big-hearted and story-driven” tales that tend to be favourites of book clubs, Grainger committed the Sin of Distinction, one that cannot be washed away by subsequent praise.

Witness the reaction from Lansen’s agent, Denise Bukowski. Shortly after the issue began circulating, Bukowski sent Q&Q’s new editor, Stuart Woods, an angry email chastising him for the slipshod fact-checking. Fair enough, but the true nature of her outrage was revealed in the message’s zinger: after listing some of the authors who had been picked either for Oprah’s Book Club or (as with Lansen’s previous novel) the UK’s Richard and Judy Book Club, Bukowski fought back against Grainger’s “patronizing” notion that Lansen was working within chosen boundaries. “The only thing all these writers have in common,” she wrote, “is that they are more successful than James Grainger.” Snap!

This dust-up was a visible manifestation of a larger problem dogging Canadian publishing: the semi-utopian belief that literature is a garden that not only welcomes all comers (true enough), but contains no hedges or fences, is equally accessible from corner to corner, is blind to difference and immune to personal bias. Authors of all stripes mingle freely, and woe to him who suggests there are fundamental differences between what they write and for whom it’s intended.

The fact is, however, that on an aesthetic, philosophical, cultural and financial level, not all writers pursue the same thing. Even allowing for the sundry arguments against taste as a socioeconomic construct, as well as the strange things that time and distance can do to artistic categories, it’s hard to deny that Lansen’s brand of commercial fiction is a very different beast from the species of novels considered literary.

A few years ago, a writer-friend stopped me in the middle of a long rant on everything I thought wrong with Vancouver author Steven Galloway’s second novel. The friend (also a friend of Galloway’s) said that I had started at the wrong place entirely. “You don’t get it,” she said. “Steven’s not trying to be Tolstoy; he’d rather be someone like John Irving.”

My response was to scoff, but in retrospect, she was right. Literature is not like a pyramid gradually narrowing as you move up the talent scale until you reach the apex, at which sits Tolstoy or Joyce or Atwood. If it’s any kind of shape, it’s one that spikes off in all directions—sort of like the crystal that brought Superman to earth. Some authors want to measure up against Tolstoy, while others would rather be the next Ian Rankin, or Anne Tyler, or David Foster Wallace, or Barbara Gowdy. You can quibble about the relative worth of those ambitions, but there’s no advantage in telling an apple it is insufficiently orange-like.

Galloway intervened in a similar brouhaha earlier this fall, after National Post columnist Barbara Kay complained that Lisa Moore’s novel February didn’t have enough “prole-friendly” dialogue, action and plot. “February is 99% writerly foreplay,” she argued, “1% readerly orgasm.” Galloway wrote a rejoinder in the Post, stating that “most contemporary literature is overwhelmingly reflective, personal and not ripped from the headlines. And that’s the way it should be.” A reasonable point, if a terrifically reductive one. It’s also slightly disingenuous for Galloway to defend Moore on those terms, given that the narrative hooks for both of their most recent novels are “ripped from the headlines.” (He: cellist Vase Smailovic’s defiant twenty-two-day outdoor concert during the siege of Sarajevo. She: the 1982 sinking of an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland on Valentine’s Day.)

Kay made some sweeping generalizations (“When you live off grants and stipends and prizes, you start writing for…literary elites, not for flesh and blood readers”), but her biggest mistake was championing big-plot, lots-o’-story books. The blowback against her confirmed that, when it comes to how contemporary fiction gets talked about and marketed in this country, there is a reluctance to admit that books group themselves into “types.” Certainly, these lean times have made publishers less shy about touting a book’s populist bona fides, but, as Galloway demonstrated, there remains a tendency to muddy the waters and keep things pleasantly ambiguous.

There are concrete reasons for why this is so. For one thing, a novel  categorized as mere entertainment would have a very hard time attracting serious attention from the big lit-award juries. Furthermore, that novel is at risk of being relegated to the ghetto of a newspaper book section’s genre roundup. Publishers must also contend with the fact that there is an enormous swath of readers in Canada who, though they are quite happy to allow bestseller lists and the CBC and Heather Reisman to dictate their book-buying habits, are just as eager to be seen as discerning readers. Oh, they might rent a trashy movie every once in a while for fun, or keep a few dopey things on their iPods as a pick-me-up, but when it comes to books, it is time to put away childish things. Which is why you will often see homegrown novels masquerading here as weighty literary fiction that, were they published in the US or the UK, would be wrapped in a bright pink cover with perhaps a wedding ring in a martini glass on the front, or given the raised-font treatment.

And so we must pretend that everything not self-identified as genre fiction—that isn’t the fourteenth in a series about a crime-solving mortician or doesn’t feature an elven princess or a teen vampire as its protagonist—exists somewhere on a continuum that includes The Death of Ivan Ilych and whatever won the Giller the previous year. Call it the Bukowski Doctrine.

So what’s the harm? Why worry about whether certain books are being marketed in a way that obscures their true nature? Isn’t that what marketing departments always do?

The problem is that this isn’t merely a question of marketing. As publishers slash the amount of fiction they acquire, literary quality and profitability become ever more mixed. This means expectations that were once spread out over a larger list—with some books championed by hardcore readers and thus experiencing long shelf lives, and others expected to sell a lot right away but not have much staying power—are now combined and focused on a few “big” novels. The result, which we have seen over the past few years, is a growing number of books that appear to great fanfare and then almost immediately disappear, being too thorny and/or sober to entertain, yet too conventional and broad to last. Instead of recognizing the simple fact that novels both serious and commercially viable are anomalies, publishers get ever more desperate in search of books that can be all things to all readers.

This pressure gets exerted downward, with agents informing their authors of the Facts of Life: if they want the kind of attention and healthy advances that were common a decade ago, during the boom years, they had better make sure their work is pitched broadly. More and more authors alter their approach to fit into a stream that grows ever narrower. And more and more readers find themselves baffled by books that don’t seem to know what they are trying to do, and turn away to more forthrightly literary or commercial work.

Publishers are notoriously slow to change, so it is up to book reviewers and commentators to be unequivocal about what a given book is, and to be catholic enough in their professional tastes to fairly assess diverse authorial intentions. After all, this isn’t about diminishing the commercial and sanctifying the literary. It’s about understanding (or perhaps admitting) that fiction comes in many forms. If critics and readers become more discerning, then authors and publishers will follow, and we may yet see the end of the era of the Not-Quite Novel. But perhaps this, too, is one of those semi-utopian beliefs.