Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Thoughts About Literary Fiction

For nine years I served as mentor in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, and I’ve mentored a number of writers one on one who’ve gone on to graduate programs in creative writing. These mentees usually go into programs where creative writing classes are taught by literary writers who have, at best, a limited tolerance for genre writing or, at worst, who outright loath it. These mentees become extremely frustrated, and they reach out to me for advice. “Why can’t I make my professors happy?” And if they try to write the kind of literary fiction their professors want, they ask, “Why can’t I write this stuff?” A former mentee emailed me recently to ask these questions, and I thought I’d share my response here, edited to remove any indication of my mentee’s identity.


I was lucky during my college career. None of my professors at Wright State University ever said a negative word about my writing genre fiction. Maybe it would've been different if I'd been in an MFA program instead of an MA program. I've heard from dozens of people over the years that professors who write literary fiction often view all genre fiction as worthless, although they have a difficult time explaining why. I think these professors just parrot what they were told when they were students, the same way high school English teachers tell their students never to use "you" in their writing, without ever knowing why. I'm sorry you have to deal with that. Try not to let it get you down. Your thesis advisor's view is a limited one. Ignore his views on genre fiction and learn whatever you can from him. The only arbiter of what makes good fiction should be you, since you're the one writing it.

In terms of how literary fiction differs from genre fiction, I've thought a lot about that over the years. I don't write literary fiction. Twenty years or so ago, I wrote a handful of literary stories, but editors rejected them all, so I shelved them. So take my thoughts with at least a grain of salt! My advice to anyone who wants to write literary fiction is to leave out anything remotely resembling genre elements. Just tell a story about real people doing real things in the real world. Literary fiction focuses on character -- getting to know a character, watching character be revealed, watching character be transformed in some small but profound way. Despite this focus, literary fiction tends toward emotional restraint and intellectual distance. It's a paradox. Literary fiction deals with the emotional life of humans but does so at arm's length. I sometimes wonder if that's because it's written by intellectuals who struggle to understand their emotional sides. At times it almost seems as if they're naturalists writing about animals they're trying to understand. A couple quotes I've heard about literary fiction (I can't remember the sources): Literary fiction is about ordinary things happening to extraordinary people. (I take this to mean that the characters tend to be more intelligent and perceptive than normal; small events can move them and transform them profoundly.) A second quote: If you want to write a literary story, write a first-person, present-tense story then cut off the beginning and ending. That's usually meant as a joke, but I think there's some truth to it. Literary fiction eschews what its practitioners see as anything approaching what they view as simplistic, childish, pop-culture storytelling, and the basic linear narrative pattern – character with a goal takes steps to meet the goal, encounters obstacles along the way, works to overcome those obstacles, the obstacles get harder forcing the character to work harder until a crisis point arises, then climax and falling action – is too formulaic for them. I think a pattern for a literary story might be better described as a spiral. At the center is the conflict/emotional core/theme of the story. The main character circles around this core, drawing ever closer to it bit by it, until the character is forced to confront it. The moment of confrontation leads to an epiphany which changes the character in a profound way. This change is often not depicted “on screen” and is left up to the reader to ponder after the story is finished. Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" is a good example of this spiral technique. If you haven't read it, Google it. You can find it free online.

Now, something weird about the Literary Story Spiral is that the same technique is often used in horror fiction, except that what lies as the center of the spiral is the Terrible Thing (whatever it may be).  Shirley Jackson's "The Summer People" is an excellent example of this. The epiphany happens for the audience as much or more than it does for the characters, and horror stories often end in a suspended moment, when the characters and readers are left in a situation that isn't resolved on the page, which is only resolved – or at least pondered over – by readers. So the Horror Story Spiral is almost the same as the Literary Story Spiral. The big differences are what lies at the center of each spiral, and the intellectual distance and restraint of literary fiction, and the deliberate attempt to evoke emotion (fear). So my theory – which I haven't tested out yet – is that horror writers should be able to write basic literary fiction because they have a deep familiarity with a spiral pattern.

My former mentee had been revising the same story for a couple years, trying to get it “right” for his/her professors. He/she asked if this was typical.

Is it typical to spend so much time working on a story? When you're using it as part of a longer learning process it is, and I think that's what's happening here. Any story can be reworked a zillion times, and eventually you reach a point where you're making it different, but not necessarily better. And whose definition of better do you use to judge it? Your thesis director? Mine? A friend's? In the end, only your judgment matters.

Long ago, I used to be in a writers' group, and I had a buddy from college who I exchanged stories with. One day I wrote a weird, surreal story called "Mr. Punch" that depended a lot on imagery and implication. It was the first time I'd written a story like this, and it felt right – SO right – but I was worried people wouldn't get it. I shared it with my group, and they liked it, but thought the ending was too enigmatic. I tried changing it, rewrote it a couple times, then I decided to say fuck it and trust my instincts. That story became my first professional sale, appearing in an anthology called Young Blood, next to stories by King, Poe, and Campbell. After the story was published, my college friend sent his feedback. The manuscript was covered in red ink. I decided at that point to trust my own sense of what makes a story effective, for good or ill. I still have moments of doubt, and I still try new things that I'm not sure will work, and sometimes they don't. I also still try to be open to learning new approaches to writing. But I do my damnedest to stay focused on my . . . I guess you could call it an inner artistic compass. I listen to other voices, but I don't let any of them speak louder than mine. Does that make sense?

I once had a dream long ago where I was standing in the middle of my high school gym. The bleachers were filled with silent people, and even though they didn't speak, I heard their voices in my mind. They said, "Trust your feelings." I grew angry, didn't want to accept what they said, started stomping my feet in a tantrum. As I did this, I began to grow larger and larger, but the silent people remained calm and quiet, and merely repeated their message: "Trust your feelings." The dream has stuck with me for decades, and I try to remember it whenever I get confused. I pass it along to you now. Trust your feelings. You have excellent artistic instincts. Just follow them.


The divide between literary and genre fiction can be summed up thusly: literary fiction primarily focuses on character, while genre fiction focuses primarily on plot. Yes, I know you can think of a zillion exceptions. There are literary horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery stories. I’m not sure there are literary romance stories, since that genre depends heavily on a specific plot elements – it must be a romance, there must be obstacles/conflicts during the course of the two main characters falling in love, and there must be a happy ending – any literary story that deals with a love story wouldn’t be considered a category romance.

The character/plot divide is a false one, and writers of all stripes would be better served not to worry about it and tell the best story they’re capable of, focusing on and stressing whatever elements each particular story needs to be successful. I believe many creative writing instructors would better serve their students if they understood this. The best book that addresses this divide and why it’s unnecessary – if not downright hurtful to producing good fiction – is Plot Vs Character by Jeff Gerke. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=plot+vs+character

Over the last few decades, genre elements have become more accepted by writers and publishers of literary fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is social science fiction, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a parallel world story, for example. There are many literary journals that accept fiction with genre elements – and some that focus on genre – so if you’re a genre writer and you’d like to explore writing for literary markets, they’re out there. The Poets & Writers website has a database of literary journals and what they’re looking for. You can find that database here: https://www.pw.org/literary_magazines

Go through it, read the guidelines for each magazine, see which ones accept fiction with genre elements, check out some sample issues (hopefully, they’ll have some online), and then submit your work.

Keep in mind that literary magazines are usually not high-paying markets, if they pay at all. In the academic world – which literary journals are often affiliated with – the compensation for articles/stories/essays/poems is that professors can use these publications to help them get promotions, tenure, merit pay, etc. Also, being published in the more highly regarded journals can help writers land an agent or a book deal. So while many genre writers will firmly tell you never to write anything unless you are paid with money, literary magazines don’t operate on the same philosophy. This is different than “For the Luv” markets that pay “in exposure” (and which rarely offer you any real exposure at all since hardly anyone reads them). Being published in literary journals does come with compensation, even if it’s not always immediate and financial. So yeah, you won’t get rich writing for literary journals, but writers of genre short stories who always insist on being paid – even if it’s only a token payment – aren’t getting rich, either. So if you want to submit to literary markets, do it. If you don’t want to, then why the hell did you read all the way to the end of this entry?



My latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions. Nothing literary about this bad boy! It’s meant to be an action-filled monsters-chomping-tasty-humans adventure.

They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .

. . . and it’s starting to rain.

My story "Cast-Offs" appears in this anthology. More a nightmarish horror story than something literary, but I think you'll dig it.
Welcome to Golden Elm Lane. It’s just like any other small-town street…or is it? Horrible things happen on Golden Elm Lane…vile, monstrous, evil things. Serial killers, ghosts, and monsters of all kinds hide behind the walls lining this cursed street. Each house tells a story…a horrifying story. And now, for the first time ever, fourteen masters of horror will give you a bloody tour of Golden Elm Lane and bring it to full, terrifying life. With an introduction by the legendary creator of Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th franchise, Victor Miller, you'll find it difficult to turn down an invitation to attend our…CHOPPING BLOCK PARTY. Featuring all new stories from: Ray Garton, Richard Chizmar, Adam Howe, Bryan Smith, Damien Angelica Walters, Gerard Houarner, John Everson, Hunter Shea, Jeffrey Thomas, Kristin Dearborn, Nate Southard, Paul Kane, Simon Wood, Tim Waggoner, and Brendan Deneen.

My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime. This one’s blood, gore, and insanity. Not literary.


My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press. Of the three works I’m promoting right now, I consider this the closest to literary genre fiction.

It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.

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