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I was at a writer’s conference in Charleston, recently, where I had the pleasure of paying a great deal of money to listen to another interminable speech about the ongoing revolution in the publishing industry. Book publishing, it seems, has been revolting and revolving so much for so long that it must surely be about to come full circle. When it does, I hope to climb back aboard.

My ears pricked up when the speaker started to ask the audience for a show of hands according to those who wrote in particular genres. A forest of arms, most of them quite lovely, shot up when the romance genre was mentioned. There was a nearly equal but hairier showing of science fiction writers, and there were small but enthusiastic contingents of authors who wrote for the young adult, adult contemporary, Christian, crime thriller, mystery, and historical fiction markets. Finally, in a moment reminiscent of a child being the last one picked for the dodge-ball team, the speaker mentioned literary fiction. I was about to raise my hand when some smart aleck across the room shouted, “Do they even recognize that as a genre, anymore?” Laughter erupted. Cowardly, I kept my hand at my side.

It’s true. Literary fiction has become the red-headed stepchild of an industry increasingly driven by sales rankings and competition to fill diminishing shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookstores with bestsellers. But the obscurity of literary fiction is also partly due to the fact that it does not lend itself so easily to definition. We know what romance and science fiction are, but doesn’t every author consider his fiction “literary”?

My own view is that, whereas genre fiction tells a story, literary fiction paints a picture. Genre fiction is typically a linear tale in which characters are towed along from Point A to Point B by events in the plot. Literary fiction is often circular or stationary, with the story emerging largely from the inner life of the characters—what they think and say and desire and fear, moreso than what exciting or horrible events befall them. Genre fiction seeks primarily to entertain the reader. Literary fiction seeks variously to challenge, infuriate, confound, intrigue, or incite the reader. Genre fiction is an ice cream cone—simple, delicious, and loved by all, but not particularly memorable. Literary fiction can be either the most heavenly chateaubriand you ever tasted or the bad Chinese take-out that had you throwing up all night—either way, you won’t soon forget it.

Most genre novels today are what publishing guru Jane Friedman calls “commodity” fiction. As she observes, readers buy these books by the bag-full and read them voraciously one after another, like eating candy or potato chips. The point of this kind of reading is not to admire the language or the imagery or the symbolism of the story but to get to the end of the story as quickly as possible. Reading great literary fiction is, on the other hand, like taking a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You don’t sprint past the European Masters, and you don’t race through F. Scott Fitzgerald. When I read these lines in Tender is the Night, I had to put the book down until I was no longer too distracted by the imagery to pay attention to what came next:

Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood—she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.

. . . .

Out there the hot light clipped close her shadow and she retreated—it was too bright to see. Fifty yards away the Mediterranean yielded up its pigments, moment by moment, to the brutal sunshine; below the balustrade a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive.

. . . .

The sponsor of the story was a white-haired woman in full evening dress, obviously a relic of the previous evening, for a tiara still clung to her head and a discouraged orchid expired from her shoulder.

Just as I contemplated these lines for hours—days, even—some might sit and admire a single painting at the Met for a lifetime. But if you have ever watched a bored twelve-year-old slowly being towed through the Winslow Homer gallery, you have a pretty good idea of how some bloggers who are used to reading commodity fiction feel when they are handed a work of literary fiction to review.

An old friend of mine is now a rather famous and wealthy author of genre romance novels. He readily eschews any notion that what he is writing is literature, but his books literally fly off the shelves and into movie theaters. So successful has he become, and so hounded by his millions of female fans, that he now lives in a fenced compound guarded by $80,000 German shepherds specially trained to attack when they smell fear. I would visit him, but I am terrified I would stink up the place and quickly die a horrible death.

One unintended consequence of my old friend’s phenomenal success is that women occasionally drive by his estate and attempt to throw their underwear over the high fence. Some have stronger pitching arms than others, which I can only assume makes for an interesting decorative effect at the entrance to his house.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is long dead, and publishers aren’t likely to be throwing a great deal of money at writers of his ilk anytime soon. It’s simply not what the public is interested in buying anymore. I am undeterred by this and intend to soldier on among the happy few who still hear Fitzgerald’s muse. I have no gated mansion, and the Irish terrier who mostly sleeps in my front yard will welcome friend and foe alike with impunity—the smellier the better. But I wish to serve notice, here and now, that should any woman attempt to throw her underwear in my driveway, I intend to throw several pair of mine right back.