The other day I tweeted something about literary fiction that caused some, er, spirited discussion. People started asking me to define “literary fiction,” which is kind of a “know it when it you see it” thing. And people were also bringing up the ridiculousness of the ongoing division between “litfic” and science fiction and fantasy, which gets more absurd all the time — especially now that so much of what’s published as literary fiction these days contains fantastical, futuristic or post-apocalyptic elements.
Top image: Bob Newhart at the Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, Creative Commons-licensed.
So here are some random disconnected thoughts about literary fiction and its relationship to genre fiction, in Q&A format:
Q: What makes something literary fiction?
A: I honestly don’t know. It’s mostly externalities – like if a book is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux or Knopf, it’s probably literary fiction? But if that same book was published by Harlequin, without any significant changes, it would be romance. (Presumably it would need to have a love story in there somewhere.) Many (but not all) literary authors have obtained an MFA from a respected institution, and/or studied at places like the Iowa Writers Workshop or Breadloaf. To some extent, literary fiction is whatever the literary gatekeepers say it is.
Q: So there are no defining traits, writing styles, or story topics, that mark something as literary fiction?
No, there are, sort of. The thing is, it changes over time. There are fads and trends, just like any other cultural thing. I recently read a 25-year-old book of short stories by highly respected literary author Tobias Wolff called The Night in Question. And I was kind of surprised to find that Wolff’s writing style from 1996-ish felt very different than any literary fiction I’d read in the past decade — Wolff’s mid-1990s writing is both plain and discursive, like he’s telling you about a bunch of things that happened, often in a very rapid-fire fashion. There’s very little ironic detachment, and the characters feel like recognizable types. This is literary fiction from before the rise of David Eggers and McSweeney’s, which changed the way people wrote and read literary fiction, infusing a lot more humor and irony but also the feeling of a hidden core of wounded innocence, underneath all those ironic layers.
Back in the mid-to-late 2000s, I was helping to publish an indie magazine and also writing book reviews for a lot of different publications, so I got put on some reviewer lists. A handful of literary publishers were sending me everything they published, and I was able to read some or all of a few score literary books over a three-year period. I found no shortage of formulaic writing, which left me feeling as though a lot of writers were all trying to copy the same thing, but also some really bracing experiments and exciting storytelling that still stick in my mind today.
And I feel like there was a while there, when every other literary story I read was using the first-person plural as its viewpoint – I read a ton of literary stories which were from the point of view of “we” rather than “I,” as if trying to represent some kind of collective experience. (Or shared delusion.) I also read a bunch of literary novels, about ten years ago, which seemed deliberately to avoid giving me any concrete information about the characters, to make it more difficult to identify with them, or to see them as anything other than helpless flotsam in an uncaring world. Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet comes to mind. (Read my review of it here.) But I haven’t been seeing so much of that stuff lately, and I think trends have moved on again.
I should note that while I read a lot of literary fiction, I would not consider myself an expert on the trends of litfic, and I would welcome more informed perspectives, as always.
Q: So at any given time, do literary people agree on what literary fiction is?
Nah. And here’s a thing that’s important to note – “literary fiction” isn’t just hard to define, but it often includes writing that’s very popular as well as the stuff published in literary magazines with a circulation of 100 copies. The vast majority of literary fiction writers toil in obscurity, and attract very little prestige.
I mentioned Ben Marcus above – he got into a food fight back in 2005-ish with Jonathan Franzen, who is probably the author that most people think of when they hear the phrase “literary fiction.” Franzen had written an essay saying that he was sick of novels that were intentionally challenging or “difficult,” suggesting that such fiction is written by “Status authors,” who get championed by people who want to feel cool or clever. Franzen prefers “Contract” fiction, which is focused on making the reader happy. Marcus wrote an essay for Harpers (which is no longer online) in which he argues in favor of experimental novels that play with narrative, and defends the notion that literature can be an art form with lofty artistic ambitions. In essence, Marcus argues that it’s okay for novels to ask readers to do some work.
The point is, both Franzen and Marcus were (and are) classified as literary authors – but they disagreed fiercely about the function of literature. Is it meant to be comforting and easy to read, as Franzen argued, or challenging and weird, as Marcus insisted? Both, obviously. And this brings us back to the fact that “literary” novels include beach reads that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, as well as odd experiments that selll hundreds of copies – which is also true of science fiction and fantasy, of course.
Q: But literary fiction is all well-written, right? That’s the central trait of litfic, that it’s well-written. Right?
Leaving aside the fact that “well-written” is in the eye of the beholder… definitely not. Literary fiction is like any other kind of writing. Some of it is beautifully written, some of it is clunky as hell, at the sentence level.
My high school English teacher made me read John Updike’s Rabbit, Run – which is not a book I would recommend that anybody read, FYI — and I internalized that Updike was a great writer. I went on an Updike binge when I was eighteen, reading all the Rabbit books and Bech books, and so on. Then I came across a book that changed my life: Writing Well by the poet Donald Hall. I learned a ton about writing from Hall’s cranky, opinionated tome, which I got in a used bookstore. And at one point in Writing Well, Hall just goes apeshit on John Updike, brutally dissecting a paragraph of Updike’s prose and showing all the weak parts and the exposed seams. The unnecessary adjectives, the overly “sweet” prose, the clunky sentence constructions. After that, I could never read Updike again, because it was too obvious to me that Updike’s prose was actually kind of naff.
(I believe back then I had the first edition of Writing Well. The copy I have now is the third edition, which seems to have toned down the criticisms of Updike a smidge – either that, or my memory exaggerates the savagery of Hall’s critique. Either way, it’s still in there in the third edition, just a bit gentler than I remember.)
Q: Okay, but so why is there this weird hierarchy of genres, with literary at the top and SF at the bottom?
First of all, if there is a hierarchy, then erotica is probably at the actual bottom. (No shade: I say this as someone who published a fair amount of erotica back in the day.) Second of all, I dunno. It’s hierarchies all the way down. Book people are way, way too obsessed with status and fanciness, based on sales and awards, but also just who got to sit at which table at lunch recess. We’re all insecure and anxious, thanks to a system that turns our random brain-droppings into a Product that has to be marketed and monetized and stuff. It wasn’t that long ago that the whole book world was sniffing disapprovingly at something called “chick lit,” because women were having too much fun writing about their lives and desires and we can’t have that.
The literary/SF divide has always been porous, and people have spent the past half-century poking more holes in it. On the SF side, we’ve had the New Wave, slipstream, interstitial fiction and a bunch of other attempts to bridge the divide. On the literary side, there’s been postmodern lit, magical realism, George Saunders’ brand of surrealism, and a metric ton of literary novels that involve apocalypses, robots, spaceships, aliens, witches and dragons. It would be difficult to assemble a stack of major literary novels of the past decade that didn’t include at least a few books with speculative elements, like A Visit from the Goon Squad, Sing Unburied Sing, or Station Eleven.
“Literary fiction” or “mainstream fiction” are very broad marketing categories, that encompass everything from fluffy beach reads to impenetrable journeys into metaphysics. Like most genre labels, they’re intended to help you find more books like the last one you enjoyed. If you liked Little Fires Everywhere, then you might also enjoy The Nest. Book designers put a lot of time and energy into putting together a typeface and cover image that will gently remind you of other books with a similar style or set of concerns, because the point of book categories is to create affinity groups in order to sell more books. In much the same way that Cambridge Analytica tried to sort voters according to countless preferences and attitudes in order to sell candidates to them, the publishing industry wants to sort readers into different pots, which can be catered to with the kind of books those readers are looking for. If enough books do well in one cluster or affinity group, then they start becoming a genre, or maybe a subgenre.
(Side note: I find it actually confusing how much the covers of Detransition, Baby and The Vanishing Half look. I keep mixing them up in my mind.)
When I think about the literary and genre worlds, I think of the primarily in terms of communities — because we don’t write and publish on our own, using the power of our rugged individualism. Any healthy book genre has a community behind it. My science fiction book communities include the folks I hang out with at Wiscon and WorldCon, but also Comic-Con. And all the cosplayers and fanfic writers and geeky librarians and RPG nerds who love to talk about the latest Murderbot book. Whereas the literary communities I’ve been lucky enough to be part of include all the folks who hang out at fancy book festivals and AWP, but also all the queer lit authors whom I’ve read with at Pride and at queer festivals and in between musical acts at Homo-a-Go-Go or whatever.
To the extent that gatekeepers ever mattered, they matter less and less — and communities matter more and more, because the market is so fragmented and the internet is more important than ever for book promotion. The more vibrant and inclusive the community around a type of writing, the better the writing is likely to be, and the healthier the market for that writing. There are plenty of books that could have been published as either speculative fiction or literary fiction — and often, those books get published as literary fiction and are mostly ignored, whereas they might have been championed and embraced had they been published by a genre publisher.
It didn’t escape my notice that in my recent Twitter discussion about literary fiction, the SFF writers who reported receiving lots of shade for their genre storytelling were all telling stories about college creative writing classes or MFA programs — which I think says more about academia than about book genres, honestly. I guess I’d argue that there’s still plenty of snobbery and hierarchy in the book world, as there is in most aspects of cultural production — but it’s nebulous and ill-defined, and very much in the eye of the beholder. I think of it as a matter of superstition, as much as anything else: if we just smear these goat entrails on the cover of this book, maybe it will find a readership.
Final thought: It’s essential to recognize that literary fiction, like most genre fiction, has become much more inclusive in the past decade. When I think of litfic authors I admire, I’m likely to think of Roxane Gay, Yaa Gyasi, Charles Yu, Luis Alberto Urrea, May Lee Chai, R.O. Kwon, Cathy Park Hong, Shruti Swamy or Tommy Orange, just off the top of my head. There is a ton of litfic that deals with the immigrant experience, QTPOC lives, disability, and how it feels to be marginalized in America. It’s a very exciting time to be reading literary fiction, for the same reasons why it’s an exciting time to read genre fiction. If you think all litfic is like John Updike or Jonathan Franzen, you’re missing out.
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On Thursday 5/20 at 8 PM ET, I’m doing a reading and panel discussion at Argo Bookshop in Montreal, along with Nicasio Reed, Danny Lore and H.A. Clarke, plus moderator Izzy Wasserstein.
On Saturday 5/22 at noon PT, I’m reading and chatting with Rivers Solomon, author of the incredible new book Sorrowland(https://www.eventbrite.com/e/rivers-solomon-and-charlie-jane-anders-tickets-148641277061), as part of the Litquake book festival.
It’s been just over a month since my young adult space fantasy book Victories Greater Than Death came out. The other day, the Irish Times called it a “standout” that is “thoroughly enjoyable” and offers up “adventure and excitement” — but also asks “questions of morality” about how to behave in the midst of war and how to deal with having a huge responsibility on your shoulders. You know how I mentioned above that what really matters is the communities that support us? I am very extremely grateful to the community of book-lovers that has showed up for Victories Greater Than Death, and especially to everyone who has pre-ordered, reviewed, or signal-boosted it. !
Also, my book of essays about how to survive hard times by making up stories, Never Say You Can’t Survive, comes out August 17, and I just got the box of ARCs in the mail. This book is also available on NetGalley — bear in mind that there are a few repetitive and redundant bits in the review copy that I cut out of the final version. This book is much better than the version that appeared on Tor.com, and I’m grateful to everyone who commented and gave feedback on the version in progress. I feel super proud of this book, as a whole, and I think it contains the best writing advice I’ve ever done. (Low bar, I know.) If you feel moved to pre-order it, I would be immensely and overwhelmingly grateful.