If You’re Going to Steal…

I admit it: when I ran across this article in Salon, I giggled a little at the title: “Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible”. In it, J. Robert Lennon refutes a column by another writer who suggests that young literary fiction writers should be reading the stories that are getting published in their genre, and familiarizing themselves with the best anthologies of short fiction, the literary magazines, and so on.

I giggled because I am a reformed literary fiction writer, a proud graduate of a master’s program in fiction writing where literary fiction was touted as the only really, truly decent fiction to be writing. When I was in grad school, I read a bunch of these publications on a fairly regular basis – sometimes for class, sometimes on my own. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how some of the stories had gotten published. Maybe the writing was pretty good, but the ending didn’t make sense – things would sort of wind down in a burst of lyricism without resolving any part of the plot. Or, more often than not, the writing wasn’t any better than the stuff we were turning out in class – yet these writers had gotten published while we were collecting rejection slips.

Lennon’s article confirms my suspicions. “Fiction writing is ludicrously popular,” he says; “too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.” He also says that encouraging MFA students to read only in their genre limits the discourse, to the point where stories become (and I’m using his words here) hackneyed, insular and boring.

Insular! No wonder I couldn’t figure out why all those published stories ended the way they did – I wasn’t in the club. Even when I was in grad school, trying to be like the other literary writers, I knew in my heart that I did my best work when I wrote fantasy.

Lennon strikes a blow for reading outside one’s genre. Literary fiction writers, he says, are in the enviable position of being able to steal from any genre. (No kidding; I’ve ranted enough times about magical realism being nothing but fantasy with an accent.) He encourages students to read broadly, as a way to bring freshness to their own work.

Hmm. I’m pretty sure that street runs both ways. There’s nothing wrong with, say, fantasy authors stealing from, say, literary fiction. Maybe not in terms of the boring, insular stories of collegiate manners – goodness knows we’ve got plenty of those already – but in terms of the attention to word choice, the phrasing, the interior monologues that give insight into a character’s motivation, and so on. Raiding the literary fiction closet for some of their tools can make your work in your favored genre that much better.

I’m giggling again. But this time, it’s in anticipation of reading great stories in all sorts of genres, with endings I actually understand.

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. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

27 thoughts on “If You’re Going to Steal…”

  1. Lynne, I read that article, too, cringing. I love literary fiction. But I also love the way genres are blending and swirling all over each other. Great post!

  2. I really enjoyed this article, Lynne. It reminds me to read other things and once I figure out what my “genre” is, I’ll be sure to do just that:)

    1. Yeah, Yvonne, I think it’s all of a piece. And I think even literary fiction authors will decide to self-publish eventually. It’s not like the traditional market for their work is expanding.

  3. You are so right, Lynne, it doesn’t matter whether it is literary or genre, and those lines are sometimes difficult to define, every novel should be written well, have a plot-line (of some description), characterisation (it doesn’t always have to be soul deep stuff) and some kind of resolution (an unresolved literary experience is frustratingly, unsatisfying).

  4. I’ve always believed the best novels in any genre qualify as ‘literary’, and I’ve always been a little skeptical of what passes for ‘true’ literary writing these days. Why read articles in literary magazines when there is a milenium worth of classics to explore? Did someone dump all the old masters off a cliff somewhere while I wasn’t looking? I know times and styles tend to change but… they were rather good.

      1. 🙂 You make good points. Those old masters had to have something going on, if they stuck around this long — right? It’s easy for us to forget that, for example, Shakespeare’s plays were popular in his day. Popularity doesn’t always equal dreck, just as the “literary” label doesn’t always mean a story will be good.

  5. Lynne, nice article. I cringe when literary fiction is described as a genre per se. Every genre can and has all the rights to be literary fiction. As you said, “attention to word choice, the phrasing, the interior monologues that give insight into a character’s motivation”, plot complexity, and psychological evolution of characters are not a genre — literary fiction — definition. Science fiction can be literary, fantasy, apocalyptic world can be literary fiction.

    One review of my novel “Daimones” says that it’s complexity, depth of characters, descriptions (and editing! yes, also editing was mentioned) were most of contemporary literary fiction than science fiction! Although the review was a 5-star, I don’t understand why people is so obnubilated to think that fiction cannot be “literary” if not literary fiction genre. Go figure!

  6. Thank you, Lynne. I can’t tell you how many books I have enjoyed until I got to the ending, where I demoted it in my unwritten review from 5 to no stars, no matter how lyrical.

  7. Frankly, I’m getting REALLY fed up with writers denouncing whatever other writers do as “terrible”.
    “Literary fiction” seems to be digging itself into a black hole similar to that of poetry.
    (And my jaw dropped to see modern poetry described in that article as innovative and experimental–it’s the most lockstepped, sterotyped, academy-dictated genre alive)

    I’d like to see a moratorium on declaring (indie, contemporary, genre, self-published, written-by-other-and-hence-lesser-writers) work to be a priori inferior.
    Should we all sit around reading Marcus Aurelius and Milton and Chesterfield?

  8. Great article, Lynn. I love the magic realism being fantasy with an accent – might steal that at some point!
    I share a blog with four other writers and one has just posted a piece describing how a writers’ group she joined (and quickly left) sneered at her for writing fiction for women’s magazines and even seemed to think it was dreadful that she wrote for publication. I beleive there is plenty of room on the bookshelves and the eReaders for all kinds of writing.

      1. Let me mention two fiction writers who broke in and supported themselves writing fiction for women’s magaines.
        William Kotzwinkle (King Rat, ET)
        oh, yeah, and Kurt Vonnegut

  9. Lynne, I am a graduate of Gotham Writers Workshop (NYC) fiction where the same attitude placed lit fic [what we in crowders called it 🙂 ] vs “genre” writing. The implication that came through to me was genre writing was for people trying to make a living and lit fic was for the artists who cared only for their art (which we know not to be true, except among the true lunatics). I’ve also heard it said (and tend to agree) that lit fic is a genre. I’ve noticed what is published by The New Yorker and the literary magazines (especially the ones from universities) could also be labeled “urban hip” genre. So as Sesame street sang, it all depends on where you put your eyes.
    I write lit fic, humor, absurd, SF, horror. I write whatever story I have and try to make it the best I can. I don’t mind that some other writers waste their time looking down their noses at me.

    1. Timothy, you’ve got it. When I was in grad school, there was definitely a sense that commercial fiction smelled bad. As if there’s something wrong with the concept of both being a writer and eating regularly. 😉

      And see, there’s another reason I don’t get the stuff in the lit mags — I may be urban, but I’m definitely not hip. 😀

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