This is topic Attack of the Literary Writers in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by posulliv (Member # 8147) on :
There's an article in the Wall Street Journal today about literary writers turning to speculative fiction to turn a buck. Search for "The Season of the Supernatural" at or look here:


"Mr. Duncan, a 45-year-old novelist who lives in South London, invented Jake out of desperation. His previous seven literary novels sold poorly, and his agent said the prospects for selling the next one were bleak. "It was a rather mercenary and practical decision to try to write a straight genre novel," Mr. Duncan says."

Posted by BenM (Member # 8329) on :
I walked into a local bookshop on Wednesday Patrick (for the first time in a while) and was astonished to see they'd reorganised the store so they could set aside three whole shelves to a genre they'd never differentiated before. The sign for the new section was even handwritten as they'd not got anything printed up yet. The genre? Paranormal.

While any move towards wider acceptance (and, most importantly, readership) of genre fiction is A Good Thing, sometimes I think this can all backfire. Without mentioning names (and you know why) I have read some remarkably well respected SF work by literary authors which nevertheless completely failed to catch my interest. So while changes in genre fiction may stand to offer a surfeit of new reading material, readers beware: the same process may also bring us ponderous self-absorbed tales of ennui in starship captain's clothing.

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
Deeply in order to write science fiction or fantasy, you have to have advanced degrees in literature?

Of course the main theme of the article is deeply discouraging, too. I don't want to write about vampires and werewolves and zombies...I have a hard enough time being original in what I do want to write, and these things have been chewed over more than Tolkienesque fantasy...

Posted by Natej11 (Member # 8547) on :
I tend to take my cues from literary writers...

...meaning, of course, that I make it a point to NOT do whatever it is they're doing. That I dislike most of what they like is a given.

Posted by MartinV (Member # 5512) on :
Meh, literary writers already won in my country. They have a monopoly over the whole market as they personally own most of it. We genre writers are forced to beg for scraps or to go rogue as I intend to do.
Posted by EVOC (Member # 9381) on :
As far as writing Vampires and Zombies goes: This is just the wave of popularity right now. Give it time and some new craze will come along.

I haven't found much joy is reading any Literary Authors cross over works, for the most part. Mostly because I find they don't know the genre because they rarely (if ever) read it. And that shows in their work.

Posted by tchernabyelo (Member # 2651) on :
Be interested to hear which ones you mean.
I've enjoyed a number of Attwood's books. Many people within and outwith genre rave about Cormac McCarthy, or Michael Chabon.

Just remember that "literary", despite how it likes to present itself, is just another genre. No more, no less. Most fiction from more than 50 years back that is now regarded as "literary" was considered normal and mainstream in its time. The "literary" genre is just people who aspire to writing the classics of the future, but who almost unversally fail.

Posted by Osiris (Member # 9196) on :
I couldn't agree with you more, Nate.
Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
Alas...I see a trend shaping up here. A book about these guys who create a superhero comic wins a Pulitzer...whose committee would never look twice at a superhero comic. Same goes for the book about the guy who wants to be the Spanish Tolkien...but a work by the Spanish Tolkien would be tossed without comment.

"Literary" writers are definitely worming their way onto our turf. Us guys who aren't them, who aren't educated in the ways of "literary," we're out in the cold now.

Posted by AndrewR (Member # 1563) on :
Literary writers now publishing genre fiction?

I thought that's what pseudonyms are for.

Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
A book about these guys who create a superhero comic wins a Pulitzer...whose committee would never look twice at a superhero comic.

I read somewhere regarding some committee that decreed James Joyce's Ulysses among the 10 greatest novels of the century... then about half the committee admitted they'd never actually read it.

As someone points out, "literary" is just another genre, despite being populated by boring pretentious snobs... my snide little voice adds, "Literary is what you write when you lack the skills to write in a more-specific genre." Perhaps some are trying to better themselves by writing SF/F.


Posted by Foste (Member # 8892) on :
Oh, brother. Mercenary work, is it?

The literary snobs are denigrating the genre even when they are writing genre fiction. I am totally into wide audiences and acceptance, but their notion that they are "elevating" the genre bothers me.

A genre writer rarely gets recognition for having elements of literary fiction in his or her work, but that doesn't seem to be the case the other way around...

Posted by Natej11 (Member # 8547) on :
I hear you Foste. What I hear in Mr. Pretentious Literary Snob's words is "I can't be successful shoveling worthless drivel. I have no respect for the genre I'm about to break into. I have even less respect for the readers of the genre I'm about to break into. I will openly admit both these things and make sure my feelings are clear in my writing, because nobody who could like this genre possesses the intelligence to realize I'm insulting them."


Posted by Pyre Dynasty (Member # 1947) on :
Yeah I've read some works that hated the genre they were written in. It was just annoying. People think that fantasy works are written in stuffy and stilted language so they write it in stuffy and stilted language.
Posted by redux (Member # 9277) on :
Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende have been writing paranormal fiction for years but it gets repackaged as "magical realism" because they are literary authors.

So what is literary fiction anyway? I've never found a satisfactory definition of it.


Posted by Wordcaster (Member # 9183) on :
Wikipedia has a simple explanation for literary fiction. I think it is difficult to be critical of "literary authors." While some may write with a pretentious style, I'm sure there are many that are trying to tell their story, just like we are, but get categorized as literary authors because of a certain writing style or premise.

I'm not into novels that have no story or abstract themes that require an elitist to explain, but I find many authors that are placed in this category enjoyable to read, be it John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison and others. I won't name the handfuls of others who I read half of their novels before casting them aside out of sheer boredom. But sometimes I do that with genre fiction too.

It is a bit frustrating, though, that genre writers are seen as lesser writers by critics. For example, I don't see a lot of genre fiction writers in Harold Bloom's canon. I'd be curious if he'd have much to say about authors like Gene Wolfe, Ursula LeGuin, PK Dick and others who I'm sure could have been successful outside of the speculative umbrella.

Posted by redux (Member # 9277) on :

So what is literary fiction anyway?

It was a rhetorical question


Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
I read somewhere regarding some committee that decreed James Joyce's Ulysses among the 10 greatest novels of the century... then about half the committee admitted they'd never actually read it.

I read of another poll, of the British reading public, where The Lord of the Rings came in first---and the committee in charge of it all tried to throw out the results.


I also think it's kinda sad, how the "literary establishment" has embraced the work of Philip K. Dick...long, long after it would do him any good personally...

Posted by Brad R Torgersen (Member # 8211) on :
Well, that's the real rub, isn't it? Our modern (post-modern?) literary betters consider success itself to be a sign of 'low art' thus the more popular or commercially successful a work or an author becomes, the more the literarists will turn their back on it and declare it a shabby work. Unworthy of the label literary.

Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are soundly and roundly hated by many in the literary clique. Yet who is going to be read in 50 years? 100 years? 200 years? Shakespeare was a commercialist and populist playwrite. Dickens too was a commercialist and populist. Were they also artists with a message? No doubt. But they knew how to pay the bills, and so far as we know, never scorned or looked down upon their audiences.

I blogged a bit about this, a few days ago:

If the modern (post-modern?) literary tradition embraces anything, it embraces contempt. Contempt for the lay reader. Contempt for the markets and the editors. Contempt even for other artists. As if contempt, all by itself, were a virtue. Thus the urge by the literary establishment to plunder genres and take money from readers it has no respect for, does not hold in any regard, and in fact dismisses with a sniff and wave of the elitist hand.

As one commenter on my blog noted, it's the Dada mentality come to infest the written word community.

I say, a pox on the Dada-ists and their ilk. The scorners and contempt-ridden poseurs.

Posted by Natej11 (Member # 8547) on :
He said "pox" and "ilk", he's one of them!

*Waves his torch menacingly*

Posted by History (Member # 9213) on :
"In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character. This is in contrast to Mainstream commercial fiction, which focuses more on narrative and plot."

I consider the best fiction to contain both.
Consider Frank Herbert's DUNE, or works by Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, or recently David Brin's DROOD or Susanna Clarke's JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL. I am now (finally) reading George RR Martin's THE GAME OF THRONES which I also would consider literary fantasy.

I know I attempt "literary" depth in my shorter works, crafting words and images to support themes and characters and narrative--with varying degrees of success. The problem I find is in being too obtuse. My recent THE KABBALIST: SACRED GEOMETRY is an example. There is a lot to juggle in "literary fantasy."

I love to play with different styles of writing as well (don't you?), seeking to evoke in the reader the wonder of a fairy tale or the verisimiltude of a noir detective story or the breathless pace of a thriller.

But I was tutored in creative writing by "literary" authors when I was an undergraduate umpity-umpity years ago; and they taught me the love of words: playing and sifting words to evoke my ideas, life lessons and experience, not merely to stack as bricks in relating narrative and plot. Sometimes I'll spend hours or days seeking, researching, the best word or phrase--and have fun doing it. But then, writing for me is not a livelihood or a business. And I may never have much published.

But I do believe my favorites stories and novels contain both style, psychological depth, and character and an engaging narrative and plot--however you wish to label it.
I merely call them "good reads."


[This message has been edited by History (edited May 28, 2011).]

Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
I was hoping you would say something on this thread, History, given that you do have a literary instinct, one that is less prevalent in these circles. So while we've been teaching you the spec-fic genre instincts, we've also been learning from your literary understandings.

To me, the interesting fact is that a literary writer turned to science fiction and not some other genre. Why?

Two thoughts on this. Firstly, science fiction does seem to have a broader appeal. This is partly because some of it does develop simple or straight forward escapes where one doesn't have to consider the deep and meaningful to understand the story. In that regard it appeals to non-intellectuals, which comprise a larger portion of the general population. On the other hand, science fiction also appeals to a different group of intellectuals - ones that enjoy contemplating ideas, particularly technical ideas. The ability to embrace several groups adds to the broad appeal.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for a literary writer, is the historic embracing of literary approaches by science fiction. I'd consider the entire New Wave of the 60s and 70s to be an attempt to make science fiction more literary. In that regard, spec-fic has garnered and kept an audience that enjoys the literary feel of stories ever since, and therefore holds a ready audience access for a literary writer's stories.

However, just because there is a ready-made audience, doesn't mean the writer is able to become much more popular than he was before. Readers still read for what they read before, and therefore the writer will have to deliver something that will appeal to the expectations of this broader audience. If they don't learn the expectations, all they will gain is that small group that like literary spec-fic stories. And furthermore, even if they remain true to their literary instincts, they will have to adapt to the slightly different expectations (due to different histories of the two (sub) genres). For example, the literary science fiction magazines that I know still don't like vignettes, which are quite acceptable in some literary circles.

[This message has been edited by Brendan (edited May 29, 2011).]

Posted by rich (Member # 8140) on :
"But I do believe my favorites stories and novels contain both style, psychological depth, and character and an engaging narrative and plot--however you wish to label it.
I merely call them 'good reads.'"

There you go. Nothing more needs to be said. But I'll go ahead and say something anyway.

I think there's a little bit of snobbery going on around here with our own brand of contempt at those "elitists" trying to horn in on our genre. Hey, if good writers wanna try their hand at genre, I've got no problem with it. There's enough crap out there on both "literary" and "genre" bookshelves that I don't think we need to worry too much about adding any more.

Posted by Natej11 (Member # 8547) on :
I don't think it's so much that they want to write in different genres, rich. It's the way they're talking about it. Like they're pros dabbling in the peewee league just for the kick of owning everyone.

I have a feeling the literary writer in question is going to find that breaking into this genre isn't going to be as easy as he thinks.

Posted by Foste (Member # 8892) on :

Sure, if the man writes a good book more power to him. I don't doubt his competence - it's the attitude that irks me. Of course good fiction has both literary and genre elements.


Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
Used to be the literary types were ashamed and embarrassed when they went slumming in the popular genres. They'd hide under pseudonyms. I read that Harper "To Kill a Mockingbird" Lee wrote a Nick Carter Killmaster novel to pay the bills in the bad old days...I can see not owning up to something like that...I could see myself not admitting it, even if I had done something like that.
Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
I find it difficult to fathom that readers and writers of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and all things strange and unusual) are often so stubborn and close-minded, and may I add, so oblivious to the history and literary trends of this genre.

Every "genre" is more or less a descendent of what we now consider literary fiction. Austen and the Bronte sisters were the primary forbearers of “romance”; Poe and Doyle were largely responsible for “mystery and suspense”; Shelley and Poe are largely credited with “horror”; Verne and Wells popularized "science fiction"; and “fantasy’s” origins are all over the place, from ancient mythology, to Dante and Spenser, Swift and Carroll, but Tolkien is the most attributed ancestor in mainstream fantasy, excluding all the vampire and werewolf stories that are a sort of hybrid with horror in much the same way that zombies tend to be a hybrid with science fiction and horror.

My point is that all of these were “literary” writers (Tolkien was a professor of literature), and except for the two romance examples, all of them experimented in some way with science fiction and fantasy. Even Dickens and Twain dabbled in this field. Shame on them for wanting to do something different from everyone else! And shame on these uppity literary types for wanting to sell books! Curse them, curse them all!

Just because many writers of speculative fiction were not recognized for their literary qualities by the powers that be, doesn’t negate the literary qualities of their work. Many were recognized, such as Orwell, Bradbury, Golding, Herbert and Tolkien just to name a very few. But many speculative fiction writers had literary styles such as Dick, Le Guin, Wolfe, Gibson, Ellison, and Clarke. Even Heinlein had somewhat of a literary style in stories like Starship Troopers, and I would argue that Card’s first novel, Ender’s Game had literary elements.

Michael Chabon has been a strong proponent of speculative fiction from day one. Gaiman definitely has a literary style but continues to write speculative fiction and graphic novels. I, like History, read McCarthy’s The Road and listened to the audio book of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and loved both of these. I have not read Attwood, but she appears to enjoy the genre as well.

It seems to me that speculative fiction is a big enough tent, and should have enough readers with open minds, that we could welcome anyone who would wish to contribute to the genre. I am currently listening to King’s The Dark Tower series, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. King isn’t considered literary, but he is also somewhat of a genre outsider. Just because speculative fiction isn’t their normal bread and butter doesn’t mean they are wrong for doing it. The desire to exclude others from a free and open market based on matters of opinion, in my own personal opinion, is worse than snobbery.


Posted by Foste (Member # 8892) on :
Well said, philo.
Posted by redux (Member # 9277) on :
Atwood doesn't like her books to be called science fiction. She insists she writes speculative fiction. Le Guin disagrees and theorizes that Atwood probably doesn't want "literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto."

This is the problem I have with labels such as literary and genre. It polarizes the writing world and the distinctions just seem to exist in order to create a caste system that goes beyond bookstores and publishers trying to categorize books so that readers may find them easier.

Posted by EVOC (Member # 9381) on :
I can't think of any art medium that has not be polarized with classifications of some sort. Not saying it is right, just pointing out the trend.
Posted by rich (Member # 8140) on :
Nicely put, philo.


Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford from 1925 to 1945 and then Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford from 1945 to 1959. (Cribbed from Wikipedia.) His "field of work" was the English language, not English literature.

Not being an expert in the field (thank God), I can't say that all literary criticism of the SF and fantasy genre was condemnatory. But nearly all I've read of the era these guys operated in "ripped 'em a new one," so to speak---I remember in particular Edmund Wilson's "reviews" of Tolkien and Lovecraft.

Posted by philocinemas (Member # 8108) on :
Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford from 1945 to 1959.

Robert, the "and Literature" part of that title would constitute "professor of literature". However, he did teach ancient languages as you have pointed out, but mostly Medieval Literature in context to culture and mythology.

Edited to correct my spelling of Medieval.

[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited May 29, 2011).]

Posted by wetwilly (Member # 1818) on :
" I'd be curious if he'd have much to say about authors like Gene Wolfe, Ursula LeGuin, PK Dick and others who I'm sure could have been successful outside of the speculative umbrella."

Philip K. Dick, for one, was actually successful in both fields. He wrote sci-fi and literary fiction, both to (eventual) critical acclaim. He was an interesting author, both because his work was interesting, and because his career path was interesting.

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
On Tolkien and "literature"...well, I'm just going to refer everyone to Tom Shippey's books on Tolkien, where the issue is discussed, with great length, and better skill and information than I can summon up.

On's the "eventual" that's the sticking point.

Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
Well, of course Margaret Atwood has been named already, who was highly successful in both worlds. But there also it Samuel L Delany, an English professor and one of the pioneers of bringing SF into literary criticism. His views on how science fiction (and other literature) are read by their audience are a "must-read" for authors of the genre.
Posted by johnbrown (Member # 1467) on :
I think it's splendid.

1. It brings that many more readers into the Fantasy genre. And I love it when my market grows.

2. Maybe these guys will write something that doesn't bore me to tears. I always love new books. I started Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE and am enjoying the heck out of it.

What's telling is that this Duncan figured out he needed more than language to entertain lots of people. He needed "a high-concept". Good for him. I would love to sell a book to 18 countries or get a 300k first printing and a moive option.

This was interesting as well: "Fantasy fans often note that the divide between popular and literary fiction was established relatively recently by the modernists, who favored hyperrealism over plot and narrative. Throughout history, pillars of the literary canon, from Homer, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare up through Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, blended natural and supernatural elements. The pendulum may now be swinging back, with literature that can be both popular and literary, realistic and fantastical."

I don't care about literary aspects. That's all medicinal. What I care about is a good read. And plot and narrative are a huge part of that for the bulk of readers. So good for these authors who have decided to include the stuff that's really interesting to most of us. Can't wait to see what they produce.

Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Interesting article by Joanna Russ, written in 1975:

[Tho after perusing various other articles, I'd characterize a great deal of the other material on that site as pretentious "literary" claptrap.]

[This message has been edited by Reziac (edited June 10, 2011).]

Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
Interesting article. Although didacism is part of science fiction, I think that it is necessary for describing the issues that interact with the characters, and isn't necessarily a key motivation, let alone the primary one. There is definitely room for such stories in science fiction, but science fiction is broader than that. Even at the time of writing, I think the article was dated as it never put any of the New Wave into it.

[Having read a couple of other articles there, now, I do find the unnecessarily convoluted and obscure language annoying. It is like they are attempting to hide their ideas behind a form of paradoxical and obscurity laiden technobabble, as if the ideas themselves won't stand against any sort of scrutiny unless hidden behind a complex layering whose sole purpose is to reduce the audience to a small inner circle. Is that what you mean by pretentious? ]

[This message has been edited by Brendan (edited June 10, 2011).]

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