Propping Up Literary Genre Fiction Sales

Guest post
by Bill Stephens

Okay, I’ll admit it. I lack what it takes to write serious literary fiction. Stephen King settled that issue for me in his book, On Writing, when he said, “You will never be a great writer unless you are born with it.” Great writers must be passionate about something, right? I’m only passionate about things I shouldn’t eat or drink.

So the arrogance of someone so lacking as myself, offering up a thesis that literary fiction doesn’t sell and inferring that cognitive critters might solve that problem, is not lost on me. But even the most calloused devotees of esoteric fiction among publishing gurus, are hard pressed to make the case that a Nobel Prize winner will outsell a good murder mystery, thriller, vampire, S&M, or diet book.

Obviously there is a market for literary fiction. I buy lots of it myself. Among that dedicated cadre of serious readers that have not already jumped ship for nonfiction, there remains a market for quality fiction. Not a huge market, but a market nonetheless.

What’s the problem? The characters in literary fiction spend so much time thinking; they never get around to doing anything. They constantly are confronted with deep issues of: Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do? Where am I going? Why can I not love/be loved? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m right? Why is life more difficult than it has to be? Who out there makes my life more difficult than it has to be, and a myriad of other “Oh, woe is me” considerations. There just is no time left to do much. This leaves heaps of the reading public wondering, “Is anything ever going to happen in this book?”

Yet, during this stultifying process of self-examination, these characters and we readers constantly rub up against all of God’s creatures both large and small. Some of these creatures we make into pets. Some we watch with unfeigned interest in the wild or in cages. Some we feed. Some we nuke with pesticides. Some we eat. Some we squash unknowingly underfoot. Some we train to do tricks. Some we shoot for sport. Some we just enjoy. But none of these do we assign any cognitive powers except for “fight or flight” responses, and occasionally mistaking the attention our pets pay to us as affection – when in reality they probably are thinking, “Oh, boy! It’s the food guy.”

There are academic papers illustrating the increase in ethyl alcohol production and the decrease in impurities created by yeast when Mozart is played to them during fermentation. If the lowly yeast can enjoy classical music, then maybe we do Nature’s woodland creatures a disservice by denying them any cognitive powers.

Here might be the salvation of literary fiction. What if we let our characters do lots of fun, interesting, creative, exciting, mysterious, fulfilling, and/or amazing things – while letting the creatures that the characters encounter do the heavy thinking about what is happening to them. The reader gets the best of all genres – plus completely new perspectives on life and the world around us.

I had this idea while in the shower. I shouted the traditional, “Eureka,” and ran naked through the house to my computer. My first venture into this new genre of fiction, Vámonos!, released mid-December.

The result of my effort is not great literary fiction for the reason stated above by Stephen King. In fact, most would call the book a humorous, action-packed romp. But nestled amongst all this whirl of activity, adding depth and meaning, are the musings of the creatures the characters bump up against. Ruminations like, “Who out there keeps jerkin’ me around, why, and how about cuttin’ this crap out?”

I’m enough convinced that this new genre of fiction has a future, that I my second novel molders, awaiting a final rewrite. I urge all of you literary authors, more gifted at birth than myself, to let a few cognitive critters do some thinking to free up your character’s time. They then can get off their butts and do something; possibly winning back some of the literary fiction market.


Bill Stephens is a graduate of The University of Texas and studied creative writing at Trinity University, San Antonio. He has written over 1,000 weekly wine columns for Harte-Hanks, Murdoch, and Hearst newspapers. You can follow Bill on his Blog, “Read It and Weep.” 

He lives in Texas with his wife and her critters. Learn more about Bill and his writing from his Amazon author page.

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23 thoughts on “Propping Up Literary Genre Fiction Sales”

  1. I think most people avoid writing in the literary genre not for lack of skill, but for lack of audience and paycheck. 😉 While there are some exceptions – a decade ago, “literary” works were highly subsidized by publishers who paid out advances far in excess of expected earnings in hopes of the “feather in their cap” of an award winner, and some still do – in general people writing literary fiction make less than writers of any other genre.

    Well, horror writers might make less, these days. Unless they’re indie writers. 😉

    The “literary” name is a misnomer, of course. There’s as much great fiction in any other genre as there is in the literary genre, and as much bad fiction among the literary works as there are in any other genre. “Literary fiction”, as you pointed out, is more a style of writing, a taste among readers, than it is a reference to the quality of the writing.

    My advice is generally this: Write what you like to read. Write well. Worry less about what some ivory tower academic committee considers is “literary”, and more about writing something people will enjoy reading – and you’ll enjoy writing.

  2. We think you are brilliant. Our poetry along with two installments of the Tao of Teddy can be found in the highly obscure and therefore literary book “Reflections and Tails”. Spunk would also like to know if any of your wife’s critters are single.

  3. Irbauthor, I agree it’s a disturbing mental image. But I was paraphrasing an anecdote told in every physics class: According to the legend, Archimedes was sitting in his bath when he realized that he could work out the density of the material (and therefore its purity) by measuring the volume of water it displaced. He was said to have leapt out of his bath naked shouting ‘Eureka’, which is Greek for ‘I have found

  4. Laurie, Thank you for the comment. I am not familiar with you writing, but I will fix this. I will admit that character driven prose can drag on me if the writer lacks the skill necessary to keep them alive

  5. Right on. Tell us a story. What happened to whom and why… While I do care what people think, what they DO tells me much more about who they are.

  6. I enjoyed reading Bill’s novel “Vamanos” a lot. Lots of action and appealing characters, some of whom are the animals.

  7. Bill, I’ve read Vamonos and find your critters hilarious as well as, upon occasion, profound. Hey, all you commenters (and just readers) download Vamonos and read that as well as this post and Bill’s blog. If you like wisdom mixed with humor, GO FOR IT!

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