Why literary fiction is a genre by Lynne Cantwell

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.

Amazon Author Page    |    Facebook Page

Lynne’s Books


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.

Buy on Amazon for    Kindle    or    Paperback


26 responses to “Why literary fiction is a genre by Lynne Cantwell

  1. I’m a literary fiction writer and yep, my characters are painfully introspective 🙂 It’s definitely behind the curve on the sellability scale, but it’s what I love and what I’m good at (huh, maybe that’s why my professors liked me). What about Agatha Christie? HG Wells? Jules Verne? They’re shelved right along with literary fiction but they were the genre fiction writers of their time.

    • Well Kelly, I love fantasy and science fiction. Have never really read “literary fiction”. Atleast I think I haven’t. So, don’t know if I’d like it … or even be able to read it. 🙂

    • Hi Kelly! I’d argue that HG Wells and Jules Verne, in particular, wrote in a time before genres were as rigidly defined as they are now. Their genius was established well before anybody thought to plunk them into the sci-fi bucket. I also think that marketing is mostly responsible for the rigid genre definitions we see today.

      And, too, I think genre fiction has a less of a questionable reputation in the UK than it does in the US. US publishers tend to think of fantasy as a genre for kids and (in the case of some sci-fi series) males with a case of arrested development. Witness the Harry Potter books, which came out in the UK in two editions — the kid-market covers and the adult-market covers. That didn’t happen in the US. American readers of the series had to tote around books with cartoons on the covers, lol. In any case, I’m glad you’ve found *your* voice!

  2. This is excellent, Lynne, thank you, and thank you, Ritesh. I write literary fiction and read it. But I also write in other genres. I agree that “literary” is a genre all its own…yet to some, it has that ivory-tower stigma about it. I’ve been told by agents and publishers that it “doesn’t sell,” isn’t accessible, and only must be undertaken by MFAs. Not true! Like you wrote, it’s a genre like any other. Good for you for finding your voice.

  3. Fantastic post, Lynne, with a really great message: write what you love. I really enjoyed this!

    And Ritesh – thanks for sharing – you’re blog is great!


    • What would we readers do, if everyone wrote what was “proper” fiction? There’d be very few readers left. There are so many reasons why people read. To get away from real life is, I think, one of the biggest reasons.
      If all fiction mimicked real life, where would people go, to get away from troubles and sorrows?

  4. Great post, Lynne. I spent some years in an MA Lit program and sympathize. I think literary fiction still has its place, it’s just that it’s been so distilled and refined over the last 30 years that it’s like an overbred showdog that doesn’t know how to act like a dog any more.

    Electronic publishing may be just what that “genre” needs: when there are no barriers to publication, all the old rules get broken. A lot of junk will get written, sure, but the net effect will be a positive as new life gets breathed into the musty old halls of literary fiction.

  5. This is very interesting. I really do not know what lierary fiction is,but this gave me a slight Idea.There is no way I could write it. I too am into fantacy and romance. My characters are deep and emotional. I think every genre has people that prefer it,and that is just awesome,but it isnt for me. I do some short stories ,but they are not my favorites,I love immersing myself into a novel where i have the time and space to tell mystories!! Thanks for sharing your views and I love your websiite Ritesh!

  6. excellent post. The book cover is gorgeous.

  7. Yes, just as I have thought. . . If I wanted to teach writing, jumping through the hoops of academia would have been the thing to do. And, if I lucked out and was able, on my own, to grok the necessary relativity of integrating formalized, but stodgy writing concepts with my natural proclivity of story telling, I could be a writer, not just a teacher of writing.

    In my case, my life trajectory made it impossible to continue in pedagogic higher education, so I had to rely on writing skills mostly developed in elementary school days, tweaked in high school through composition assignments. By the time I entered college for a short run in seeing life as others compartmentalized it for academicism and career advantage, I was more inclined to living life and writing about it. I stepped out (as opposed to dropped out) from the walls of conceptualized life to literal
    life, from “literary fiction” to literal fictions describing literal non-fictional life.

    The irony I’ve learned is a truth that my wife often speaks to: Sometimes, if not mostly, reality must be presented in “fiction” to make it more comestible to our digestion of unvarnished life. It gets the point across, but puts some distance between the spectators and their own personal story. Yet, it gives a personal voice to those whose life it literally depicts, granting them validation, while escape from the self-isolation of preferred privacy.

    I didn’t know what I was doing, when I wrote my first published book. I simply began it, and it unfolded with elements that troubled my contracted POD. When all was said and down, absolute truth had emerged out of memoir, history, and magic realism (a term I didn’t know but can relate to). I needed you, Lynne Cantwell to have been my knowledgable agent, running interference for me against the forces of conventionality.

    Thank you.


  8. Wow, Carl, thanks. Always happy to help. 8)

  9. Great post! I think we need to change the name of ‘literary fiction’ to ‘realistic fiction.’ The term literary implies that it’s more literature and literate than other genres, so people who read and write it sometimes have an inflated sense of themselves and their writing. 🙂

    • I agree that we need to change the name. Until I read this post, I had no clue what “literary fiction” was. I’ll read most anything, so I’ve read some literary fiction, but I didn’t know that was what it was called, and I’ve heard the phrase before, but had nothing to attach it to. I think “realistic fiction” is better. Or, hey, just “fiction”, because… it is.
      Thanks for the great post. I’m a little less clueless now.

  10. Lynn, I found your subject — and your description/take — on the dynamics of the masters’ level programs in writing quite cogent. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

  11. I’ve been flooded with speculative fiction more so than Lit. Fic. and I’m looking forward to when those authors jump on the Internet/book blogger/eBook bandwagon. I think when they do, that will show that we’ve become mainstream. 🙂

  12. Great post ~ I loved this! And I very much agree with literary fiction being a genre. It’s funny, most pro writers seem to know this, although it’s seldom talked about because it so goes against the literati pretensions, ha.

    I also agree that the UK seems to have far less disdain for genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy but I also wanted to remind people that much of what we consider “literature” from past times (H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, etc.) was the popular fiction of its day. I know that’s been said a hundred times, but it bears repeating…I think generally speaking, most people really like a good story, and while some literary fiction delivers that, a lot of it doesn’t. That being said, I do read *some* literary fiction, but it tends to be the more storied variety (Cormac McCarthy comes to mind, and Neil Stephenson, who’s kind of a “straddler” as well as some of the more “foreign” fiction like Shantaram, the Kite Runner, that kind of thing). But I don’t generally read the kind you’re describing…and I know a lot of people probably wouldn’t consider the ones I mentioned *true* literary fiction, so it doesn’t take away from your overall point.

    On the other hand, a lot of genre people refuse to consider something sci fi once it breaks into either mainstream or literary, so it cuts both ways…only a few of the old timers seem to be able to do both, (Ray Bradbury comes to mind). Anyway, it is interesting how no one seems to want to be called “popular fiction” but all writers want a lot of sales! I find that whole “sellout” notion strange and somewhat self-defeating.

    The other thing I wanted to share was simply an anecdote. I actually hemmed and hawed in my 20s about going back for an MFA, probably for the same reasons you did, and actually got the opportunity to ask a famous writer if I should. The utter horror on that writer’s face is something I’ll never forget. The answer he gave me was the equivalent of “HELL NO!” and he then proceeded to tell me how it would destroy my writing and my voice and be a colossal waste of my time that I might never recover from as a writer. I never forgot that, and based on your story (I also write speculative fiction), I think I made the right choice, at least for me.

    Thanks again for an awesome post!

  13. Pingback: AWP 2012 | Now That’s a Novel Idea: Marketability (Gasp!) and Creative Writing Programs (Part 1) « Write on the World

  14. Hey, no worries about the delay, Lynne! 🙂

  15. As a writer, I am just looking for my voice and telling stories that come from witin me, painting the genre before developing the voice, seems a bit like the tail wagging the dog. Most of the books overlap genres and so they should, the imagination is limitless and needn’t be constrained unless we purposefully wish to writeby rules, which is more like academic writing.

  16. Pingback: Picking sides in the fiction wars « Create & Delineate

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