Literary Fiction: Bullshit?


Writing is often about balancing parentheses, charge-and-discharge, and I thought it tasteful to discharge that one quickly. Is literary fiction bullshit? Charge. No. Discharge.

To be clear, I’m not even questioning the fiction itself. There’s a lot of excellent literary fiction. What about the concept, the distinction? Is that bullshit?

Again, no; but let’s be more subtle. It doesn’t think what most people think it means, and while the concept itself is not bullshit, there’s a lot of bullshit that emerges as various bullshitters (who increase in density, the closer one is to Manhattan) mis-define it.

Here are the snob’s definitions of literary fiction:

  • written to educate, rather than entertain.
  • set in the real world, as opposed to escapist romps through worlds that were just made up.
  • will be remembered in 100 years.
  • character-driven and one-of-a-kind, as opposed to formulaic plot-driven work.
  • the author isn’t sent to a career gas chamber if the book doesn’t earn out.

Except for the last one, those snob definitions are bullshit. Why? Well, there’s a lot of high-minded science fiction and fantasy out there, and there’s plenty of so-called literary fiction that’s just as indulgent as the commercial dreck. Ever read American Psycho? Go on, and tell me that that’s more high-minded than my book because mine has a dragon in it. Furthermore, no one knows what will be read and what won’t, 100 years from now. I can guarantee you very little about 2117, but I will bet that the opinions of a few snobs in New York will matter no more than mine– that is, not at all. Some well-loved literary novels today will probably survive for hundreds of years, but on their merits, rather than their “literary” accolades right now.

For example, it is the case right now that a novel cannot involve supernatural elements and be called “literary”. That is a fad; it will not always be so.

Also, I’d argue that neorealism is itself a genre. It’s a fine one. I like it, in fact. Constraints breed creativity, and if one of those constraints is to put one’s work in the real world with ordinary characters, verisimilitude backed by heavy research, and a focus on interpersonal relationships (to which, I’ll note, great fantasy and sci-fi writers are also attentive) as opposed to magic systems or interstellar travel, then… great! Use the constraints that make you creative; solve the problems that bring out your best. If you shine best when your challenge is to write an engaging story about an ordinary day in the life of an Ohio bank teller, then go off and do that.

Is neorealism a superior genre to epic fantasy? No. Is there a lot of mediocre fantasy or science-fiction that still sells? Sure, but I refer you to Sturgeon’s Revelation, from which literary fiction isn’t exempt.

Now, here’s how a detractor who dislikes literary fiction might define it:

  • overwrought, boring, and detrimentally high-brow.
  • written to win awards, rather than tell an engaging story.
  • formulaic, but according to a secret ingredient list only made available at MFA programs.
  • part of a pyramid scheme whereby writers supplement their income teaching less-talented rich kids how to write books that won’t sell.

Of course, that’s bullshit too! Why? Well, I think John Updike said it best:

[I] just set out to write books.

If anything, I think imputing a motive (“commercial” or “literary”) based on genre without letting the writing’s quality speak for itself is, in fact, lowbrow. High minds discuss ideas; low minds discuss people; and writers just fucking write. Stephen King writes what he likes to write. John Updike wrote what he liked to write. I write what I like to write. My cats poop in a box. Writing should be fun, and to me the question of genre is, to be honest, an afterthought. I know when to use tropes, when to dodge tropes, and when to invert tropes. I don’t usually target them. Genre, like theme, often fleshes itself out after you’ve worked for a while.

Shakespeare may now be the paragon of English literary merit, but his plays were viewed as commercial dreck in his time. Even he probably expected to be remembered for his sonnets, not his best-selling screenplays. Some of those for the record, were truly mediocre. Titus Andronicus was hard-core pulp, and does not achieve the heights of Othello. “The bard” was most definitely a genre writer; he conformed to the three dominant genres of his time: comedy, tragedy, history. He used fantasy elements– faeries in Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic in The Tempest, and an “ear-poisoned-ghost ex machina” to kick the plot off in HamletKing Lear was a psychological horror.

Also, let’s be honest about the novel. It’s subversive. It’s right there in the word; novelty shakes things up. It’s a hundred-thousand-word lie that somehow ends up being more truthful than 99% of the things people say. It’s there to kick people in the balls (and ovaries). It lets you know what a character is actually thinking, with diction and emotional distance and subtext at the author’s discretion. It gets into minds, which aren’t always prim and proper places. When Farisa thinks of a minor antagonist as “an old queef”, I type out the word “queef” and force a reader to see it.

There are trashy novels and brilliant ones, but the form was not seen as “respectable” at its inception. If you were learnèd, you read in Latin and avoided prose altogether. Reputable stories were thousands of years old and featured characters (products of oral tradition) once believed by real humans to have actually existed. The characters in novels? Just made up by some hypergraphic loner, often no more than a few years ago.

So what’s literary fiction?

If I haven’t established all of the following, I certainly can. Just ask me, in a comment. I’ve got nothing better to do.

  • There’s great literary fiction out there.
  • There’s atrocious literary fiction out there.
  • There’s great so-called genre fiction out there.
  • There’s atrocious genre fiction out there.
  • There’s probably a very low correlation between the quality of work and its degree of conformance to “literary” expectations, as defined by Manhattan taste-makers.
  • The “literary vs. commercial” classification is silly and not worth another w….

Let’s step back, then and admit that neither the snobs nor the detractors understand what literary fiction is. Let’s ask a different question? What’s genre? No, really; what is it?

I’m (re-)writing a book, Farisa’s Crossing. It occurs in a world where magical elements exist. Ergo, it’s called fantasy. Works for me That’s the genre. The technology level is closer to 1895 than 1095, so it’s steampunk. It’s heavily character-driven, with interpersonal relationships (mostly non-romantic) as central concerns– what’s a world, if readers aren’t given people in it to care about?– and I’ve put a lot of work into the prose; does this make it literary? Ah, who knows. It’s got a strong female protagonist who fights against sexism and racism so you could call it feminist. It has contemporary and historic relevance, with the Pinkerton-inspired Global Company (who, in this dark timeline, have won and turned into Nazis); this is dystopian and vaguely historical. There’s some dark stuff going on– a chapter that takes place in an insane asylum, a terrifying species of undead I shan’t spoil– so there are horror elements, and there’s an unresolved death at the beginning of the story and its resolution pertains to the story’s climax, so it’s a mystery. Romantic couplings are made and broken (romance?) and there are some tense, fast-paced scenes that left me out of breath (thriller?) just writing them.

So did I write a feminist literary horror mystery epic fantasy dystopian historical steampunk romance thriller? No. I wrote a damn book. (Yes, I said wrote. I’m rewriting it, to make it ten times better, and beta readers are a part of that process and I still have a couple slots, if there’s interest.) Genre isn’t about what your book is. It’s about something else. So, then, what is that “something else”?

Every book needs to establish a core, a critical mass, in order not to be forgotten. Get a book read by three hundred people, and no more, and it’ll probably disappear without a trace, even if it deserved more attention in life. Get it to thirty thousand, and history will probably remember it for, at least, that. In the grand scheme of things, there’s not much difference between those two numbers. It’s hard to know, in advance, what that critical number is.

This is one reason why trade publishing has perhaps the deepest-ingrained and most bitter blame culture in the universe. Launch a book faster than its escape velocity, and it will do fine. Underpublish it, and you’ve wasted paper and a year of someone’s life… and you’ve made the poor author look bad, because trade publishers never take responsibility for anything, so the author will eat the blame for bad sales.

The line between breakout success and shitfuck flop territory is thin; it varies for each book, not always for reasons related to the quality of the book, and it’s hard to predict. The vast majority of books don’t get the support they need to reach escape velocity. And plenty of books aren’t very good and, one could argue, don’t deserve it.

So what is genre? Genre is a book’s strategy for achieving that critical mass, that first few thousand vocal readers who’ll write reviews and gift copies to their friends and keep the flame from dying in the wind.

Farisa’s Crossing would disappoint people looking for a romance, or a straightforward murder mystery, or even a thriller. It’s not a horror novel. It’s not a feminist novel (aside from having some excellent female characters, but so does real life). I do consider it literary (and I’ll get to that) but, mostly, it’s epic fantasy, the first in a series. Fantasy writers will love it; Steele readers will probably not.

Now, we’re equipped to describe literary fiction and what the distinction really means.

Most genres are written for clusters of readers: romance readers, science-fiction readers, mystery readers, fantasy readers. I have no desire to call any category superior to any other. There’s enough structure in the distribution of peoples’ tastes that clusters form. We tackle this unsupervised learning problem by eye and call these reader clusters genres. And that’s fine. My book is not a worse book because it will appeal to fantasy readers (and will not appeal to people seeking hard-boiled detective novels or boy-girl romances). Nor is it better.

So are there literary readers? There are but, to be honest, there aren’t that many of them. It’s true that literary fiction tends to undersell relative to its quality. It’s not written with a set of readers in mind. It’s written for writers. You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy literary fiction, and I certainly don’t intend to imply that writers aren’t also readers (I mean, most are). It’s art for artists.

Sometimes, art for artists is onanistic, self-referential, repetitive, and pointlessly self-referential, an ouroboros of repeated onanism. Sometimes, it’s exceptional for its contribution to dialogue, for its experimental courage, and the sheer quality of the craftsmanship. In literary fiction, you see both cases.

I consider Farisa’s Crossing to be literary insofar as I wrote it for appeal to writers as well as to fantasy readers. Of course, since Farisa’s Crossing takes place on a different planet, in a world with magic, it doesn’t conform to the neorealistic genre (again, a fine genre) that is often called “literary”. So I would not bill it as literary without disclosing what I mean by the term; I don’t want to disappoint readers who enjoy only neorealism.

Literary fiction is written for writers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even for genre writers, there’s a lot that a writer can learn about right from reading literary fiction– the good and the bad.

Okay; I should add that there’s a lot of atrocious literary fiction that’s written for agents, but I’d rather suck down a lahar of lutefisk, pure capsaicin, and horse smegma than delve into that topic.

Now that I’ve answered this question, for all and for good, we can all get back to real fucking work. I have to torment Farisa again, and it’s rough because I’m starting to really like her.


Beta Reader Questionnaire; also 4 Beta Reader Slots Left for Farisa’s Crossing.

Quick order of business: I have 4 beta reader slots left for Farisa’s Crossing, which I intend to be publishing some time after Oct. 1, 2018. I’ll be offering between 1 and 15 Signed First Editions (expect 2) for everyone who completes the program, and (if allowed per publishing contract, and affordable) I will try to order these in a special print run (at my expense) in order to increase their long-term value.

The Beta Reader Guidelines explain this in more detail.

I’ve had a couple people ask me about beta reader questionnaires. This may not be the right one for every book, but here’s what I’m using. It seems to work pretty well, so long as people understand that they don’t have to answer each question (there are 21 of them). It takes 5 to 10 minutes for the typical person to complete, and it sets a good start for a future phone or video interview.

Beta Reader Questionnaire

This questionnaire should take about 5 minutes.

Therefore, you don’t have to answer every question. If nothing comes to mind within 15 seconds, leave it blank. If nothing bored you, leave Q5 blank; if nothing inspired strong emotions, leave Q8 blank. If you don’t recall a sentence or line that struck you as especially good/bad, leave Q17/Q18 blank.

  1. How long did you spend reading the chapter(s)?
  2. Did you finish?
  3. If not, why not?
  4. I loved…
  5. I was bored by…
  6. I was confused by…
  7. I hated…
  8. I had a strong emotional reaction (please specify emotion) to…
  9. I’m not sure why you decided to…
  10. I want to know more about…
  11. What do you think will happen in the next chapter?
  12. What do you hope will happen in the next chapter?
  13. Thematically speaking, what do you think this chapter(s) “is about”?
  14. What was your favorite scene?
  15. What was your least favorite scene?
  16. Who is your favorite character?
  17. Did any sentences strike you as memorably well written?
  18. Did any sentences strike you as memorably badly written or awkward?
  19. Ignoring minor errors, rate the material from 0 to 100 on the following scale:
  • 0: Unreadable.
  • 30: Serious issues. Boring, bad characters, plot holes, etc. (Please specify.)
  • 40: Mediocre. You felt like you read this as a favor.
  • 50: Average among (traditionally) published work. You wouldn’t be surprised to see this in a bookstore, and wouldn’t want a refund if you bought it.
  • 60: Above-average. You’d probably buy the next book, if you remembered.
  • 70: Strong. Top 10% of books you’ve read, you’d recommend to a reader of the genre.
  • 80: Excellent. Top 2% of books you’ve read, you’d recommend to a reader of any genre.
  • 90: Masterpiece. One of the best 3-5 books you’ve ever read.
  • 100: Flawless. The best writing you’ve ever read.
  1. Using the rating scale above, what would suggest I do to make it 15 points better?
  2. Has your opinion of previous chapters or scenes changed, based on what you’ve read? If so, how?

Farisa’s Crossing blurb (as of Sept. 21, 2017).

Farisa’s Crossing is the first novel in a series (“The Antipodes”) featuring a strong female protagonist, circa-1895 (“steampunk”) technology, and mysterious sorcery. It’s undergoing heavy revision late in the copyediting process (3/16/22) and I’ll likely be publishing it between October 2018 and November 2020. in January 2022 when it’s done (late ’22 or early ’23).

The Antipodes

It’s too hot. An ancient calamity has left the tropics uninhabitable, and impassible. Civilization thrives near the North Pole, where temperate climates exist; but the equatorial ocean reaches 47°C (117°F), generating hurricanes that last for months. Deserts broil. Jungles are full of strange creatures like skrums, ghouls, and the squibbani, who seem to have order and civilization of their own.

The hemispheres have been out of contact for at least 2,000 years. While rumors exist of a high-altitude path– the Mountain Road– between the two worlds, no one has ever crossed it and returned. The path, as well as is known, goes through dangerous cities, cursed caves, and deserts that can cook a man whole… and then vanishes, still more than a thousand miles from the equator.

State of the World

In the known world, humans have won. Dragons, orcs, and elves have been pushed to the margins, while the human population exceeds 1 billion. Technological marvels like steamships, telegraphs, and machine guns dominate the world. Trains achieve a blistering pace of 25 miles per hour. Plank turnpikes, supporting ornate horse-drawn carriages, connect the cities. Yet, all is not well. The industrial economy is in decline. Age-old ethnic hatreds are broiling. Cryptic graffiti on city walls indicates danger, while refugees pour into and out of continents. Economic inequality is tearing civil society apart, while threatening changes in climate suggest a terrifying future.

The Global Company

Fifty years ago, Alcazar Detective Agency was a private, corporate army that busted unions, rigged elections, and occasionally hunted down a witch or sorcerer. Now it’s the Global Company. It used to work for businesses; now it is the only business that matters. Alcohol, fuel oil, railroads, espionage and murder-for-hire; it does everything it can, and controls 70 percent of the known world’s economy. It hasn’t lost its taste for mayhem, and it’s running out of world to conquer. An executive includes a grisly murder in a corporate presentation– and his career thrives for it. Mysterious suicides by high-ranking officials mount. Atrocities are committed by (and within) the Company that even its patriarch, Hampus Bell, cannot prevent.

Though the largest stakeholder by far, and the world’s only trillionaire, Bell isn’t even safe from his own firm. He faces internal intrigue, bureaucratic incompetence, and the mysterious syr Konklava. Moreover, he seems to be losing his mind, advocating restraint and notably eschewing profanity one moment, and advocating cannibalism in the next.

The Blue Marquessa

Magic’s real. No one doubts that. However, mages suffer from a terrible disease known as “the Blue Marquessa”. Every spell has a cost; in this world, everything has a consequence. A mage must be careful; the practice has led many to insanity or early death. It’s considered rare for one to live past the age of thirty.

The Heroine

Farisa is “from everywhere and nowhere”, a refugee who managed to get a teaching gig at the most prestigious university in the world. She’s a brown-skinned girl in a snow-white land, a bookish erudite in a dumb war, and a lover in a world where hate thrives. When she loses her job, when her house is burned down, when she’s accused of a crime that she could not possibly have committed, and when ancient monsters begin crawling out of hell, she’s forced to rely on her wits… and her magic, for all the dangers that come along with it.

26 April ’94

It’s two o’clock in the morning. It’s humid, but the sky glows red. Something awful happened. Farisa remembers only vague details. She fought something, and she won, and now she’s got to the hell out of danger. Barefoot, in ill-fitting clothing, having run for twenty or more miles already, she hurls herself into the declining industrial city, Exmore. Danger finds her before she’s in town for five minutes, and promises to follow her up to (and, maybe, past) the edge of the world.

The two most powerful people in the world are drawn into a conflict that neither of them wants to fight. Farisa must avoid Hampus Bell (and his spies) to survive. Hampus must find Farisa, or he’ll face danger within his own company. The only safe place left for Farisa is… the Antipodes. But she’s not the only person who wants to go there. Ongoing wars are pushing refugees to the South, while the Global Company runs out of world to conquer, and its grandest aspirations require more “living space” than the known world has. The stakes get higher and higher with every mile, and soon it’s not only Farisa’s fate that hangs in the balance… if the worlds are joined again, the planet itself stands at risk.

Farisa meets a gun-toting steam-era knight in a leather jacket, a beautiful resistance fighter with a secret past, and one of the most dangerous spies in the world. She purchases Jakhob’s Gun, a trash novel believed to hold coded messages. She fights orcs and ghouls and dragons and even other mages. Her skills develop; her wits sharpen. She finds love and friendship. At the same time, her memories of that awful night– the night her world fell apart, the night the monsters spilled out of hell– return, and she realizes not only who she is but who she was, and that might be the most dangerous thing of all.