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'08 Authors Insider Tips


Everything About Epublishing
by Angela James
Epublishing: A Different Way
Choosing an Epublisher
Your Milage May Vary
Understand Your Contract!
Reasonable Expectations


FictionCraft
by Louisa Burton
The Publishing Biz
Critiquing: To Give and ...
Commerical vs. Literary...
Antiformalism for Fun &...
So You Want to Write a Novel
The Story Idea
Planning Your Novel...


The Write Stuff
by Ashley Lister
5 Steps to Success
Inspirational
Opening Passages
Let's Get Critical
Writer's Block
Learning Lessons


Two Girls Kissing
by Amie M. Evans
Be a Finisher ...
Listen to Your Characters
Conferences: Act Now ...
Starting an Erotic Story
Exercises & Writing Prompts
Revising & Rewriting
Copy Editing
The Manuscript Critique
How to Submit Your Work
Reading as Craft


Guest Appearances

Adventures in e-Publishing
by Lisabet Sarai

For the Love of Man
by Laura Baumbach

How to...Influence Editors
by Alison Tyler

Marketing your e-Book
by Brenna Lyons


2008 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister
Role Play
Busy Doing Nothing
Picture of a Fish & Chip...
What I Did With My Summer


Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
Naughty Cookies...
Tie Me Up, Please …
The Smut-Writer’s Holiday
Never Trust the Narrator ...
Compare and Contrast
Following the Pen
Naked at the Farmers Market
Iím Easy, But Iím No Slut
Good Girl Gone Bad
Pleasures of the Dark Side
Slow, Spare and Sexy


Get All Worked Up
with J.T. Benjamin
Raising Daughters
Jamie Lynn
Utopias
Lust
The Good Old Days
Election '08
Traditional Marriage
Campaign 2008
Free Will


Pondering Porn
with Ann Regentin
Masturbating on SSRIs
Sex and Disability
Besides Ourselves
Adjusting our Contrast


Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Sex Is All Metaphors
Turn-ons and Squicks
Sexual Truth
Fickle Muse
Porn, Erotica & Romance


Provocative Interviews

Between the Lines
with Ashley Lister
Alison Tyler
Ashley Lister
Debra Hyde
Donna George Storey
Jeremy Edwards
Kristina Wright
Rachel Kramer Bussel


Erotic Hot Spots
by William S. Dean
Interview with Tilly Greene
Interview with Devyn Quinn


Getting Graphic
with William S. Dean
New Times for Readers...
The Future in Words ...
Interview with Fantagraphics


On Writing Erotica

The Accidental Pornographer
by Lisabet Sarai

The End of Innocence
by Lisabet Sarai

Get Them Off in High Style
Helena Settimana

So, You Want To Write Erotica?
by Hanne Blank


Web Gems
Hot Movies For Her

FictionCraft
By Louisa Burton

The Great Divide:
Commercial vs. Literary Fiction



If you’ve ever taught creative writing, or even just sat around with your pals chatting about books, two questions inevitably arise. #1: What, exactly, is the difference between literary fiction and the various genres? And #2: Is literary really better?

Question #1: It’s kind of a trick question, because literary fiction actually is just another genre, with its own particular literary form in terms of style and story. Those who hold this type of fiction up as the only “serious,” or legitimate fiction will argue with that, insisting that there are no particular expectations when it comes to “real” literature, but they’re wrong. Try sending a fast-moving, action-packed page-turner to an imprint that specializes in literary fiction, and no matter how dazzling it is—and it can be the most brilliant piece of writing in the history of literature—I guarantee you’ll get it back with a sniffy little note about how it “isn’t quite right for us.”

Question #2: Popular, or commercial fiction, which I happen to write, is obviously better than literary fiction, as evinced by its compelling stories, empathetic characters, and crisp pacing, not to mention its colossal share of the market. That’s why it’s sometimes called “commercial”—because it sells.

What? I’m coming off as a linguistic chauvinist who makes value judgments based on skewed and self-serving criteria? Wonder where I picked that up.

Okay, so all (or most) snarkiness aside, what really is the difference between the genre known as literary fiction and the other genres, (including mainstream fiction, which is popular fiction that doesn’t conform neatly to any of the other genre conventions)?

Popular fiction is a very old and classic form of storytelling, embracing certain archetypal themes, character types, and story elements that go back literally thousands of years. The majority of mysteries, thrillers, romances, westerns, science fiction novels, fantasy novels and mainstream bestsellers are heroic stories wherein our protagonists draw upon their innate strength and virtue in order to battle the odds against them—whether those odds be a subtle internal conflict or Lord Voldemort. Hence the frequent and much-loved happy ending—not a deus ex machina, cavalry-to-the-rescue ending, but one that’s been hard-earned—which leaves us feeling uplifted, fulfilled, empowered. Even when the ending is ambivalent or negative, there’s generally a sense of balance and rightness that is, or at least should be, satisfying to the soul.

Popular fiction focuses on character and story, which in a well-written work are inextricably linked. Change one, and the other must change with it. That said, it is character, not plot, that is at the heart of the success of these stories. If they’re page-turners, it’s usually because we empathize with the protagonists so deeply that we have to keep reading to find out what happens to them.

When a piece of popular fiction fails, it’s often because the author relied too heavily on a story that was carved in stone from the beginning, without allowing the characters to mold and shape it. Another common pitfall is the overreliance on the tried-and-true language and storylines of one’s chosen genre. Writers who tend to read only within that genre are particularly susceptible to this.

“Literary fiction” is a term that’s only been around for about the past three or four decades. A much younger phenomenon than popular fiction, it sprang from the so-called naturalist or realistic literary movement around the turn of the twentieth century, in which technique, rather than content, is prized. Story and character take a backseat to style, theme, and imagery. The pacing is often stately; the artful use of language is paramount.

There are also certain common denominators in terms of how the story unfolds. In literary fiction, our protagonist isn’t larger than life, but very human, and it’s likely, even probable, that his struggles will be in vain. I think it’s safe to say that most literary novels conclude in an ambivalent or negative way; positive, upbeat endings are rare. One of the reasons that popular fiction is, well, popular, is that most people read for the purpose of entertainment, and people by and large find it more entertaining to crawl into the skin of a heroic protagonist than into that of one whose desperate struggle may be in vain.

Another genre convention that distinguishes literary fiction is the attempt on the part of many authors to make a statement about the human condition. Many literary novels are truly thought-provoking. In the worst, the overemphasis on message or on linguistic gymnastics suffocates the story to the point where it’s impossible to feel anything but irritation.

Obviously, there is a huge, overlapping gray area when it comes to defining and labeling stories. The best popular fiction is beautifully written, with a strong authorial voice, fascinating characters, a controlling theme, and emotions that resonate long after one has closed the book. The best literary fiction is not just stylistically impressive, but peopled by characters who grip us, and whose decisions and actions drive a story in which we can truly lose ourselves. In other words, it’s genuinely entertaining.

I feel strongly that entertainment is the primary purpose of all literature—not just popular fiction, but literary novels as well. If it’s exquisitely written, that’s wonderful. If it reveals greater truths, that’s icing on the cake. But the bottom line is entertainment value. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “entertain” as: “To hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.” My Webster’s Unabridged gives a similar but slightly more fleshed-out definition: “To engage the attention of, with anything that causes the time to pass pleasantly, as conversation, music or the like; to divert; to please; to amuse.”

The concept of “diversion” may not seem very consequential until you reflect on the fact that we puny humans really have nothing but time, our lives being comprised of a finite number of twenty-four hour days. It’s what occupies those days that defines our lives, that brings us joy or despair or tedium, that makes us who we are. We eat; we sleep; we work; we cook; we clean; we deal with our kids, our spouses, our homes; we spend countless of the precious hours allotted to us doing the things we have to do just to get from day to day. Much of our time doesn’t pass particularly pleasantly, it simply passes. Modern life being what it is, we often find ourselves physically and emotionally depleted at the end of the day.

That’s when we’re most likely, assuming we have a window of free time, to pick up a novel and allow ourselves to be swept away, out of our own familiar world...and into someone else’s. In a way, it’s as if we’re trading, albeit temporarily, our own life, our own troubles, for those of the book’s protagonist. This process of losing ourselves in a good book is akin to taking a mental vacation. For as long as we’re absorbed in that story, walking around in the skin of those characters, thinking their thoughts, feeling their joy and pain, using our intellect to wrestle with their fictitious problems, it’s as if we’re a thousand miles away. And when we put that book down and return to our own world and our own problems, we’re likely to come back at least somewhat more mentally refreshed.

Any well-crafted story that provides true entertainment value to the reader is a thing of great worth and beauty. And yet, there has existed for several decades a pronounced prejudice in academic and critical circles against popular fiction. The view isn’t just that the two types of storytelling are different, but that literary fiction is on a higher, worthier plane. That other stuff is just escapist pulp.

Book publishers buy into this dogma, too, the ironic consequence of which is that literary fiction tends to be published more poorly than popular fiction—so poorly that most literary novels, even the most wonderful, are doomed before they hit the shelves. The print runs are often minuscule (unless Oprah comes a-callin’), the covers and titles forgettable, promotion nonexistent.  Stephen King addressed this paradox in an article called “How to Bury a Book” that he wrote for his column in the April 6, 2007 issue of Entertainment Weekly.  He’d stumbled across a novel called Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski that he considered to be truly great, yet Farrar, Straus and Giroux had put it out with a drab title and an equally drab cover—typical “serious fiction” packaging guaranteed to turn off the bookstore browser looking for a good read. As Mr. King put it, “Critics, with their stubborn insistence that there's a difference between ‘literature’ and ‘popular fiction,’ are part of the problem, but the publishers themselves, who have bought into this elitist twaddle, are also to blame.”

Happily, more and more critics and academics are recognizing “this elitist twaddle” for what it is. Some have been setting out to level the playing field by pointing out that “literary” needn’t necessarily equal “quality,” and “popular” doesn’t automatically mean “pulp.” Good fiction is good fiction. Bad fiction is bad fiction.

Next month: More on this groundswell, plus an analysis of how the Literary/Popular Schism came to exist in the first place, with “Antiformalism for Fun and Profit.”

Louisa Burton
March 2008


Read more of Louisa Burton's FictionCraft in our 2008 Archive.

______
"FictionCraft" © 2008 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.


About the Author:
Louisa Burton is a multipublished author of some two dozen erotica, romance, and mystery novels for Bantam, Berkley, Signet, NAL, Harlequin, and St. Martinís. A former publishing professional who is in love with the sound of her own voice, she has also taught numerous fiction writing courses and workshops. Way too much info about her current project, the Hidden Grotto series of erotic fantasy, is available at LouisaBurton.com.



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'08 Movie Reviews

Almost Perfect
Review by Oranje

The Fold
Review by Ashley Lister

Two
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Fallen
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'08 Book Reviews

Anthologies

Best Bisexual Women's Erotica
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Best Fantastic Erotica
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Best Women's Erotica '08
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Bound Brits (ebook)
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Deep Inside: Extreme ...
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Dirty Girls
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Hide and Seek
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Hurts So Good
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J is for Jealousy
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K is for Kink
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Lust Bites
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Open for Business
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Possession
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Rubber Sex
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Rubber Sex
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Seriously Sexy
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Sex & Candy
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The Shadow of a... (poetry)
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Spanked
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Tasting Her
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Tasting Him
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Tasting Him
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White Flames
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Yes, Ma'am: Male Submission
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Yes, Sir: Female Submission
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Novels

The Art of Melinoe
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Demon by Day
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Gemini Heat
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Gothic Heat
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The Hidden Grotto Series
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The House of Blood
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In Too Deep
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In Too Deep
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Incognito
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One Breath at a Time
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Out of the Shadows (ebook)
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Phantasmagoria
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Reckless
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Seduce Me
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Seduced by the Storm
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Serve the People!
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Signed, Sealed and Delivered
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Sunfire (eBook)
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Templar Prize
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The Wicked Sex
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Wild Kingdom
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Gay Erotica

Backdraft
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Best Gay Romance '08
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Hard Hats
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Leathermen
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Lesbian Erotica

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Best Lesbian Erotica '08
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The Night Watch
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Non-Fiction

America Unzipped
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Best Sex Writing '08
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Bonk: The Curious Coupling
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The Book of Love
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Casanova: Actor Lover ...
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Dishonorable Passions
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Flagrante Delicto (photos)
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The Flesh Press
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Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star
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The Humble Little Condom
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Instant Orgasm (sex guide)
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Man O Man! Writing M/M...
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The Not So Invisible Woman
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Swingers: Female...
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