Who knows the difference between “literary fiction” and the other kind? Show of hands? Not many readers, and most of them are probably also writers or English majors.
Well, what is literary fiction? Moira Allen, blogging at Writing-World.com, approaches the question by stating first what it’s not: it’s not “genre” or mainstream fiction, which includes romance, mystery, thriller, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. Others attempt but fail to clarify by saying that literary fiction is reading required in “college English classes” as opposed to books found in “the grocery checkout line.” [The Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, by Jane Friedman].
One of the primary differences between literary fiction and genre fiction is that the emphasis in mainstream fiction is on plot, as opposed to character. In one editor’s opinion, “I don’t think mainstream fiction…takes as many risks with character, form, subject matter, or style as literary fiction, because its primary concern is the market place.” [Beth Alvarado, fiction editor for CUTTHROAT: A Journal of the Arts.]] Yet plot is clearly not a dispensable element in any story, for “Beautiful writing needs some glue to hold it together,” says Ronna Winegold, a senior fiction editor at Bellevue Literary Review. Since plot is, for many writers, the crucible that reveals character, the difference is surely one of degree. This makes for a distinction without a difference and further fails to clarify the issue.
If you are trying to meet submission requirements for a publisher, for example, a statement in the guidelines that the editors seek “character-driven” stories” that confront a “moral dilemma” would seem to allow almost any good story to come in. Insofar as style is also an important factor, a writing style only becomes apparent when the reader begins to experience what is on the page. This sets up a Catch-22 situation, for the writer is trying to persuade the reader to pick up that page, to begin with.
Why is it important for writers to know about literary fiction, anyway? Well, being the author of a story published by a leading literary magazine can help new writers raise their profiles. Some litmags have been introducing successful writers for decades. If they have liked a story, book publishers take note that the novel which follows merits a look.
Thus the writer of literary fiction—or of that hybrid known as “literary genre fiction”!—has higher hurdles to leap. He or she must do more during a pitch than simply tell what happens on a narrative level; more is required to entice an agent or editor to take a look at work that purports to reach inside, melt pre-conceived notions, and touch the reader’s heart.
In genre fiction and other popular storytelling modes today—which include movies, streaming Internet webisodes, and interactive games—this empathy-driven identification with the story’s symbols is manipulated to attract and incite a huge number of fans to share a common illusion of experience. In literary fiction, the writer must command all that and more. What makes the work transcendent is that the reader becomes more interested, and more invested, in the character’s psychological world, and what this reveals about human nature, than in the plot.
Is literary fiction more difficult to sell? Editors indicate that they’re looking for the same thing that mainstream or genre editors want: “a new voice,” “fiction that communicates ideas, concepts, or feelings that transcend the structural elements of the story,” and definitely “nothing predictable.”
What causes editors at literary magazines to reject a story? There are many reasons, including “Unsuitable for the magazine,” “Too much cleverness,” “Stereotypical plots,” “Lack of texture,” “Stories that have not been thought out. “If this sounds suspiciously like a checklist that an editor of any genre would have, Regina Williams, editor and publisher of The Storyteller Magazine, gives another familiar piece of advice: “Read the guidelines. Edit more than once. Keep writing.”
She also advises writers, “Never give up. Even the most well-known authors have gotten rejection letters.”
The reality is that any writer’s first task, after typing “The End,” is to sell the story and convince the buyer (the agent, the editor, the publisher, the producer) that it is worth promoting to the world at large, and that it will become popular. Thus there must be some criteria other than large sales and wide popularity that writers and editors use to tell whether a story is a piece of literary fiction, a hybrid, a genre piece, or a wannabe.
A subsequent blog will focus on what those other criteria might be.
Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in A Death in Texas, Dead and Breakfast, A Box of Texas Chocolates, Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks,Underground Texas, and Deadly Diversions. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.