Tag Archives: what is literary fiction?

Identifying Genre, revisited #amwriting

Some of you have been following my advice to build a backlog of short pieces to enter in contests and submit to various publications. But where should you try to sell your work?

When you open the Submittable App and begin shopping for places to submit your work, you may find the list of open calls confusing. Many times contests, publications, and anthologies are genre specific.

When your work is nonfiction, it’s no problem because your work is targeted to a magazine with a specific readership, so the sub-genre will be clear and where you should submit it was likely evident the day you decided to write it.

When you write short fiction with no specific contest or magazine in mind you can run into problems of where to send it. If you are like me, some of your work may straddle genres, and in that case, how do you decide who will be most receptive to it? Spur-of-the-moment stories may be widely different from your normal work, and perhaps are not in a genre you can easily identify.

This list of genres and what they represent has appeared on this blog before. Genre is defined by setting and content, the author’s intention, their approach, and the way resolutions happen. The ideas explored within the setting are the provinces of these industry-wide distinctions.

Mainstream (general) fiction—Mainstream fiction is a general term publishers and booksellers use to describe works that may appeal to the broadest range of readers and have some likelihood of commercial success. Mainstream authors often blend genre fiction practices with techniques considered unique to literary fiction. It will be both plot- and character-driven and may have a style of narrative that is not as lean as modern genre fiction but is not too stylistic either. The prose of the novel will at times delve into a more literary vein than genre fiction, but the story will be driven by the events and action that force the characters to grow.

Science fiction—Futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life are the core of science fiction. You should be aware that the internet is rife with purists and impurists ranting on what does or does not constitute  sci-fi. If you use magic for any reason you are NOT writing any form of sci-fi.

  • Hard Sci-fi is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in the physics, chemistry, and astrophysics. Emphasis is placed on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible.
  • Soft Sci-fi is characterized by works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.
  • Other main sub-genres of Sci-fi include Space-operasCyberpunk, Time Travel, Steampunk, Alternate history, Military, Superhuman, Apocalyptic, and Post-Apocalyptic.

The main thing to remember is this–Science and Magic cannot coexist in the Genre of Science Fiction. The minute you add magic to the story, you have Fantasy.

Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting.  Like sci-fi and literary fiction, fantasy has its share of snobs and damn fools when it comes to defining the sub-genres:

  • High fantasy–High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world, rather than the real, or “primary” world, with elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume Often the prose is literary and the primary plot is slowed by many side quests. Think William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • Epic Fantasy–These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces.Epic fantasy shares some typical characteristics of high fantasy includes fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives. Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn is classic Epic Fantasy.
  • Paranormal Fantasy–Paranormal fantasy often focuses on romantic love and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from all the speculative fiction genres. Think ghosts, vampires, and supernatural.
  • Urban Fantasy–can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

Horror—Horror fiction  shocks or frightens the reader. Some horror induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing – people who read horror like to be challenged by their fears.

Romance—Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people and must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

(07 Mar 2019) Edited to add Mystery and Mystery/Adventure. Mystery is a genre with several subgenres.

  • “Who Dunnit” mysteries, cozy (think Agatha Christie)
  • Mystery, true crime
  • Mystery, hardboiled detective
  • Political thrillers
  • Legal thrillers
  • Medical Thrillers
  • Supernatural Mysteries
  • Romantic Mysteries

I mention Literary Fiction last because it is the most complicated and least understood genre of all.

Literary fiction can be adventurous with the narrative. The style of the prose has prominence and may be experimental, requiring the reader to go over certain passages more than once. Stylistic writing, heavy use of allegory, the deep exploration of themes and ideas form the core of the piece.

I have discussed the following  three books before, but they illustrate the problem of perception—the question of what constitutes Literary Fiction.

Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night is a historical fantasy. However,  the style and voice in which it is written makes it a powerful literary work.

The same goes for George Saunders work. Tenth of December is technically sci-fi, and Lincoln in the Bardo is historical fantasy, but it is his style and voice that makes George Sanders literary.

Neil Gaiman’s book, Stardust, is a magnet for the “that’s not literary/yes it is” debate. The prose is literary, the narrative has a relaxed, thought provoking style to it. I consider it literary.

Be careful of how you present yourself and your work. Never submit anything that is not your best work, and do not assume they will edit it because they won’t.  No publisher will accept work that is poorly written, sloppily formatted, and generally unreadable.

Choose carefully who you submit your work to and be scrupulous in following their submission guidelines. Read a sample of what they publish and only submit the work you have that best fits their publication.

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