Does The Scarlet Letter belong to a literary genre?
April 9, 2014 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Does The Scarlet Letter belong to a literary genre? How would publishers market the book today, and on what book shelf would you find it in the book store? Same question for The Brothers Karamazov. Could these stories, if they were told in a prose style indicative of the 21st c, find a publisher?
posted by jwhite1979 to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
Speaking as a librarian, I don't think of these things as genre fiction particularly although the religious themes in The Scarlet Letter make it a decent candidate for Christian Fiction which is a huge and growing genre especially in parts of the US. Lots of literature nowadays just falls into the general fiction category without being any specific genre. I sometimes feel like the "genre-izing" of everything is just a sales and marketing exercise and doesn't really tell you much about the book itself, it's just to guide people's shopping decisions.
posted by jessamyn at 12:29 PM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I agree, jessamyn. I only ask because I'm working on my first book and trying to think about how I will market it to an agent. It takes place in 14th c. West Sussex; the plague has wiped out the clergy of a rural parish church, and a few mysterious characters arrive in town, along with a macguffin. Intrigue ensues. The book is mostly an exploration of various religious experiences and how they are evoked in the mind of a schizoid protagonist. I know none of this has much to do with the books I mentioned, but my character development is Hawthorne-esque, and, like TBK, I'm using a rather tightly-plotted story to explore religious themes.
posted by jwhite1979 at 12:47 PM on April 9, 2014

Given that it was written in 1850 about events supposed to have taken place around 1650, I'd call it "historical fiction". Alexandre Dumas was in the same genre space.
posted by Mad_Carew at 12:50 PM on April 9, 2014

I also think it could be classified as "historical fiction" without too much of a stretch -- remember, the main body (heh) of the story is actually a story-within-a-story, and is framed as having been found by the present day narrator when he was looking through older documents in an older, seldom used part of the Salem Custom House.
posted by mosk at 12:52 PM on April 9, 2014

Literary Fiction is the genre you're looking for, here.
posted by Sara C. at 12:55 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think The Scarlet Letter is sometimes categorized as Dark Romanticism. For The Brothers Karamazov, you can find both Russian Realism and what Dostoevsky called Fantastic Realism. Obviously, those aren't bookstore shelves--more of an encyclopedia or course syllabus kind of labeling.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:08 PM on April 9, 2014

I think the Scarlet Letter would readily find a readership among fans of the contemporary Gothic Romance subgenre; I'd be very surprised if some Gothic Romances aren't based on it, in fact.

It's atmosphere of tenebrous, portentous and brooding malignancy punctuated by lightning bolts of dramatic revelation is very like that of the Gothic novels so popular in England fifty years before, as well (compare its plot to the plot of the quintessentially Gothic Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, for example), except that the ending of The Scarlet Letter is so much darker than that of the typical Gothic novel-- which would probably be the issue for contemporary fans of the gothic, too.
posted by jamjam at 1:28 PM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Literary Fiction, as I understand it, eschews careful plotting in favor of a meandering storyline which evolves out of the psychology of the protagonist. Granted, this is probably a trend that came about within the last half century or so, but so did the term "literary fiction", I believe. The aim of Historical Fiction is, I think, to portray a specific time period as accurately as possible; and I don't think that was ever Hawthorne's intention. Gothic Romance seems appropriate for The Scarlet Letter, but are there enough books of that category that it could be marketed as such?

It probably seems pedantic for me to be trying to pin these books down to artificial categories, but I've been told so many times now that publishers and agents are ruthlessly market-conscious, and I want to be sure, while I'm still only about 15,000 words into my project, that I'm not writing an unpublishable book.

Good answers, all, though. Thanks for helping me think about this. I'm really intrigued by these Mysteries of Udolpho.
posted by jwhite1979 at 2:54 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's a romance, just not in the sense that we use the term today. That's probably not much help at a book store, though. In a modern context I'd suggest historical fiction.
posted by synecdoche at 3:07 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Take a look at the BISAC codes and see if any strike you as being appropriate. I work for a book wholesale distributor and this is the primary way we categorize books.
posted by lyssabee at 3:28 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most of the labels mentioned above seem to apply to 'The Scarlet Letter' (uh I'm not sure about Christian Fiction). Would it find a publisher today as a first novel? Sure, I would like to think so, but getting published first time out can always be a trial by fire.

I don't think you need to fuss too much about genre labels and marketing strategy at this point, just working on a flowing style with an elegant turn of phrase in your manuscript is more important. Careful plotting and psychological evolution are not mutually exclusive, they unfold together in the best works. I think that the the 'Literary Fiction' label applies to highbrow works which are nicely crafted with decent editing, and an interesting example is The Name of The Rose, which was kinda marketed as a literary intellectual semiotic historical murder mystery (with religious overtones), and ended up a mass-market commercial best-seller.

Personally, I think that the plot outline for your book, which you described above, sounds really intriguing. I would really love to read a story like that. Perhaps you should just show your precis to your agents. Good luck!
posted by ovvl at 4:33 PM on April 9, 2014

I've been told so many times now that publishers and agents are ruthlessly market-conscious, and I want to be sure, while I'm still only about 15,000 words into my project, that I'm not writing an unpublishable book.

If your aim is publication, you should talk to a literary agent. It is their job to match your work to a publisher and convince an editor to publish it.

If in addition to a publishable book, you want to have a successful, main-stream book, you want to make sure you stay away from vanity presses and that your agent isn't a scam-artist.
posted by Mad_Carew at 10:35 AM on April 10, 2014

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