Serious Fiction and #LegitLit: Creating a Hybrid Home

Print vs. Ebook

Traditional vs. Indie

Genre vs. Literary

Serious vs. Fluff?

Critics, readers and writers all like debating about fiction and where it’s going. One interesting sidelight to the Traditional/Indie debate has been the discussion about what works in print versus in ebook. Some genres are hugely popular in ebooks. Erotica leads the way — no covers to hide from people while reading in public — but romance, supernatural and other popular genres also do well in ebooks. Meanwhile, literary fiction doesn’t. Unless it’s popular literary fiction — akin to what Don Maass has dubbed 21st Century Fiction — and then it does well in both print and ebooks.

Blogger and critic Porter Anderson has been talking recently about the rise in “shirtless” fiction — romance, romance and more romance. For Porter, it’s akin to the 25-cent paperbacks people can buy by the bag at library book sales and used book stores. Easily read, easily discarded. He’s been pushing what he’s calling #legitlit and #seriousfiction — stories that make you think. Is that literary fiction? That might depend on who you ask.

My books always end up tagged as literary — despite the Irish mob’s presence — because they aren’t genre. I was talking with Mollie Cox Bryan in person for the first time this weekend at a book signing, and she had thought my new book (All That Is Necessary) was a mystery. Logical assumption, given the body count, but wrong. I’d like to think the Exeter books fall into Porter’s Legit Lit category: books that make you think and make you go deeper than the surface.

It’s an interesting distinction, and one Calen Spindler and I touched on briefly in a recent Facebook discussion about writing. She made a comment about writing pure entertainment, and then came back later to say that as much as she jokes about that, she does try and weave serious themes through her work.

I’m not sure I try to so much as that’s what comes out of my brain. For me, telling a layered story with strong characters is key. When a friend recommended Doris Lessing’s books to me recently, he said she’s one of his favorite authors because, “She’s one of those authors that makes me not want to read another book for a long time because there’s always a lot to absorb and reflect upon.” While my books don’t belong in the same breath as Lessing’s, that idea of providing a lot for a reader to absorb and reflect upon is probably the best expression I’ve heard for what I try to do when I tell stories. And I think it’s maybe the best way I can think of to define Porter’s concept of “serious fiction.”

Those books that have enough depth and meaning that we find ourselves reflecting on the book, the characters and the story in the hours, days and weeks that follow, those are serious fiction, or #legitlit. There’s nothing in that definition that excludes books that fall into a genre category. Calen’s writing, in fact, is supernatural. To go back to Don Maass’ idea of 21st Century Fiction, the books he’s talking about are the ones that take the best from the genre and literary worlds. That puts them into the serious fiction category almost by definition, and yet many can be commercial successes.

Those aren’t easy books to write. To make them easy to read, or at least engaging enough to pull readers along through the story, takes a certain skill as a writer. That’s one reason I like Porter’s “serious fiction” and #legitlit descriptions more than literary. Literary often involves playing with language in ways that are artistically pleasing, but perhaps veer too far into experimental for most people. And genre has taken on a connotation that is the opposite of serious fiction. More and more there are books out there that don’t fall into either category. If more people adopt the “serious fiction” category, maybe we can start to build a new genre.