I had been director of the Dactyl Foundation in NYC for a dozen years, organizing art-science collaborations and hosting poetry readings, before it occurred to me that we were doing nothing to support literary fiction. As a literary fiction novelist myself, I was well aware that these unlikely-to-be-bestsellers could use some support. But it was not immediately clear to me what I could do to help. Hosting readings did not work. Poets tend to turn out for each other and buy each other’s work; they dedicate poems to each other and even write poems about each other’s poems, but not literary fiction novelists; they are as independent as cats. They keep to themselves, don’t do reviews, fear influence, and reserve their admiration for dead authors.
I was such a writer, I realized. What could I do to get mavericks, like myself, to form a community?
From personal experience, I understood that what literary fiction writers need most (in order to get more readers) are sympathetic reviewers and an extended shelf life. Literary fiction needs reviewers who won’t judge the work by the standards of other genres. It needs other literary fiction writers. Literary fiction takes time to find its audience. Books aren’t given much time in front of judges and audiences. Those that don’t make it in six months are thereafter ignored. No one in publishing denies this, and yet there are no awards for the best five-year-old novel, no reviewers interested in what came out last year. But literary fiction is not produce; it won’t spoil. It is not trendy, but of an enduring quality.
I realized, too, that it would be necessary to share the responsibility of judging books in order to form a community would be self-sustaining. So in 2010, Dactyl Foundation launched Dactyl Review, dedicated solely to literary fiction, created for and by literary fiction writers. We publish reviews of only the best novels and short story collections, as judged by other literary fiction writers. Authors support the kind of work they admire by writing reviews and this also helps the reviewers build readerships for their own work. The reviewer’s signature is linked and followed by the title of his/her book that is most similar to the book being reviewed.
Dactyl Review also offers the $1,000 annual Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award, which is completely unlike any other award. It is exactly what literary fiction needs. One, the award is not limited to new books. Any literary fiction book by a living author published in any year is eligible for the award. We know that good books are often overlooked the year they come out. Two, we do not accept nominations from authors or publishers for their own books. Dactyl only accepts nominations from other published literary fiction authors. A book is nominated when another writer reviews it on Dactyl Review. (Then the author or publisher has to accept the nomination before the book is officially in the running). Three, we do not require the nominated author or the publisher to send in copies. Dactyl Foundation purchases a copy of every book entered. Four, eligible works must be published, but we accept self-published as well as traditionally published. Five, there is no entry fee. Six, nominations can be made at any time. Our open requirements help insure that we get the best entries not just money-backed entries and not just entries that conform to a list of bureaucratic constraints.
One might think that leaving the judging up to self-designated literary fiction authors and accepting self-published entries would invite a flood of low quality, not very literary, fiction. This is not what has happened. We’ve attracted quality reviewers. That’s because reviewing is hard work. We ask our reviewers to support all opinions about the quality of the writing with excerpts. (How often have you read a review of your own book that says things — good and bad — that are not at all true? as if the reviewer had only skimmed your book.) The review has to be very specific, and this seems to scare off lazy reviewers. It also prevents bullshit. A reviewer cannot claim a writer has a “lyrical style” without backing that claim up with a brief example. Occasionally, we do get writers and publicists, who haven’t bothered to look at our “about us” page, asking us to review their books. I let them know that’s not what we do, and I invite them to review someone else’s book instead. Predictably, the prima donna author will reply by saying, I don’t do reviews. I don’t have the time. And we are happy to let them leave us alone.
All this may beg the question, What is literary fiction? Definitions vary, but only slightly. Typically, literary fiction is defined as writing that is stylized or poetic, not always literal, connoting more than it denotes. It often treats a social or humanistic theme from an unusual perspective and is often in conversation with literature of the past. It tends to question stereotypes more than confirm them and avoids sentimentality. Literary Fiction is the non-genre genre, but it can partake in the conventions of a traditional genre, like mystery or romance, doing so with a wry twist, sometimes with a view to subverting or expanding conventions.
If you are an editor at a small or independent press that publishes literary fiction, you need to make Dactyl Review part of your public relations toolkit. Send an announcement to all your authors inviting them to participate. Once an author has reviewed a book, he/she can also offer his/her book to the community for review. Authors are able to post Dactyl reviews in the ‘editorial review’ section on Amazon. The Dactyl Review offers what every literary fiction writer needs. We need each other because the commercially-driven publishing industry is geared toward economic efficiency, spending the least amount of time on products that most people will buy. Literary fiction is for the uncommon reader. I invite my fellow authors to create some good review karma for yourselves by reviewing a writer you admire, new or old, known or unknown.
We are here to help literary fiction writers help each other.