The Importance of Being Literary

November 12, 2014 by Lisa de Nikolits

When I lived in South Africa, the prevailing cocktail party question that came quickly after an introduction was “So, what do you do for a living?”

That was the yardstick by which one’s worth was measured and the conversation either moved on from there or, it moved away and you were left alone with only your own feeble social standing for company.

Here in Canada, particularly among writers, there are the same echoes of categorization but of course, it is very different.

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When I lived in South Africa, the prevailing cocktail party question that came quickly after an introduction was “So, what do you do for a living?”

That was the yardstick by which one’s worth was measured and the conversation either moved on from there or, it moved away and you were left alone with only your own feeble social standing for company.

Here in Canada, particularly among writers, there are the same echoes of categorization but of course, it is very different. In the first place, Canadians are not nearly as blunt as the rest of the world but eventually, that all-important question will raise its head, the question that will determine your status, your caste and your lineage within the writing community.

“What do you write?”

Now, back in South Africa, the answer to this question would have been easy: fiction or non-fiction. But here, finding the right answer is like trying to find your place on the organization chart of a big corporation.

Back in 2007 when I finished the first draft of a mystery novel set in South Africa and Namibia, I did what a lot of aspiring writers do: I got myself a guide to who publishes what, and I pitched the book to everyone I could (excepting, at that point, my eventual publisher, Inanna. Inanna and I had yet to meet).

The Witchdoctor’s Bones was rejected, primarily for being too long, but also for being “too literary.” 

Too literary? I simply thought I had written a good old-fashioned murder mystery, a psychological thriller with a good storyline (or so I’d hoped). In my mind, that was what writers did: they wrote fiction or non-fiction. Of course, we (back in South Africa) did categorize things further; it was either a “very good book,” (to be said in earnest tones) which would probably in Canadian-speak indicate that it was a literary read; or it was a “stocking-filler,” in other words, it was genre.

So when I received rejections for my work on the basis of it being too literary, I thought I had done something terribly wrong. I felt as if I had erred by being a pretentious writer, the kind who had swallowed a thesaurus and thought they were now genius. All I had wanted to do was tell a good story, to write a good book, yes, I wanted to do that of course, but I hadn’t tried to be literary on purpose. I felt very apologetic and quite the failure.

Fortunately, I received a wonderful email from Michael Callaghan, of Exile Editions, to let me know that they had read well into my submission and that they were really enjoying it.

I was relieved — being literary didn’t mean I was an outcast after all.

As I continued to learn about the Canadian publishing scene, I became more familiar with the breakdown of categories and yet, I was still hesitant to use the terms with the effortless ease that so many other writers did.

In 2013, I was invited to give a talk to the Sisters in Crime Toronto Chapter about my move from literary to genre fiction, referencing my then-new novel, which was all about what happens in Vegas not staying in Vegas. A Glittering Chaos as genre? I was slightly baffled by that, as well as bemused by my own reaction. I had initially objected to being categorized as literary, but now I was objecting to being genre – was I becoming an unwitting participant in the great Canadian debate?

Literary versus genre, what was the difference anyway? Perhaps it was time for me to ask a few other South African writers and publishers of South African writers.

Wolsak & Wynn recently published Counting Teeth: A Namibian Story, by Peter Midgley, a poet and author originally from Namibia and South Africa.

I asked Noelle Allen, publisher of Wolsak & Wynn, for her opinion on literary versus genre and she said, “To me the main difference between genre and literary is the balance between plot and character and writing. The best books, in any genre, and really literary is just another genre, have all the elements in pretty close to balance. This is very hard to do.

“To me genre books tend more to the intersection of plot and character. Strong, identifiable characters and a strong story. Literary more to the intersection of character and writing. Strong characters with detailed development and good, even beautiful, writing. Yes, there are tropes in the genres, markers to tell you which area you are reading in, but the best writers play with those markers. Subvert them a bit.”

I asked Peter Midgley what he thought about the Canadian system of categorization, and he said, “Classification is not useful: a good book is a good book, and often undefinable. To categorize it is to limit its readers. By categorizing a book in a particular genre, we really hide the complexity of the story and of our society and its interrelatedness with the past.”

I then turned to my publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Inanna Publications, Luciana Ricciutelli, for her thoughts on categorization and she commented, “I think that categorization of books can both help readers choose books and it can also deter them — this depends, I believe entirely, upon the reader. There are those readers who find comfort in the categorization because they know the kind of books they prefer to read, and want to find them easily, knowing that they will get precisely what they are looking for. However, there are many books that do cross categorization boundaries and when this is the case, I think the categorization might actually deter a reader who may discount a potential book because it has been categorized under a label they might find unappealing. So I think it can work both ways. And this is also why, as a publisher, it becomes crucial to ensure that a book is ‘categorized’ in the best way possible, understanding that very often these ‘categorizations’, for certain kinds of books, can be very limiting.”

That would explain the end process of categorization but as a writer, I wondered if this issue was becoming an influencing factor on my work.

I contacted Dawn Promislow, author of Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), a beautiful collection of short stories about South Africa in the 1970s. I asked her if the issues of marketing and categorization affect her writing in any way and she replied, “As a writer, I try not to consider or be influenced by ‘marketability.’ I think that purist attitude works best for the creative process — at least it does for me. I think it is likely damaging to creative work to be influenced by market concerns. I try to write the story I want to write, in the form that best suits it, with as clear and independent a mind as I can. This is more important to me than I can say! What happens to my work after publication, how it is ‘categorized,’ marketed, or even how it is read, has no longer anything to do with me, I feel.”


I agree with Dawn but I find myself called upon to categorize (and justify the categorization) of my own work, particularly since my work crosses many traditional boundaries, one example being my talk with the Sisters in Crime who wanted me to explain my move from literary to genre.

The Sisters seemed convinced that I had moved from one side of the fence to the other and it seemed awfully rude to disagree, so I put my thinking cap on and tried to figure out how they had reached this conclusion. Admittedly, A Glittering Chaos was constructed in a classically genre eight-point story arc fashion, and contained elements of crime; but as we know, merely having crime in a novel does not make it a crime novel.

This point was driven home at The Bloody Words banquet, held in Toronto in June of this year. The winner of the Hammett Award was about to be announced and a fiery debate ensued at our table with loud opinions that neither Lisa Moore’s Caught nor Craig Davidson’s Cataract City should have been considered eligible for the award, their crime being that they were not crime enough and surely everybody knew those books were pure literary? What right did they have, even being mentioned an event like Bloody Words?  

I kept silent, wondering as always where my books slotted in. Maybe they were both? Why was it unacceptable for them to be both?

I was reminded of the debate about Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake, with Ms. Atwood politely asking readers and reviewers to view her work as ‘speculative fiction’, not science fiction, and being rather impolitely ignored.

Does it really matter, one wants to ask? So what? Let people call apples pears or apples apples, what is the difference? What dire consequences could possibly follow from this?

After reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Peter Midgley’s Counting Teeth, I turned to a volume of his poetry, perhaps i should / miskien moet ek and I saw my question posed in the preface penned by Stan Chung, author of Global Citizen and Dean of Arts and Science at Camosun College: “What good is a poem? What good are a few words placed on a barren page? What good are they if they are written in two sometimes three languages, written decades from now, written far from home, written in not just another time or place but about fleeting things, like a misplaced chance to hold someone in your arms.”

What good indeed?

I asked Peter Midgley if he thought there were any consequences to calling apples pears or apples apples – was he (and his work) affected by this, to which he has this to say, “My own work, steeped as it is in World Lit and especially African Lit, is seldom considered “CanLit.” The result is that when I do get invited to be on a panel, speak, etc., it is invariably as the token spokesperson for Africans or immigrant communities – topics I certainly can speak on, but that I am not always comfortable representing in their entirety, as is the wont. This has led several authors, like Iman Mersal, to avoid appearing at events where she is categorized or Othered in this way. We are Canadian writers and as Canadians — a diverse nation made up of indigenous and immigrant communities alike — our writing should be considered part of the CanLit canon, such as it is. We write in Canada, for Canadians, largely about Canadian topics, or topics that affect Canadians, like the diversity of our heritages. To categorize our writing is to limit us.

“I have consciously worked to counter that. I deliberately insert my African heritage into my writing — words and phrases in the original languages, for instance. I want Canadian readers to realize that the community they live in is not as seamless and homogenous as they pretend it is.”

I think he hits the nail on the head by identifying what surprised me the most about the levels of categorization that exist within the CanLit writing community – I had not expected this kind of delineation and separation from such an accepting and democratic society.

Perhaps I was being too rigid with my perceptions and I turn to Noelle Allen’s comment that, “Yes there are tropes in the genres, markers to tell you which area you are reading in, but the best writers play with those markers. Subvert them a bit.

“Of course all the edges blur. Genre can concern itself with anything. Just as literary books can be built around a crime or another strong story line. To me the difference is all in the execution. You could argue that Pride and Prejudice is a simple romance.”

Luciana Ricciutelli comments that the categorization has further purpose: “Of course, our sales force prefers that the books be categorized, because it does indeed help sellers to sell books more easily – and specifically to those readers who know precisely the genre they are most attracted to. But a good bookseller, with help from a publisher and their marketing team, will also be aware of those books that are not so easily categorized and that cross genres, which is why we love independent bookstores so much. They are more typically staffed by people who love books, who read books, and who can hand-sell books to their customers – knowing the preferences of their repeat customers, and taking the time to talk to and find out what their new customers are looking for when they ask for “a good book to read.’”

What about emerging writers? Are they affected by categorization? I contacted a South African-born CanLit writer who recently studied Creative Writing at the University of Toronto and whose novel is being shopped around by an agent, and she said, “If I’m writing a YA book, then I’d change my approach to writing. I normally write long, descriptive sentences, but the YA audience doesn’t like that so I’d have to immediately change my writing style to shorter, choppier sentences, which is a whole different approach in itself. It would change my process to one in which I’d have to edit a lot more as I’m going along to make sure I have the language right, rather than drafting and editing later. If I were writing in the classic murder mystery/thriller genre, then I’d definitely start at the ending of the book in my planning and work my way back while working in all the formulaic devices this kind of book would entail (red herrings, cliff-hangers, false leads) and I’d be a lot more focused on plot and pace than on character development, etc. I’d give myself a lot less freedom and stick very much to the events required to move the story along.

“This kind of planning/mapping out/changing style of writing would all affect my process from what I currently write (which is a hybrid of genre and literary, apparently) because I now focus more on character development and don’t plan the plot of a book. I keep that open-ended and see where the book takes me, which allows me more creative freedom in earlier drafts.


“Obviously historical fiction will change the process as well because research would have to become a central part of the process and much more focus will need to be given to that than in other genres.”

That’s a lot of pre-planning. I just write the story that is in my head and while I do wonder what slot it will fit into, I trust that my publisher will guide me and in that regard, I am extremely fortunate. I don’t have the worries that Peter Midgley points out here, “I write children’s picture books, poetry, short stories, drama, and non-fiction. Why? Because I can and because that is the medium each story demands. Yet this does not sit well in the system. I have to be one thing. Try finding an agent. ‘We don’t work with children’s literature.’ or ‘We don’t do short stories, but we’ll agent your non-fiction.’ Those who write only one genre have an easier time of it, while those who write in diverse forms are penalized by categorization — not just in terms of marketing or readership, but also in our ability to get our work sold. We have to work harder to find multiple agents who will allow us to work with colleagues and competitors in another genre, or sell our own work, which is another mountain entirely. These are the hidden costs of categorization from a writer’s point of view.”

If I look back to the meaning of ‘literary’ in plain old South African terms, what does it mean? It means that the book has an original voice and a unique message and an often startling way of delivering it. I agree with Stan Chung when he says, “We are never one thing. We are countless things. We are the place we live in today.”

And I couldn’t agree more. Peter Midgley says, “categorization makes us smaller,” and I agree with that also.

Perhaps the key is in the acceptance of books that cross the traditional boundaries. I asked Luciana Ricciutelli her opinion on this and she commented, “I think the list of Canadian reads that cross traditional boundaries is endless – your most recent books are good examples of this. Both The Witchdoctor’s Bones and A Glittering Chaos can be described as mysteries, and also as literary fiction. This is also true of many Inanna titles that cross all kinds of genres – mystery, historical fiction, contemporary women's fiction, experimental fiction, LGBTQ – and are literary fiction as well as often specifically feminist fiction. And this is true also for books published by many other Canadian publishers ... As a publisher, when the time comes to start marketing your front list to the bookstores and book buyers, settling on a given category to help your sales force market the book properly is an important exercise because you really need to give the book the label or category that fits best and that will help it find its way into the hands of readers who will love it.”

Finally, Peter Midgley made this comment that I think is very important: “It took me a long time to justify my use of form. I have succeeded to some extent in Edmonton’s writing community, but it makes it difficult to break into the broader Canadian writing scene. And I write in English. I cannot imagine how tough it is for writers who do not write in English, yet are Canadian. And there are many. They are diminished to niche markets, when what they have to say could make ours a far more integrated society that reflects the complexity of our surroundings.”

One of the things that excites me about spaces like All Lit Up, is that it will be a fabulous resource for all the things I value most in a book; that it will be a good read, with a unique story told in a bold voice, a voice that is singularly Canadian. I trust that this is a forum for authors who are trying to say something unexpected and for readers who aren’t looking for Heather or Oprah’s approval.


Here are a half a dozen of my favourite recommends—books that can’t necessarily be put into one category but are goodies for sure:

  •  The Miracles of Ordinary Men by Amanda Leduc (ECW). Magical realism, religion, family, and love are all woven into the fabric of this intense and beautifully imaginative read.
  • Stunt by Claudia Dey (Coach House). Incredibly poetic and lyrical and the imagery is beyond wonderful.
  • Tell Anna She’s Safe by Brenda Missen (Inanna). This books stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it. Why do we love who we love? And what consequences can come from it? Based on a true story, this is a riveting read.
  • Teeth by George Bowering (Mansfield Press). I loved the world created in the poems here. They offer wry observations and quick humour and when you read them, you think yes, this is what the world is like. 
  • Her Red Hair Rises With The Wings of Insects by Catherine Graham (Wolsak & Wynn). What a wonderful collection. Such powerful imagery. The poems are like epic stories, extracted to their essence.
  • Cosmo by Spender Gordon (Coach House). These highly original short stories are wonderful reads. They offer a greatly human, unflinching, and yet fully understanding view of flawed and fragile and funny people. Thanks to the Leonard Cohen story, I became a Subway (Eat Fresh!) sandwich addict. Actually, all I was trying to do was find Leonard.  




Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived and worked in the United States, Australia and Britain. Her first novel, The Hungry Mirror, was published by Inanna Publications in 2010 and was awarded the IPPY Gold Medal for literature on women’s issues in 2011, as well as long-listed for the 2011 ReLit Awards. Her second novel, West of Wawa, was published by Inanna in 2011 and was one of four Chatelaine Bookclub Editor’s Picks and was awarded the IPPY Silver Medal for Popular Fiction in 2012. Her third novel, A Glittering Chaos was recently awarded the 2014 IPPY Silver for Popular Fiction, and she recently released her fourth novel, The Witchdoctor's Bones. Lisa lives and works in Toronto.


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