Writer Wars, Hierarchy & Can We Get Over Ourselves?

I’ve been mid-book since my addiction began at age four and I pray to have a TBR stack until the moment I die. On that heap I want it all: pounding plots, the wow of discovery, the comfort of recognition, and astounding characters. If I’m lucky, some will have all of the above. Whichever book I’m holding, I don’t want to be judged or lauded for it and I don’t want to shelve my books by race, class, or gender.

Tayari Jones, writing to fellow authors about the stratification of literature, said it very well: ‘other writers do not deserve your scorn.’ In the spirit of writer/reader heal thyself; I’m going to work on remembering those words. There’s room for all in the big tent of reading.

At about age ten, I began crafting my library checkouts, hoping I’d look smart. I’d balance my Nancy Drew with a biography of Abraham Lincoln so the librarian thought well of me. (It seems my self-esteem problem enacted early.)

There are times when writers (raising hand) all seem to be versions of that 10-year-0ld me.

Not a month ends, or so it seems, without the battle of literary fiction being weighed against commercial fiction, which might then spit on genre, often with writers feeding on their own. And women’s fiction? Who even knows what it is, right? 

pill heart

 (above text from Accidents of Marriage) 

Many writers and reviewers deny the claim that newspapers ignore women and non-white writers and unfairly categorize mainstream novels (a topic well-examined by Roxanne MtJoy and Michelle Dean) asserting that they’re simply reviewing superior fiction, which quickly devolves into another fight of literary fiction versus commercial work, which then becomes tainted with the  construct of healthy peas and carrots books versus sinful bad-for-you ice cream reads.

Michelle Dean writes far better than I could on the danger of, as eloquently put by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, “The Danger of A Single Story,” noting, the silencing and devaluing of those voices has consequences, particularly when it tends to happen disproportionately to certain populations.

People ask me to categorize my work, but I can’t. The media has treated me well. I’ve been told I’m everything from commercial to women’s, to literary fiction. (And let’s not forget the all-new “upmarket fiction.”) Trust me, I know when I’m being complimented and when I’m being scorned.


I’ve read Franzen, Haigh, King, and Picoult. I turn to the right, look at my bookcase, and see Ann Patchett, EB Moore, Gail Caldwell, Lola Shoneyin, Julie Klam, Catherine McKenzie, Robin Black, Kim McLarin, Paul Theroux, Elizabeth McCracken, Renee Swindle, Ernessa Carter, People, Poets & Writers, Carleen Brice, Jenna Blum, Ann Bauer, M.J. Rose, Nichole Bernier, Juliette Fay, Charles Dickens, Larry McMurty, Vincent Lam, Liane Moriarty, Julie Wu, Alexander Smith, Bill Roorbach and Saira Shah. (They’re getting along very well, thanks for asking.)

It saddens me seeing writers buy into a class war. Lit looks down on commercial, who look down on genre, who eschew whatever’s lower on the literary food chain.

Some argue that commercial books find their audience, only literature needs reviewing—but how does that answer the male/white tipping of review scales? How does that take into account mid-list graveyards, marketing bonanzas and being hit by the pretty stick? It seems a specious and power-retaining argument. Independent films survive even as reviewers include commercial films in their wheelhouse.

In a time when black writers are shunted to an African-American section, when men are deemed artists and women crafters, when science fiction and thrillers are better covered than woman-identified historical fiction, and romance is relegated to the deepest closet of shame reads, then the commercial-lit divide becomes nastily entwined within a gender and racial writing divide. Coloring this is the character versus plot battle, well described by author Chris Abouzeid in his post, “The Decomposition of Language.”

“Of course, a skilled hand will always make a story more enjoyable.  And if  you can do it in a manner that’s never been done before, all power to you.  But let’s not fool ourselves.  There will be stories told in the clumsiest, most conformist, even trite manner imaginable that will endure longer than most of our beautiful sentences.  There will be tales we’ve heard a hundred times before that will thrill us simply because the circumstances are different, or the characters are new, or the times have changed.  Maybe language will be part of that difference.  But if not, it doesn’t matter.  In the decomposition of literary bodies, words are the first to go.  What’s left is the enduring beauty of story.”

(Originally Published in 2015) 

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  1. LJCohen
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Oh, well said. I love Tayari’s quote. I’m also a reading omnivore and hate the stratification and internal warfare.

  2. Posted August 30, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    All of the better commentaries I’ve read on this controversy seem to be from those who consider themselves omnivorous readers, and are more concerned with whether or not they like something, than what to call it. This is definitely among them. Well done.

  3. Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    A terrific post, Randy–and just in time! The writing community is starting
    to sound like Congress just before the Civil War. (And thanks for
    the link to my post on Plot v. Language . . . speaking of divisiveness.)

  4. Nina
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Randy.

  5. Posted August 30, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Well said. It’s not about the writing…. this keeps being forgotten, and is so unhelpful.

  6. Sharon Bially
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I’m fascinated in the midst of these *wars* by your phrase, “I’ve been categorized as everything from commercial to women’s, to literary fiction.”

    This just goes to show: the lines between ALL of these categories are blurring. “Literary” fiction these days reads in a way that comes closer to how “commercial” fiction has always read: linear, action-based, often highly plot-focused even while remaining character-driven. It often seems to me that theme and particular conflicts are all that set the two categories apart. And “women’s” fiction often encompasses all things related primarily to love, quotidian life and family, even when literary in quality and style.

    Meanwhile, a typical reader with varied taste probably pays little if any attention to categories yet (let’s not forget!) readers’ opinions matter most of all!

  7. Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Randy, thanks for this. I truly believe that romance writers are the Rodney Dangerfields of writing. I myself feel “relegated to the deepest closet of shame.” My debut novel is romantic suspense and I’m working on revisions to a paranormal romance, yet I’m anxious to get back to a manuscript that is straight up women’s fiction, so I will “fit in” with all my women’s fiction writer acquaintances. Like it or not, it’s just the way it is.

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  1. […] hit the topic of the caste system of novels before, from commercial versus literary fiction writer wars, to racial reading divides, to micro-indignities. Even name-calling. I thought perhaps […]

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