I mean, as a label.
In fact, I have been in favor of throwing out the term "literary" altogether, because it no longer makes sense and needs to be replaced by something else.
In days past, literary fiction was easy to distinguish from "genre" fiction, its not-so-distant cousin. Literary fiction was that which agents, editors, and publishers deemed literary.
Literary fiction was supposed to be "better" than genre fiction-- to have a deeper meaning, to be written in a more masterful way.
But in the end, for the label, the key was the tastemakers' opinion.
Genre fiction was that which sold many copies and pleased readers. Some genre fiction might have literary merit according to the gatekeepers, but most of the time it didn't. Predictable norms of plot, character, and style marked genre fiction as genre-- predictable, popular, non-literary.
So what is the new standard? What's worthy? What is pulp?
Let's not think good and bad. Instead, let's create two ends of a new spectrum, and let's make the spectrum a function of how much time it takes a writer to write a novel. Let's call one end the short-trip novels, and the other long-haul novels.
Much traditional genre fiction can be characterized as short-trip. These books are not bad by definition. They are simply quicker to market, because there is demand.
By contrast, literary fiction is often long-haul. In the extreme case of Ralph Ellison's follow-up to Invisible Man, he worked for decades without finishing it to his satisfaction. It was published as Juneteenth, and posthumously, after extensive editing.
Of course, it can also take a long time for a mystery, romance, or thriller has to be written.
It all depends on the working method of the writer, not on the genre of the novel.
Well and good. But what use do these labels have?
I recently read a colleague's fiction manuscript about a "gifted, weird, and wise" high school freshman. This type of story can potentially be any genre; it can be aimed at a YA audience or an adult; it can take a long time or a little time to polish. It can be a short trip or a long haul.
My indie friend's manuscript has taken her about three years to get to the point where it is, while she works full-time at another job. It is deceptively complex in its construction and execution.
This author needs to do some more work for it to be right, but if she keeps at it, she could have something like a Catcher in the Rye for the 21st century.
Which is why, I think, it may also be worthwhile for her to attempt to find a mainstream editor and publisher who will shape and promote her work with the respect now and then still accorded a manuscript they deem worthy.
But self-published long-haul books have an uphill climb that could be leveled with the traditional publishing machinery in place.
See, indie authors have discovered that stabling five, ten, fifteen or more novels on Amazon has a cumulative positive effect. The more you can keep readers reading your own stuff, the more likely they will become dedicated, word-of-mouth fans who shoot you up the rankings.
Social media has become the coin of the realm for these authors. Their platform no longer has to stand on Ivy League connections, MFA credentials, or toney book signings, but by keeping an engaging online presence and lots of compelling series on the market.
Long-haul books, by contrast, face the challenge of an audience that does not know them and is used to consuming books like ninety-nine cent lollipops.
If New York publishers are good for anything, it may be that they can still make one specific book a must-read.
Nor are the financial advantages of indie publishing as important for a long-haul novel. A long-haul writer is not worried about moving units. The book she's working on, most likely, is not being written for the money, but for an intangible feeling of accomplishment, and for recognition. Money has got to be icing.
There is no guarantee, of course, that a traditional publisher will pick up a long-haul book, nor that it would receive the four-star treatment. But a one-of-a-kind book deserves at least to be put into the lottery. It is simply good stewardship of one's talents, and ultimately, a service to readers if that book really is wonderful and would be lost in the social media stockyard.
There is nothing to lose, really. The worst that can happen is that a publisher buries the book so completely that no one knows about it. But the author will always have that credential when she comes to write her next long-haul book.
She will truly be free to publish on her own if she wants, or to try again in the New York lottery.
So query away, long-haulers. And publish away, short-trippers. For now at least, there's room for both of you on this highway.