Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Word on Literary Fiction

While looking back at my posts over the last several months, I realized I may have been inadvertently short-changing the literary fiction folks who read this blog. True, a lot of it has been general enough to pertain to authors of literary fiction, genre fiction, children's fiction, non-fiction, &c, but when my mind wanders (as it so often does) to the topic of salability, it often switches to genre fiction mode. Herewith, then, a few notes and pointers on the topic of writing (and selling) literary fiction.

You don't necessarily need an mfa. If it makes sense for you to earn the degree, by all means, go for it; if not, don't sweat the fact you don't have one, and certainly don't apologize for it in your query letter. While the degree is generally more pertinent to literary fiction folks than to most other authors, no one will fault you for not pursuing it. As I've mentioned before, you don't (thankfully!) need any kind of professional licensure to write.

You don't necessarily need any prior publications. By all means, if you've published short stories in literary magazines like Harper's, The New Yorker, or The Paris Review, I think you should mention it in your query, but again, don't apologize for what you don't have. If you don't have any short story credits, don't bring up the subject. Again, these are more helpful to the aspiring literary fiction writer than to most others (except, I think, poets), but don't think that you have no business querying agents with your novel simply because you don't have a sterling short story publishing track record.

Short story collections don't sell very well. You're much better off pitching a novel than a collection of short stories, although if you're a total literary badass you might be able to get an agent to take your collection on the condition that they also get your d├ębut novel. I wouldn't count on this, though, so if you've got a bunch of polished short stories lying around, you might want to send those out to literary journals and magazines while you prepare your novel for submission to agents.

It's all about the writing, but you still need a plot. Beautiful writing will attract an agent's attention, but without a coherent plot, your novel is little more than a series of character studies. Things have to happen. People have to want things. People have to lose things. You might not have vampires fleeing werewolves or master detectives tracking jewel thieves or starship captains trying to get home from the far side of the galaxy, but you need something that drives your characters forward, a series of events that will deeply engage your reader, something that your book can be about. I've seen a lot of manuscripts with great writing but in which, unfortunately, nothing happens. Don't fall into this trap.

That's all for now, gentle readers, but I encourage you to ask any questions or post any additional tips in the comments. I'll be at bea for the next couple of days, so I might not be responding to comments very regularly, but I'll do my best to answer any questions that crop up.


  1. Well you answered my question in number 3.

    And you're correct. It is all about the writing but there must be great characters and strong plots to showcase it.

  2. Really great post, amigo. I am a big fan of literary fiction and I pretend to want to pretend to write it. It's a sad and scary landscape for literary fiction novelists, but this post was upbeat and positive and appreciated. Love the blog.

  3. "It's all about the writing, but you still need a plot."

    Thank you for pointing this out. I've read a few literary novels this year in which I was left wondering why I should care about these characters who were doing nothing and becoming more annoying with each passing page.

  4. Thanks for this post, and your past posts on literary fiction. I'm interested in your take on what makes a work of fiction "literary fiction." I think Nathan Bransford's post on the topic several years ago was thoughtful and useful, to the extent I riffed off it in my own musings. Yet I'd love to have a perspective from the publisher's side of the house.

  5. Interesting post, Eric, and something we writers need -- encouragement for our writing. I like literary fiction, but I love science fiction. I love the writing of Hemingway, and Frank Herbert.

    Credentials are great if you have them, but some of the best writers draw on their life experience, rather than their education when they write.

    Your advice is usually point-on, and keeps me coming back to see what's new.

  6. My question has always been, however, how do you market literary fiction? Everywhere I look bloggers are telling me to make a brand of myself, and yet I feel this is easier to do with genre sales. Any opinions, suggestions?

  7. Awesome post, thank you! And like writingyourfeelings, I would love it if you would write another post on marketing literary fiction.

  8. 2 questions:
    Who are some examples of literary fiction authors? I'm thinking names like Richard Russo, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, but maybe they are too popular?

    Which brings me to my 2nd question, if a literary fiction novel becomes popular does it cease being literary fiction? I'm recalling the incident years ago when Jonathan Franzen didn't want to his book to be an Oprah selection.

  9. I don't see why you can't have literary fiction populated by vampires and werewolves. Writers can write beautifully about the supernatural/paranormal/otherworldly. Or does 'literary' only apply to realism?

    I guess I'm still trying to get my head around the literary fiction concept.

    Thanks for the great post about this!

  10. Another enjoyable learning post. Thank you!

  11. My publisher is telling me to "get my name out there", online, in the environment where my audience lurks. Although my debut novel won't come out 'til spring 012, I can't help feeling there's not possibly enough time to "get my name out there" to all the places where the audience for literary fiction lurks. They're all over the place! So - your thoughts on marketing literary fiction would be much appreciated! Is the secret in the "subject matter", insofar as carries the story?

  12. I'm thinking back to some of the big hits: Garp and John Irving's subsequent stream of bestsellers, "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" and Tom Robbins subsequent successes, Richard Russo, particularly "Straight Man", Richard Ford (the "Sportswriter" trilogy), EL Doctorow's novels and several film adaptations - the list of literary fiction "hits" goes on, today with "The Help", "Water for Elephants" and others, so much that the NYT has separated the "hardbacks" of literary fiction from the "small print" of genre fiction into two different bestseller lists. I would say if there's a common thread among these various "hits", is it undoubtedly the strength of the story, along with the accessibility of the storytelling.

    My question to the collective group is, as a novelist with a debut to hit next spring, what are some ways to reach the readers of popular literary fiction, especially without the publisher throwing huge marketing bucks behind it?

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