About twenty years ago, I decided that the quickest way to become a published fiction writer would be to go back to school and get a master’s degree. I figured I would make a bunch of contacts in class and among my professors, which would lead me to an agent, which would lead me to a contract, which would lead me to a spot on the table near the door at my local bookstore.
Alas, it wasn’t that easy. Part of the problem was that I spent most of my master’s program trying to fit my square-peg writing style into the round hole called “literary fiction”.
Call me slow, but it did not occur to me for a long time that master’s programs in fiction writing are not interested in turning out writers who can make a living at writing. They are focused on turning out writers who can turn out short stories that their fellow students, and their professors, like. That’s because short stories lend themselves much better to workshopping than novels do. A student might be able to turn out a respectable first draft of a novel in a semester, but she cannot do it and also read and critique the novels of the other nine students in her class – not to mention keeping up with the work in her other classes and with whatever is going on at home. So for workshops, short stories it is. But the marketplace for short stories is miniscule compared to the amount of decent material students are turning out. So many perfectly good stories will never be published.
But I want to go back to the actual focus of writing programs, which is to teach students how to write short stories that people in their program will like. Writing students and their professors consider themselves to be serious writers, and as such, they like to read serious fiction. Oh, word play is fine, and maybe even humor, depending on the subject and how it’s handled. But what these serious writers like to read, in most cases, is what has come to be called “literary fiction.” That is, they want to read about people a lot like themselves – usually urban, mostly white, and almost painfully introspective. It’s okay for the characters to talk about sex, as long as they spend most of their time ruminating about it instead of doing it. In fact, it’s almost better if nothing happens in the story at all. The writer needs to set the scene, of course – otherwise the characters would have nothing plausible to trigger their ruminations. But the characters are under no obligation to learn anything about themselves, or to behave any differently at the end of the story than they do at the beginning.
In any case, everything must be as realistic as possible – which is to say that magic is not allowed, dreams are iffy, and ghosts had better be hallucinations. That is, unless you’re a bona-fide member of a minority, in which case you can call your work “magic realism” and include as many fantastic elements as you want.
This was a problem for me because, you see, I write fantasy. I’ve always written fantasy. Sometimes it strays over the edge into psychological horror. Lately I’ve been using mythology as a springboard for my work. But I always feel most comfortable bringing in some fantastical elements. Sometimes they work as metaphor for a trait the character needs to develop. Sometimes the gods reach right in and tweak a character’s life, for good or ill. But the fantastic needs to be in there, else – for me – the story falls flat. It just isn’t everything it could be. It’s – dare I say it – boring.
But fantasy was not what my classmates wanted to read, and when I tried to give it to them, they didn’t seem to know what to do with it. At the same time, the professors praised the work of students who wrote realistic fiction, and had us read realistic fiction (except for a couple of works of magic realism, from which I concluded that the only difference between magic realism and fantasy is the foreign accent – but I digress). The message we all received was that realistic fiction – literary fiction – was the only kind worth writing; anybody who wrote anything else was a sellout and a hack.
I knew that wasn’t true. I had read enough speculative fiction to know that much of it was as well-crafted as any realistic novel, and it was fun to read, to boot. But to please my fellow students and my professors, I tried writing realistic fiction anyway. People seemed to like it, more or less, and I got good grades. I thought, okay, maybe they’re right. Maybe this is the best kind of writer to be.
So after graduation, I began sending out some of my stories to try to get them published. That’s when I found out how small the marketplace for realistic fiction really is. I began to understand why every realistic novel I’d ever read had a sentence in the author’s bio along the lines of, “Author teaches writing at X College.” The only way these writers could make a living was to teach more students to write realistic fiction.
Eventually, as the rejection letters piled up, I packed away my stories and my dreams of being a published author. Another five years or so went by before I wrote another word of fiction. Guess what? It was a fantasy story. And it was published in a small anthology. And now I have two fantasy novels published and am working on a third.
Then recently, a poet friend said something that made it all click into place. What she said was this: literary fiction is just another genre. It’s realistic, the characters are introspective, and nothing much happens in terms of plot. It’s just another formula – neither better nor worse than the formulas that drive mysteries and speculative fiction and all the other genres. Oh sure, they try to convince everyone that they are the Only Serious Writers. But they’re wrong: every genre has literary-level writers, and even those who write realistic fiction can be hacks.
I know one thing: I write fantasy. I’m done selling out.
So, what are everyone’s else’s thoughts on Literary Fiction? Do you like the genre? Could you write it? Do you think speculative fiction is ‘below’ literary fiction?
About Author Lynne Cantwell
Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews.
Lynne’s vast overeducation includes a journalism degree from Indiana University, a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University, and a paralegal certificate. She currently lives near Washington, DC, with her daughter and her daughter’s cat. SwanSong is her second novel. The first book in her urban fantasy series, The Pipe Woman Chronicles, will be published this spring.
Based on the Irish tale “The Fate of the Children of Lir,” “SwanSong” is the story of a jealous half-Tslyddi woman who curses her four Wolleni stepchildren to 900 years as swans. But the curse goes awry and the children are only partially transformed. The children’s journey, as they learn to cope with their changed lives, is one of hardship, tragedy, and triumph.