The new release from Booktrope of Anesa Miller's literary debut Our Orbit poses questions about the importance of family, the dynamics of foster care, as well as how religion, poverty, and homophobia affects her characters of Southern Ohio. In this fragmented media environment that has seen the ascension of genre works, particularly of the paranormal kind, I asked Anesa whether literary fiction still had relevance, and just what was its place in 2015?
Do You #LitFic? Does Anyone, Anymore? by Anesa Miller
As you would expect, I believe literary fiction is still vibrant and important because those are the books I like to read. Still less surprising in light of my convictions: it's the type of book I do my best to write. My new novel Our Orbit may not be philosophical, contains no elaborate symbols, and little poetic language. Nonetheless, it aspires to such literary values as psychological depth and social relevance. Popularly termed "lit fic," this category is tricky to pin down with a definition. With your indulgence, I'll share some preliminary thoughts.
I like to imagine literary fiction as a coquettish college-aged human (of any gender you like) attending a costume party dressed as Mark Twain. S/he twirls one end of an old-fashioned string tie, and eyes twinkle under that mop-like wig. A lilting voice reminds us that, "reports of my death are an exaggeration."
It's good to keep in mind that literary fiction is a sweet young thing. Its detractors often point out that, "Shakespeare [or Tolstoy or other greats of the past] never wrote #litfic! He just wrote what he wanted!" Leaving aside the fact that Shakespeare wrote drama and poetry, this claim makes no point at all. The concept of "literariness" is one we grapple with in relation to contemporary fiction. It is always a fresh quality for its own time. Anything else, however highbrow and elaborate, would be formulaic.
Moreover, anything of Shakespeare's era or Tolstoy's, which is still being read today, should be called a "classic," or "canonical work," rather than literary fiction. Confusing these categories lands us in hot water. The most well-written, intellectual novels of today, whether they climb a best-seller list or not, may be forgotten ten or twenty years from now. Once forgotten—regardless of how literary these books were once considered—they will never become classics for future generations (barring the increasingly unlikely event of a new vogue or rediscovery).
Allow me to evade the issue of a cut-off date. Even so, "literary," in the sense I mean here, is an adjective properly applied to fiction of one's own time. Books earlier than—say, arbitrarily—the cultural shift of the 1960s, came to the publishing market contending with such a different set of tastes and expectations that we can no longer perceive them on their original terms. We cannot read them with the same mentality that prevailed when they were created (although I'm sure this varies for individual readers).
What this implies is that we may find older works interesting for reasons other than those that draw us to contemporary literary fiction. Indeed, our reasons may have nothing to do with literary quality: historical interest, curiosity about an author's life or death, the comforts of a bygone world, etc. Whether these older books were deemed literary when published or not, they may yet become classics or enter a canon of some sort, if their appeal persists over time.
I find this distinction important because resentment among writers of different genres is running especially high these days. True, such feelings tend to be perennial, but regardless of that, it's especially sad at a time when all writers are lucky if the public chooses any book over Facebook. But, I understand how authors of popular genres (the name Jennifer Weiner springs to mind) may well resent those who embrace the term "literary" IF we claim it means our work is closer to the classics that millions have loved for years or centuries.
There is no necessary connection. Let me emphasize the obvious: Contemporary literary novels ≠ classic works of literature!
Of course, resentment rarely seeks a rational cause. AND there is a pregnant similarity between the words "literary" and "Literature." But attempting to change established terminology in any field is a bigger task than I can advocate in good conscience.
I can feel this topic expanding even as I struggle to address it! So in short (if not too late for that): I believe literary fiction is a meaningful category, one that has existed for some decades, and is likely to remain viable in the future. As a purveyor of #litfic myself, I plan to revisit many of these questions.
Thank you, Jason, for hosting me on your blog today!
Synopsis of Our Orbit:
Nine-year-old Miriam Winslow never wore new clothes, never had a haircut, and believes that sinners must repent with dramatic displays of remorse, or harm will come to their loved ones. Now thrust into foster care, Miriam must adapt to a secular lifestyle while struggling to keep in touch with her past. Foster parents Rick and Deanne Fletcher quickly come to love their “new little girl.” Soon they meet the rest of Miriam’s family. Uncle Dan believes he was abducted by aliens. Sister Rachelle, just out of juvenile detention, harbors painful secrets. Brother Josh is outraged that the Fletchers disrespect Christian teachings. He vows to take Miriam out of their home and put a stop to meddling in his family's way of life.
Now a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Best Regional Fiction, Our Orbit captures the tension between modernity and tradition in the Appalachian corner of southern Ohio. "A literary novel that reads at the pace of a thriller."
My Review of Anesa Miller's Our Orbit
A Compelling Literary Gem ★★★★★
This emotional and beautifully written debut novel by Anesa Miller explores socially relevant issues, such as poverty, foster care, secular religion, homophobia, abortion, and the tension between tradition and modernity. It’s a tightly woven and tension-filled family story set in Southern Ohio.
The nine-year-old Miriam finds herself in a new foster family who are financially better off than the family she grew up with, which itself was broken up after the mother dies and the father is sent to prison. Miriam’s conflict with her sister Rachelle, who she believes has abandoned her, is one relationship in the book which had me fully engaged; but Miriam’s burgeoning relationship with her new family, particularly the two younger kids, is sweet and endearing, and one particular scene between the three of them in the basement they’ve been forbidden to enter was so full of truth and tension (and humour) that it was one of the most gripping scenes in the book.
Miriam’s influence on the younger kids is a source of concern for Deanne, their mother, particularly as her own mother disapproves of Miriam. Family dynamics and hidden secrets threaten to tear the family apart. There is an embedded theme here about sexuality, and this is echoed in the homophobic sentiments of Josh, Miriam’s older brother, whose fervent devotion to an extreme form of Christianity provides yet more tension in a story rich in moral complexity and psychological depth. Is Josh just crazy and out of control because his father’s been sent to prison, or does he genuinely want to protect his sisters and keep his family together? Josh, for all his self-righteousness that borders on hypocrisy, is himself under scrutiny from his own guardians ‘like he was a refrigerator they’d bought home on trial and had to keep opening the door to check if things were cold enough inside.’
Josh, of course, has secrets of his own, something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by his sister Rachelle, who, for obvious reasons, resents his pro-life stance. Teen angst against the additional pain of being estranged from her family makes Rachelle one of the more sympathetic characters (although, all the characters here are easy to relate to, one of the novel’s greatest strengths). Rachelle, along with Miriam and Josh, all have their traumas, however, the parents do too: Deanne and Rick, must also adapt to a new life, one of their own choosing, attempting to do the right thing by the kids while trying to keep their marriage on track and sustain a fulfilling home life.
Our Orbit is a wonderful and superbly written debut, as good as any literary North American writer you care to mention. ‘It was a pain how the scenes [on TV] with dark backgrounds made her image show up like writing in lemon juice over a candle flame.’ Such sentences are clear evidence that Anesa Miller is a great talent and her debut a skilled work.
As well as the high standard of writing, which is always illuminating and brimming with truths about the human condition, all the characters are believable, the story they find themselves in compelling, the themes expertly woven into the fabric of the text, allowing you space for you own speculations about what’s happening (and what might happen) and to draw your own conclusions about the actions of the characters. If you like a good novel about family on the same level as Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were The Mulvaneys, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, you won’t do much better than this thought-provoking, tragic, and wonderful book.
What other critics are saying:
"Deftly woven, complex and compelling… Memorable characters will hold the reader's attention from beginning to end." — The Midwest Book Review
"Rejecting simplistic stereotypes, from 'trashy' to 'homophobic,' Miller invites readers to probe beyond immediate impressions… A compassionate, thoughtful narrative about hard-won self-realizations." — Kirkus Reviews
"Our Orbit explores how family can be torn apart by brutal conviction and brought together by moments of grace. Anesa Miller writes with wisdom about our need to believe, our desire to belong, and, finally, the best that our fallen world can offer: love, forgiveness, a chance to start over again." — Kim Barnes, In the Kingdom of Men
Anesa Miller received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council and has published widely in literary magazines. Our Orbit is her debut novel. Her short story collection, To Green Camp, is forthcoming in 2015.
Anesa Miller's new novel, OUR ORBIT, is available at:
and forthcoming from other online retailers and on order from most brick-and-mortar stores
Amazon author page: http://ow.ly/NpNT5