EDIT 1/3/2014: Over a year later, I now consider this to be a very naive post. I wrote this before I’d really researched the literary industry and before jumping back into reading contemporary novels, which I learned can be pretty damn awesome. Sure, classic novels are great, but reading only classics is limiting. I am now happily reading fiction from both “genres” (including YA fantasy!) and enjoying the merits of both (more on that in this post). I’ll keep this post here, though, as a testament to how much someone’s opinion can change if they open their mind and do some research.
Since I’ve been learning about the literary industry and the world surrounding it for the past few months, I’ve picked up on a couple of things concerning my placement in it. For those of you who are unaware, if you’re gonna sell your work, you have to know what genre and category your book falls into. My series, for example, involves an alternate universe where its inhabitants practice magic, so genre-wise, it must be fantasy. It is also told from the perspective of a teenager and deals with teenage problems, so it is categorized as young adult fiction, or YA (something I only recently discovered because I was very…confused. I didn’t quite get that anything other than slang-heavy language in YA can be acceptable and that length doesn’t determine the category, so for a while I thought it was adult fiction. Whoops.).
And then there’s something else literary agents and publishers tell you to do: know your genre. That means if you’re writing fantasy, they expect you to read widely in fantasy. That way, you will know where your book belongs in the current market, and how to sell your book to readers. It makes perfect sense.
Now, here’s my deal: most of my favorite books are at least fifty years old. My favorite authors at the moment are Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce, who both died in the early twentieth century, meaning they wrote and published their best work even earlier than that. I can’t help it. Whenever I visit a bookstore, I automatically wander into the classic fiction section and find myself reaching for a Conan Doyle or a Wilde or a Bronte. I do not read classic fiction because I think it will make me smarter, or because I think all of it is good, or purely because I want to understand my literary roots. The latter was my initial reason for getting into classics–my first was Austen’s Pride and Prejudice–because I thought it important to familiarize myself with the canon if I wanted to be a writer. And then I fell in love with it.
Classic novels fascinate me. There is something powerful enough about them to transcend generations. Someone in the early 1900s was equally as mesmerized by Joyce’s “Eveline” as I was in 2011. That is a one-hundred-year difference. If there’s any mark I want to leave on this world through my writing, it’s one of universality. I want to affect people beyond my own lifespan. This is one reason I write so much about emotion–everyone can identify with emotion, even if only in a general sense.
But oh, woe is me (please read that sarcastically). I read classic, literary novels, yet for some inexplicable reason, the story that popped into my head and forced me to fall in love with it was a fantasy.
There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that, since I don’t generally read YA fantasy (at least not yet–if I wanna work in this business I’ll need to put on my big girl panties and read some!), I’m not as familiar with my market as regular YA fantasy readers are. I can almost feel the agents wrinkling their noses now (I’m exaggerating, of course–many of the agents I’ve researched and follow on Twitter seem like lovely, fun people, and I’ve heard several of them say things like this aren’t a total dealbreaker. But I enjoy mocking the stereotypical, rigid, stick-up-the-ass agent many writers seem to think inhabit every single agency in the world). I am not yet as informed as others might be about what’s been done and what hasn’t, what’s popular right now, and what fantasy stories readers are connecting with these days. If I don’t work really hard, it may be harder for me to sell my book.
But by primarily reading classics, I also have an edge. I’m coming at fantasy from a perspective many fantasy readers/writers do not have access to unless they read classics as avidly as I do. I am free of the temptation to imitate other fantasy writers’ ideas and styles, making it easier for me to develop a fantastical world and story that does not inadvertently rip off a popular fantasy writer. My works reference Joyce and Dostoevsky (where appropriate). And best of all, I read works that have persisted through the ages. I have carefully studied their prose, the way they play with words, the figurative language they use, the detail they commit to description and to subtlety. I’ve paid rapt attention to which characters are the most compelling and have captured the hearts of millions of readers, past and present. I have immersed myself in what these stories say about humanity, how the context the book was written in (era, location, etc.) impacted its story/character/prose elements, and how it influenced the people of its time.
Of course, I am in no way insinuating that classic fiction is “better” than current fiction, or better than current YA fantasy. Modern fantasy novels can have all of these wonderful things. The advantage the classics have, though, is that they’ve stood the test of time. The novels of today haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet. By focusing on books that haven’t been forgotten despite being decades, perhaps hundreds of years old, I am exposing myself to books that stand out. And from what I can understand, agents and publishers love any book that stands out.
I am also not claiming that my own writing comes anywhere close to matching the quality of the classic novels I read. Hell no. If you hear any writer say, “I’m the next [insert classic novelist here],” feel free to roll your eyes, because no one can claim that. No one. But hopefully, if I continue to be a good, attentive reader and apply what I learn from classic novels to my writing, some of their masterful techniques will rub off on me. If I ever write anything that stands the test of time, I know I’m very, very far away from reaching that point right now. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t. But that “maybe I won’t” turns into “I definitely won’t” if I stop trying.
Until recently, I was ashamed of the strange contrast between my reading interests and my writing interests. I felt embarrassed and out of place. But then I thought, so what? This is who I am. This is what I like to read and this is what I like to write. And I think what I read makes me a better writer, regardless of its genre. I don’t even like to place my work, or any work, in a genre, but I know it’s necessary for agents and publishers to do so. I am writing the story I love, literary leanings and all. It just happens to have magical elements and take place in an alternate world. I’m proud of this series. I have been since I started writing it, and I doubt that will ever really change.
To be fair, I have read some YA fantasy, so I’m not going in completely blind. Anyone who Googles me can figure out pretty quickly how obsessed I used to be (and still am, to an extent) with Harry Potter (but really, who wasn’t?). I plan to read more YA fantasy so I know what’s been done and what hasn’t. I also probe the fantasy literature world in different ways–for years, I’ve frequented websites visited by hordes of writers who primarily stick to fantasy, and I read their discussions about cliches they see often, what they like to see in fantasy, common mistakes made in fantasy (including the brilliant, well-known essays by limyaael [offsite link], which are more helpful than I can describe), tips on worldbuilding, etc. In addition, I’m aware of the many resources I can use to track what fantasy literature is currently popular. There are multiple avenues I can take.
So, I’m stuck between a rock and an old place. I swoon over the work of long-dead authors, yet I still wanna break through that daunting rock, the literary industry. The nice things about rocks is, if hit with a powerful enough force, they erode. They are molded by that force, changed into something new. The literary industry is constantly meeting new waves and adjusting to the altered currents. Today, literary professionals may not want to see the work of a fantasy writer influenced by Stoker and Capote. Tomorrow, they may be wild for it.
If I ever get a literary agent, he or she will not care that I don’t write typical fantasy. That agent will believe in my writing and in my story. I believe in me. Maybe someone else will, too.
*Avatar by Charlavail