Something May Be Wrong With Literary Fiction Itself
November 24, 2021 6:21 AM   Subscribe

To be clear: I’m not saying MFAs made all novels terrible or that all contemporary writing sucks. A writer isn’t deterministically destined to produce defensive prose if they go through the MFA process. Not all writers who’ve sat in a workshop are “workshop writers.” And some academic experiences are amazing, vital and electric, lighting up students’ minds inside like a moveable feast. But those are instances within a collective system. A system that has, in its totality, changed both how prose is written, who gets published, and who the audience for fiction is. from How the MFA swallowed literature by Erik Hoel
posted by chavenet (164 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Of the responses to this, my favorite might be Danielle Evans on Twitter:

Next person to write a treatise about MFA programs has to come up with a different way to get thousands of unpublished writers functional health insurance.


If you can get into a funded MFA program, you will get two or three years to write, almost enough money to live on if you're careful, and reasonably adequate health insurance. That's not a terrible deal!

And I am kind of inclined to think that the problems of literary fiction have less to do with workshops themselves and more to do with the fact that it has become harder and harder to make writing work, economically - writers have always had to have day jobs, but salaries have stagnated as housing and education and health care have gotten exponentially more expensive, and you can't do a day job and a side hustle and keep writing at the same time if you haven't figured out how to earn enough with writing to make writing your side hustle.

My own MFA experience was probably not very representative (it was a low-ranked but fully funded program, and although I had a couple of workshop classmates who made me feel defensive, I didn't respect their opinions anyway; if anything makes me write defensively, it's Twitter, and even Metafilter.) But I think every marginally good writer has to pretty quickly learn that you can't write well by trying to present an attack-proof surface.
posted by Jeanne at 6:51 AM on November 24 [50 favorites]


I try, I really, really try, to sympathize with pieces like this. I try to find the good in them--for instance, the idea of minimizing the attack surface of a book? Great way to think about it, great way to picture the narrowing of the concerns of a particular genre of fiction.

But in the end, like every think-piece that asks Whither Fiction? or Must We Burn MFAs?, the piece suffers from looking at the thinnest possible slice of novels, and treating that tiny subgenre of fiction as capital-F Fiction, capital-L Literature. "Why aren't today's novelists X, Y, and Z household names like yesterday's novelists A, B and C?" Well, because that prior generation wasn't actually full of household names either? And those names, while they wrote (or continue to write) good, compelling books, never took up a majority of the mental landscape of modern novel readers? The big, sprawling novel of social concern these days--the fat tome stuffed full of humanity that these critics say they want so badly--is more likely to be set fifty thousand years in the future, or on a system of planets in another galaxy, or during a murder investigation performed by gaslight, because that's where the readers actually are.

I mean, do none of these critics notice we've been having the same conversation about literary fiction for half a century now, maybe longer? Isn't there a pattern there, where we look back half a generation or so and sigh for back when fiction really spoke, unlike it does today in the 1990s, or 2000s, or 2020s? And can we even talk about the effect of MFA programs and workshops--which are not exactly a new element in fiction--without talking about how publishing has changed in an era of consolidation and mergers and putting all the resources behind a few sure-thing superstars?

I'm going on and on, and maybe I shouldn't. I really am interested in his point about the attack surface, although I think it'd be interesting to be more explicit about what those attacks are, and how defensiveness about them might change a novelist's style--more examples! More interviews with authors about it! More counterarguments with big messy books!
posted by mittens at 6:55 AM on November 24 [48 favorites]


I’m all for burning down academia, but who wants another Dreiser?
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 7:00 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


I had to Google the definition of MFA (Master of Fine Arts?), but it didn't particularly explain what it is or why it's killing the novel... From context it seems that a) it's an academic process and b) it involves workshops, but... Anyone help a Brit out?
posted by offmessage at 7:12 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


How many authors before the post-war era consciously conceived of themselves as writing "literary fiction"? I don't know if this is correct, but I feel like a lot of authors in the past conceived of themselves as storytellers, philosophers, moralists, celebrities, satirists, and so on. And certainly some of them wanted to write great works of art, and works of art that would be remembered as literature. But don't think they can conceived of themselves as writing "literary fiction," even though for most of English-language literature's history, most authors would have been writing for an elite simply by virtue of the fact that literacy was not widespread.

The thing that strikes me about literary fiction is that it is so self-consciously "literary," which makes it kind of boring. Literary fiction authors have to hew as closely to the genre conventions of literary fiction as a mystery author has to hew to mystery conventions. But it feels like in so-called genre fiction, first, that a lot of the conventions are a lot more reader-friendly, and second, because it's not taken as seriously as literary fiction, people can be a lot more experimental in interesting and surprising ways. But when literary fiction is interesting or surprising, it gets booted out of literary fiction.

I spent 10 years in a literary fiction book club, and I have read all of the authors listed in the piece, and the thing that eventually struck me, and began to really bore me, is that after 3 or 4 years of reading literary fiction, it's all pretty much the same. Certain books stood out ("Americanah" was fantastic) but a lot of them were just so samey-samey, with the same few topics (divorce, sexual abuse, the immigrant experience in America, my penis: let me show you it, my parents have a lot of money and we their children are going to fight about it for 200 pages but only in very passive aggressive ways). Sometimes someone would ask what happened in the book, and I would have to really stop and think, because in a lot of these books, nothing actually happens. There's not a lot of plot, because they're entirely about the internal emotional states of people. At a certain point, I was just like, I'm really tired of reading about sad people getting divorced and being mean to each other. Everyone is so glum in most of these books, and they're so mean. They're just not very much fun to read, but they're often not deep enough to give any real insight into other humans' suffering, and it feels like once you've read three sad divorce literary fiction novels, you're not going to get anything new from the next 10.

But this is apparently what literary fiction in the US currently has to do, write about sad people experiencing sad events and feeling sad about it but in a thinky way. And so anyone who conceives of themselves as a literary fiction author has to conform to those conventions to produce "literary fiction." Whereas I think a lot of the great authors in the English literary canon did not conceive of themselves that way, and while they were confined by other expectations of their era and the art that was being produced, they were not preemptively declaring themselves "literature" and instead called themselves and their work a story, or a novel, or a satire. Having to sit down and write "literature" off the bat seems incredibly stifling. How can you be creative when that is the brief?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:15 AM on November 24 [121 favorites]


The big, sprawling novel of social concern these days--the fat tome stuffed full of humanity that these critics say they want so badly--is more likely to be set fifty thousand years in the future, or on a system of planets in another galaxy, or during a murder investigation performed by gaslight, because that's where the readers actually are.

Because for a certain sort of Reader, genre fiction continues to be the literary equivalent of slumming. And that's how we get these sorts of pieces.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:16 AM on November 24 [22 favorites]


If you can get into a funded MFA program, you will get two or three years to write, almost enough money to live on if you're careful, and reasonably adequate health insurance.

I read a thriller this week by a guy whose author bio was something like "So-and-so did an MFA and lives in Milwaukee. This is his first novel." I'm pretty sure the MFA program doesn't want to tout their roaring success as the dude who wrote a thriller I read in less than 24 hours, the name of which escapes me two days later, but he's really not done too badly for himself, especially if he manages more than one book.
posted by hoyland at 7:20 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


I loved the analysis that the habit of defending drafts in workshops produce timid and small-c conservative works. It put some context on the fear and currying-of-favor which wafts out of a lot of stories and books, and how aggressive opinions tend to be limited to political stances that people in workshops would be afraid to criticize.

At the same time, literary fiction remains as gate-kept as ever. If your dad doesn't run in the right circles in New York, a top MFA program is the only reliable way you are going to access the top markets for stories or novels. There's just no analogy to the way that technology has democratized music, genre fiction and a lot of other creative endeavors.

The article doesn't spend enough time on the MFA economy. Among other things, a top MFA, plus a fairly short CV of MFA-gate-kept publications, qualifies you for appointment as a professor at a not-top-tier MFA program and to get a piece of the unlimited federal student loans for graduate programs.
posted by MattD at 7:21 AM on November 24 [13 favorites]


divorce, sexual abuse, the immigrant experience in America, my penis: let me show you it, my parents have a lot of money and we their children are going to fight about it for 200 pages but only in very passive aggressive ways

You forgot "middle-aged English professor has an affair with his nubile grad student," but maybe that's a sub-sub-genre of divorce lit.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:22 AM on November 24 [39 favorites]


I would classify that as "my penis: let me show you it."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 AM on November 24 [89 favorites]


Faint of Butt: "You forgot "middle-aged English professor has an affair with his nubile grad student," but maybe that's a sub-sub-genre of divorce lit."

I believe the technical term is "Sad Boner Professor" (as per cstross)
posted by chavenet at 7:32 AM on November 24 [59 favorites]


Related, sort of:

Workshops of Empire

What Eric Bennett’s “Workshops of Empire” contributes is an understanding of how Cold War politics helped to create the aesthetic standards that continue to rule over writing workshops today.

Sponsored by foundations dedicated to defeating Communism, creative-writing programs during the postwar period taught aspiring authors certain rules of propriety. Good literature, students learned, contains “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.” The goal, according to Bennett, was to discourage the abstract theorizing and systematic social critiques to which the radical literature of the 1930s had been prone, in favor of a focus on the personal, the concrete and the individual. While workshop administrators like Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner wanted to spread American values, they did not want to be caught imposing a particular ideology on their students, for fear of appearing to use the same tactics as the communists. Thus they presented their aesthetic principles as a non­political, universally valid means of cultivating writerly craft. The continued status of “show, don’t tell” as a self-evident truth, dutifully dispensed to anyone who ventures into a creative-writing class, is one proof of their success.

posted by absalom at 7:36 AM on November 24 [44 favorites]


MetaFilter: sad people experiencing sad events and feeling sad about it but in a thinky way.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:42 AM on November 24 [73 favorites]


Actually, instead of - or maybe in addition to - MFA programs, one factor in the domination of a certain type of "literary" fiction is the New Yorker magazine. They are one of the last remaining periodical outlets for short fiction, and their taste definitely favors the MFA-style of writing.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:45 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


I'm reminded of that famous Terry Pratchett clip where he points out that so many of the great classics of literature were what we would today think of as fantasy or science fiction, and that the idea of capital-L literary novels is the far more recent invention. I am sympathetic to Hoel's argument, and I don't think he's wrong that the novel as we know it today has shrunk in its stature, and I like the idea that this is a function of reducing the attack surface.

That said, MFAs are just part of the much larger network in which these actors sit. Like any network, literature is unstable, and it requires a variety of actors, agents, and institutions to constantly stabilize it. MFAs and workshops are a big part of that, to be sure. But so is the expulsion of genre fiction as literature, which is a shame, because I'm not sure that genre has, in my life time, ever seemed more full of life and variety and innovation than it is right now.
posted by hank_14 at 7:53 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


I had to Google the definition of MFA (Master of Fine Arts?), but it didn't particularly explain what it is or why it's killing the novel... From context it seems that a) it's an academic process and b) it involves workshops, but... Anyone help a Brit out?

"An MFA in Creative Writing focuses on the art and practice of writing for those interested in publishing their own original works or in pursuing a teaching career." So basically grad school for creative writers.

From the NY Times, Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.: "At the core of every program is the writing workshop, the so-called Iowa model because it originated there. In its strictest form, it works like this: Classmates evaluate and write detailed comments about students’ work, then sit around a table and “workshop” the piece. The writer sits silently while classmates comment first on what is working, then go back around to comment on what is not. The instructor weighs in. Only then can the author respond."

In all fields, there is growing credentialism in American society. About 100 years ago, my grandfather couldn't afford to stay in high school. He got an entry level corporate job, finished high school at night and took some college classes, and worked his way up to be a midlevel corporate executive. My first boss at a think tank had only a BA (in the 1970s) but became an internationally known expert in her field. I needed a masters' to get a similar job in the 1990s, and today most hires there have PhDs. How much benefit does the additional education provide? Some. Is it worth the time and cost? I don't know.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:54 AM on November 24 [35 favorites]


How much benefit does the additional education provide? Some. Is it worth the time and cost? I don't know.

posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 16:54 on November 24 [+] [!]


Eponysterical.
posted by Alex404 at 7:58 AM on November 24 [29 favorites]


If you can get into a funded MFA program, you will get two or three years to write, almost enough money to live on if you're careful, and reasonably adequate health insurance. That's not a terrible deal!

So... forgive my ignorance of the field, but who exactly is paying for these programs? I assume that "funded" means something other than "paid for with student loans", but my experience in academia is that it follows the TANSTAAFL rule pretty absolutely. Plus "they who have the money make the rules", and all that. I would assume that something of the flavor of these programs comes from whoever is ultimately paying the bills.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:03 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


It makes me sad that these types of pieces rarely seem to consider literature outside of the Anglosphere as well. Horace Engdahl's comment, though very generalized, rings true to me, that the US is "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture", "too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ... That ignorance is restraining."
posted by RGD at 8:18 AM on November 24 [20 favorites]


You forgot "middle-aged English professor has an affair with his nubile grad student," but maybe that's a sub-sub-genre of divorce lit.

Also there is Six Tenuously Connected Narratives: A Novel.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:21 AM on November 24 [57 favorites]


Something this discussion is reminding me of is a certain conflict that occasionally surfaces between my wife and I and her parents, which we often suspect traces to a very different appreciations of time that our generations have: Her parents were able live well on her dad's teacher's salary, whereas my wife and I are both scientists who very rarely have "free-time".

We often have the feeling that they want us to grant them large amounts of space and time for their feelings and thoughts about us and our kids. And while we believe empathy and introspection are important, most of our issues can be traced to just not having enough time and feeling burnt-out. Most of the time we don't need introspection, we just need rest. We're not of that generation who had large amounts of peaceful time to mentally process their post-war realities.

And that reality needed to be processed! It was fucked up in many ways. But our generation's problems feel a lot more external than internal: rather than processing generational trauma (we're kind of alright!), we're facing down late-stage capitalism and climate change, and we're interested in narratives about that. And also the world is a hell of a lot bigger than it used to be, and we're generally more interested in reading about perspectives outside of our white, middle-class milieu.
posted by Alex404 at 8:29 AM on November 24 [45 favorites]


The primary problem with trying to place a formula on any creative process, and with particular reference to writing, is that there is no 'correct' formula to a creative process. . Like music, certain writings will appeal to an individual one day and not another.

There are many styles of writing a story/tale which for simplicity I will call 'words which unfold an event or series of events'. There is no true 'formula' behind a 'good' recounting of these. No need for a structure - chapters, passage of time, characters etc. Many well published writes have achieved great success but have also produced 'bad' works. The oft touted Shakespeare being one.

Take Terry Pratchett. He wrote in a particular genre and developed characters (or not) over multiple books. His Shakespeare like asides in his footnotes, which often were longer than the text the aside was written for, were pure masterpieces of humor, characters come and go throughout all of his published works, and an individual book would often be the basis of a single analogy or very bad joke. Cohen the Barbarian and the willow pattern plate is one. Another is the extremely bad pun at the end of Soul Music'.

T.C. Boyle is another who writes some excellent short stories but some of his novels not so.

Arthur C. Clarke in his 'Rama' series unfolds a story line over multiple books but (in my opinion) loses the thread of the tale in the latter parts.

Equally, differing style and/or presentation will appeal to one person while not to another

Writing is not necessarily a path to fame and fortune. Many 'writers workshops' or MFA's may help some individuals find their inner voice but overall the act of writing is simply a means of putting thoughts/ideas into a readable form in the hope that someone will find them worthy of their time to actually read.

As a final note, some written works are best listened to or watched (audio books and video) as the interpretation or emphasis of the tale can be reinterpreted by someone who has taken the 'inner voice' of the writer and presented it in a way that is more easy to understand or enjoy. 'Around the World on a Bicycle' in audio form (Librivox I believe) is a recounting of exactly what the title states of a rather long recollection of someone riding a penny farthing bicycle. In written form it is enjoyable but (in my opinion) the audio book is spoiled by some bad readers.
posted by IndelibleUnderpants at 8:31 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


So... forgive my ignorance of the field, but who exactly is paying for these programs?

The parents of students in Composition 101, ultimately.

This isn't how it works everywhere, but in most funded MFA programs, you get free tuition and a smallish stipend (~20,000/yr) in exchange for teaching first-year composition. (Typically, two classes a semester). I think that for my university, at least, they have a funded MFA program because they need the cheap grad-student teaching labor. Does this create some strange incentives? Almost certainly. (For one thing, there isn't a TON of overlap between people who are great poets and novelists and people who are great Composition 101 teachers; and I wish that universities cared enough about teaching Comp 101 to not just unleash untrained grad students on students to whom Comp 101 is a boring and pointless roadblock to their "real" studies). So if there's an argument for decredentializing and de-academizing literary fiction, maybe it's more in the effects that it has on education than in the effects it has on the aesthetics of lit fic.
posted by Jeanne at 8:31 AM on November 24 [27 favorites]


(But I should add that the "free grad school tuition in exchange for teaching intro classes" model is the model for almost EVERY funded grad program, not just the MFA; although in science it's sometimes "free grad school tuition in exchange for lab work.")
posted by Jeanne at 8:34 AM on November 24 [16 favorites]


Engdahl's comment, though very generalized, rings true to me, that the US is "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture", "too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ... That ignorance is restraining."
that is a lot of words to say "shitty"

now do Canada
posted by elkevelvet at 8:36 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


do none of these critics notice we've been having the same conversation about literary fiction for half a century now, maybe longer?

They're young. Give them time.
posted by flabdablet at 8:36 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


I blame "New York", the "Ivy League" and World War 2 - though the actual war and not merely the concept of it

ETA: Also, "Iowa"
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 8:37 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


I just don't see this article saying anything that I didn't read twenty years ago - back when the attendees of the literary conference he mentions were being talked about in the exact same way. MFAs have been the ruination of literature since at least the 80s. Back then, I was in an undergrad creative writing program, and I clipped a quotation from the New York Times Book Review where one writer said we were "in danger of creating a national literature of growing up and getting divorced" (it seemed so true to me that it is still burned into my brain). That seems to be the criticism that this article is positing now - it is not a new thing.

Similarly, back then, people were also saying that the MFA taught you to write fiction that is not terrible and is all the same, which is another way of saying that they were minimizing the attack surfaces of their books. I remember my poetry writing professor saying that he preferred reading the smaller literary magazines because while the New Yorker never had anything terrible, it also never had anything surprising.

Literary fiction, like genre fiction, is often criticized by people who maybe don't really know the variety that is out there. While the sad books about divorce certainly exist, I'm current reading A Tale for the Time Being, which alternates the diary of a Japanese teenager with the story of the woman who finds it. It's written by a Buddhist priest, it doesn't fall into what's considered the standard literary fiction categories, and it is awesome. I read literary fiction, but I can and do avoid the cliched categories Eyebrows McGees mentions (yes, they're real - there's just other stuff too).
posted by FencingGal at 8:51 AM on November 24 [24 favorites]



The thing that strikes me about literary fiction is that it is so self-consciously "literary," which makes it kind of boring.

I've said it before, I'll no doubt say it again. The term Literary Fiction is one of the more foolish things to come along in the name of words making sense in the past decades. Not only is it redundant. It also manages to package in a load of elitism, snobbery and perhaps conversely, it encourages conformity. We really do need to move past it.

This is a good article, chavenet, thanks for the link.
posted by philip-random at 8:55 AM on November 24 [10 favorites]


If you can get into a funded MFA program, you will get two or three years to write, almost enough money to live on if you're careful, and reasonably adequate health insurance. That's not a terrible deal!

It's a fantastic deal! Free therapy at the student health center AND free therapy in the workshop.

The MFA is a great option if you get into a funded program or can pay cash for it. It is a potentially ruinous life choice if you need to take out loans for it. Seriously, if Columbia University sends you an acceptance letter, you would be better off going down to New Orleans and checking into the House of the Rising Sun than filling out a FAFSA.

It's nice to blame the MFA for the decline of the novel because it plays beautifully into writerly self-loathing, but even if we set aside that the novel has been declining since the day it was invented, something else happened in late 2006/2007 that has had more of a cultural impact than MFAs. Yes, I'm throwing the blame at smartphones and social media.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:56 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


I heard it put pithily (probably on here, although I'm having trouble finding the original comment. If it was yours, I'm sorry):

All fiction is genre fiction. Literary fiction is another genre.
posted by 7segment at 8:56 AM on November 24 [14 favorites]


Is it just me or does the MFA smell like gatekeeping? What barbarians are they supposedly protecting us from?
posted by JustSayNoDawg at 9:01 AM on November 24 [6 favorites]


Question… Creative writing… Is it possible to actually teach someone how to be creative? Having been around the periphery of art education, what I have noticed is that you can teach technique, materials, history, but actually teaching someone to be creative, to make something new out of their own experience is an extremely difficult task. Either they are creative or they’re not. Someone may find their creativity in the process, but it has to be there to find. If the notion expressed in this thread that there exists an MFA style, this seems to say that what is taught is this way of writing, a template. Where lies the creative individual expressing something in their own way? Sounds more like how to fulfill a market, market research, what sells…
posted by njohnson23 at 9:05 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Either they are creative or they’re not.

This is super toxic thinking, please remove it from your thoughts. Human beings are inherently creative. Whether this creates art or lasting fiction or a beautiful doorframe or a new way to deliver drugs or a few lines of code, it's a thing humans have.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:12 AM on November 24 [52 favorites]


Is it possible to actually teach someone how to be creative?

Who knows, but it's not like MFA programs are rounding up people on the street and forcing them to write about their childhoods. These are people who want to be writers and already think of themselves as creative. And, as anyone who has seen the bestseller list knows, it is not about market research or what sells. Literary fiction sells poorly.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:23 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Writing well is craft and art. If you want to be a great painter, you're going to study figure drawing and perspective, not because you're not creative enough without studying, but because all the innate creativity in the world won't magically imbue you with the power to draw realistic human figures without studying how to do so. If you want to be a great writer, you're going to study sentences and paragraphs, and characterization and plot and structure and point of view.

You don't have to do it in a classroom context. You can learn a hell of a lot by yourself, and indeed one of the reasons why I think the situation isn't as dire as Hoel claims - or if there's a problem, it's not mostly the fault of MFA programs themselves - is that most students come into MFA programs already knowing a lot about the kind of fiction they like to read and write. If MFAs encourage a certain rigid style - and I actually don't think they do! - it's not because of what they teach (you can't teach THAT much about how to write in 2 or 3 years). It's because the students they select are already, by the time they apply to the program, writing the kind of fiction that MFA programs like.

Again, I'm sure that University of Iowa and the other very highly ranked programs are pretty different from my own experience. But my MFA program didn't change my own writing style much. My classmates came out with mostly the same style they came in with - except that the ones who really worked at it came out as significantly better writers. Careful in the good way, not the "not presenting a surface to attack" way.
posted by Jeanne at 9:26 AM on November 24 [16 favorites]


But genre fiction, and science fiction in particular, has gone through the same process. Workshops like Clarion serve the same dual function for sf as the MFA ecosystem does for litfic: a professional career path for writers, and a standardization filter for their writing.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 9:31 AM on November 24 [8 favorites]


I was just checking the article for any mention of Clarion! Do the Clarions do Iowa-style workshops? Can readers guess who did well in Clarion from style?

Is there an analogy for romance writers? (Whooo, what’s up with RWA or it’s spin-offs?)

Are the "genres" now principally steered by the Kindle Unlimited algorithm?
posted by clew at 9:36 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


Workshops like Clarion serve the same dual function for sf as the MFA ecosystem does for litfic: a professional career path for writers, and a standardization filter for their writing.

The difference is that they don't have the same gatekeeping power that they do in the literary fiction world.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:36 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Clarion is a way in, not the only way in, or even a majority way in to learning to write spec fic. N. K. Jemisin and Liu Cixin are not Clarion alumni, for example, though Octavia Butler is, and Ted Chiang, while not an alumnus, has been an instructor.
posted by bonehead at 9:44 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Jemisin attended Viable Paradise and comes from a world of writing workshops. And Ted Chiang did, in fact, attend Clarion as a student back in 1989. Liu Cixin is a different story, not being American. I think the process is less advanced in the sf world compared to litfic, but there's been a similar shift toward a workshop culture over the past few decades.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 10:00 AM on November 24 [12 favorites]


Anyone who obsesses over the evil influence of MFAs has a perfect solution in reading translations into English from multiple languages and literary cultures where they don't have such things. Some of those people even write about America!
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:17 AM on November 24 [20 favorites]


Similarly, back then, people were also saying that the MFA taught you to write fiction that is not terrible and is all the same, which is another way of saying that they were minimizing the attack surfaces of their books.

This calls to mind what may be the best nugget of wisdom I ever got from a writing teacher -- specifically, a screenwriting teacher in my MFA film program -- but it really applies to all creative endeavors:

"If you make something nobody hates, nobody will love it."

I think about this so often in the context of my own art practice.

RIP, Andy Ruben, and thank you for that insight.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:18 AM on November 24 [26 favorites]


The term Literary Fiction is one of the more foolish things to come along in the name of words making sense in the past decades. Not only is it redundant. It also manages to package in a load of elitism, snobbery and perhaps conversely, it encourages conformity. We really do need to move past it.

It's not a great term, and yes it's a genre. I get complaining about it, but what is a realistic alternative that carries the same meaning so that people know what you're talking about? Someone would need to come up with another term, and that other term would need to seem right enough to be embraced widely. And I'm not at all sure the new term wouldn't be subject to the same accusations of elitism and snobbery.
posted by FencingGal at 10:19 AM on November 24 [7 favorites]


To my mind, "wan little husks of 'auto fiction'" go back a long way: Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie (1853), Pierre Loti's My Brother Yves (1883), Mori Ōgai''s "Maihime" (1890), Miyamoto Yuriko's "Rivers of the Heart" (1925) or Nobuko (1928), etc., etc. It's possible autofiction and shishōsetsu (I-novels) actually were more prevalent in French and Japanese literature--I don't know.

What I wonder more seriously is if questions like "When did American literary fiction lose the plot?" are just asking a bit too much. Take a random year from Wikipedia's list of years in literature and estimate how many fiction titles are household names--stuff that would work on Jeopardy: from 1889, I'd say two, maybe three? From 1899, seven is a generous guess--six is more likely. From 1909, maybe ... one? The situation doesn't get a whole lot better in 1939 (ten?) or 1999 (eleven?). I'm sure the lists' comprehensiveness declines dramatically for, say, post-war decades, but that's part of the issue too. Like, I totally agree "literary" fiction is its own genre and subculture, but I just don't expect that genre/subculture to be cranking out amazing stuff at a quick pace--or that it'll get widely recognized at a quick pace--because on the one hand it's actually super hard to achieve that and on the other hand it's not really that bad to write something that's "only" as good as Loti or Mori or Miyamoto or Marie Gevers or ... You know, grats to the MFAs for doing it at all.

Anyway, Lincoln Michel published a thoughtful response to this FPP's link last week that is a lot more informed about MFAs and publishing trends than I am: "Much Ado about MFAs."
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:25 AM on November 24 [14 favorites]


Big name private school MFAs will run you $200,000 plus opportunity cost of two years of your life. It is a giant long-odds bet that you can make it as a professional writer. Only people who become best-selling authors, get onto the first rung of a screenwriting career, or get tenure track creative writing teaching jobs win the bet - which can't be more than 20-30 writing MFAs per year across the entire country. All three of those outcomes are better linked to how cool a kid you are ... good looking and effective in a cocktail party - as to how good you can write.

Clarion - if and when it resumes - is six weeks long and costs less than $10,000. It's an extended summer vacation for people who think writing is fun and have some promise. And now you can are just as likely to succeed if you self-publish and social media well as if you swan around cocktail parties well and get a good agent and publisher.
posted by MattD at 10:30 AM on November 24 [7 favorites]


middle-aged English professor has an affair with his nubile grad student

Damn you, Robertson Davies, for making me think The Rebel Angels was an academic literary mystery!

Six Tenuously Connected Narratives: A Novel

Damn you, David Mitchell and Richard Powers for implying Cloud Atlas and The Overstory weren't originally unrelated short story collections!

my penis: let me show you it


Thank you, B. Catling, for making it clear after only 20 pages that The Vorrh is the vorrhst!

(This is an interesting discussion... my comment meant only as a "BLF was here" scrawled on the wall)
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:42 AM on November 24 [7 favorites]


Interesting that he goes back to 2006 — literally the year before everyone started getting 24/7 internet access via iPhones — then concludes that MFAs, which have functionally been around since the 40s and dominant since, IDK, the 80s or 90s, conservatively, are the cause of the breakup of a literary monoculture. Every other media — movies, tv shows, music — has also experienced this “issue” where even the big names aren’t as big, and there are “too many” artists/products to consume. But yeah. It’s MFAs.
posted by heyitsgogi at 10:46 AM on November 24 [4 favorites]


From 1909, maybe ... one?

JAKOB VON GUTEN 4LYFE

(seriously, it's fucking great, but is also the only thing I've read on that list, so point taken)
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:50 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


I get complaining about it, but what is a realistic alternative that carries the same meaning so that people know what you're talking about?
FencingGal

But what does the term mean? This is a genuine question because it doesn't seem to have any actual meaning on its own. Rather it has a negative meaning: it is any fiction that can't be slotted into a fiction genre, and also carries connotations of being Smart and Well Written.

So what use is the term, then, if it means everything that's not something else? As noted above, it conjures up tales of Sad Bored Rich People Having Sex. But you object and say that's unfair, Literary Fiction can be anything. Bu why is that book by a Buddhist priest you mention above "Literary Fiction" and not just "fiction"? Is there such a thing as "just fiction"? "Literary Fiction" really does seem to just be a term of snobbery to differentiate what the elite deem "real" books from what they consider trash.
posted by star gentle uterus at 10:52 AM on November 24 [13 favorites]


To be completely honest, I love the MFA debate because the stakes are so low. Out of all the problems we face in the 21st century, writers going to school to write stories that will be read by less than a hundred other writers is not exactly up there with fracking or the destruction of the rainforest.

A look back at a few of Metafilter's takes on the MFA debate:

2004: Micro Stories and MFA disgust, MFAs are ruining writing.

2009: My Voice is a Flower, MFAs are ruining writing.

2010: Is Content Less Teachable than Style?, MFAs are ruining writing.

2014: How Iowa Flattened Literature, MFAs are ruining writing.

2015: The Guy in Your MFA, men are ruining MFAs.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:02 AM on November 24 [47 favorites]


it is any fiction that can't be slotted into a fiction genre, and also carries connotations of being Smart and Well Written.

I agree it's not a very clear term, and I can't come up with a better definition, though I'd leave out the snarkiness of capitalizing smart and well written.

Why is that book by a Buddhist priest you mention above "Literary Fiction" and not just "fiction"? Is there such a thing as "just fiction"? "Literary Fiction" really does seem to just be a term of snobbery to differentiate what the elite deem "real" books from what they consider trash.

This gets into the question of whether some art is just of higher quality, and I'm going to make some people mad by saying that I think it is. If I buy a chair made by the local Amish artisans because I think it's of better quality than a chair from Target, nobody is going to blink an eye, but if I apply measures of quality to art, I'm at risk of being accused of being an elitist who considers the books I don't like trash. So I consider the book I referenced literary fiction because it's of high quality (and I could come up with aspects of the writing that make it high quality). But that doesn't separate it from genre fiction, which can also be of high quality.

I know some people are going to oppose the idea that it's possible to judge quality in art and someone will probably explain why it's easier to judge quality in a chair, and it is easier, but that doesn't mean it's impossible with art. I'm ABD in English, and I've spent years learning about and studying writing, and I could absolutely explain why I think that some books are just better than others in terms of how they are written. But some people are going to think I'm wrong and even a terrible person for thinking that - those people and I are just going to have to disagree.
posted by FencingGal at 11:19 AM on November 24 [13 favorites]


I know this is just snobbery but most of the writers mentioned as household names in 2006 don't...really strike me as that outstanding? When we're talking about "literary fiction" produced by well-known people, we're mostly talking about middlebrow books, modestly thought-provoking and easy to read, with some clearly stated and easy to digest insights/assertions - not unlike watching maybe a "serious" drama on the BBC. Not bad books, of course, but mostly not books you're going to remember reading in twenty years.

I add that this is getting more true of science fiction and fantasy. There's a lot more middlebrow stuff out there - worthy stories with worthy themes, decent worldbuilding, serviceable prose and characters who are basically spunky 20-somethings with big hearts. For a long time I ran a science fiction class/book group and I really noticed this happening - it became easier and easier to find competent left-leaning stories with irreproachable morals and, I dunno, perfectly good settings.

But in general I'd say this is good for science fiction, because it's crowding out the bad stuff. There seems to be just as much (or little) weird, difficult, ambitious stuff out there as ever and there's far less dreck. Looking at Lithub, etc, I have to wonder if MFA fiction hasn't done the same for regular ol' literature - if, rather than replacing ambitious, difficult reads with perfectly acceptable middlebrow herbage, it's actually chipping away at the market for the horrible and retrograde. You can go into a large Target now and see at least a couple of fairly decent novels in the small popularity-driven book section, and that was by no means always the case.

Most of my friends either read very serious snob fiction or read genre fiction, so I don't know what it's like in the MFA-lit bookclub trenches. In science fiction, it has changed the social landscape for me, because I meet a lot of people who read a lot of science fiction but it's all the sort of middling stuff that's a bit boring to discuss except as a social phenomenon.

"Low attack surface" is great.
posted by Frowner at 11:38 AM on November 24 [19 favorites]


So I consider the book I referenced literary fiction because it's of high quality (and I could come up with aspects of the writing that make it high quality). But that doesn't separate it from genre fiction, which can also be of high quality.

I keep parsing this and failing to see that it does anything to define literary fiction -- there's high quality fiction, which literary fiction *must* be and any other category *can* be.

Getting all out-of-my-hat descriptivist, does 'literary fiction' in practice mean 'high quality but not fun'?
posted by clew at 11:44 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Why is that book by a Buddhist priest you mention above "Literary Fiction" and not just "fiction"?

My contention is that literary fiction is just another genre - but it is a genre and therefore it's useful to have a name for it so that we can talk about it. "Just Fiction" encompasses science fiction and fantasy and mystery and romance and thrillers and westerns and horror and all the other genres of fiction.

Defining "literary fiction" as fiction that's better or more well-written than other fiction is a bit weird, because... awful literary fiction certainly exists. (A lot of it exists in MFA programs.) Or you can look at Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," which - whatever other virtues it may have, the prose is boring as hell (Franzen himself has said he may have gone too far towards the prosaic) and yet it is undeniably a work of literary fiction. I think of genres as clusters of tropes and family resemblances. Books that share creative DNA with each other, books that cross-pollinate each other.

And maybe it's more accurate to say that "literary fiction" is a couple of different subgenres in a trenchcoat, because I don't think that Donald Barthelme is at all doing the same thing as Jonathan Franzen, and William Gaddis is not at all doing the same thing as Donna Tartt - the Serious Middlebrow Novel is a very different thing from the Experimental Postmodern Novel - but the mere fact that we can make jokes about the "middle-aged professors banging their students" novel is an indicator that there is a family resemblance there, not in being "good" or "well-written" but in the fact that particular writers are in dialogue with each other, and are doing their own takes on the same tropes. I don't see "literary fiction" as saying anything about quality - it's just a label we put on things in the same family so that we can talk about that family.

(Although I must say that I've only ever read one or two "middle-aged professors banging their students" novels, and I read a decent amount of lit fic.)
posted by Jeanne at 11:52 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


And this comes at a dangerous time—literature needs all its strength to fend of its growing technological competitors like New Golden Age TV shows and video games.

People need to stop worrying about other media replacing books. They haven't - not in 100 years of radio, 70+ years of TV, not even awesome streaming TV - the number of books people read keeps going up. There are a lot of reasons - I'm always noticing how much better the special effects in books are, myself.
posted by jb at 11:53 AM on November 24 [8 favorites]


something else happened in late 2006/2007 that has had more of a cultural impact than MFAs. Yes, I'm throwing the blame at smartphones and social media

Why not both? MFA/literary fiction exacerbates the trends of 'my penis: let me show you it' and others listed above, which makes the modern writing area a lot less interesting to play around in while rewarding a smaller and smaller slice of people. Dazed magazine has an article which sort of explores this, but it's a bit of weak conclusion.
posted by The River Ivel at 11:57 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


(Although I must say that I've only ever read one or two "middle-aged professors banging their students" novels, and I read a decent amount of lit fic.)

I remember reading these more in the nineties. I remember one New Yorker short story where the girl - an undergrad - was flawlessly beautiful, didn't wear make-up and had a perfect figure - but she had a scar across one side of her face, which she hid by letting her beautiful but artlessly unstyled hair fall across it. She also wore, like, men's sleeveless undershirts because she was authentic and troubled and didn't care about stupid girl things like makeup and fashion. (To be fair, the professor was portrayed somewhat unsympathetically.) I remember this story very well because it was one of the first times I really spontaneously identified dumb ways to write about young women.
posted by Frowner at 11:58 AM on November 24 [14 favorites]


I'm an MFA holder who thinks getting one is like many other choices in life: you do you. I'm also with betweenthebars, except replace "love" with "am fatigued by regularly." To me, this discourse horse is so dead that I couldn't help noticing the author of the piece had a novel published about six months ago, it's Best of the Year season, and sometimes any attention is better than no attention.
posted by gnomeloaf at 12:17 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]


From the article:

Where is the great MFA-takedown novel?

Author hasn't read @GuyInYourMFA , aka Dana Schwartz, who has actually published a GIYM book. And I'd question their inclusion of Michael Chabon, who's more of a genre fiction writer, up to and including being the show runner for Star Trek: Picard.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:29 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


There's a lot more middlebrow stuff out there - worthy stories with worthy themes, decent worldbuilding, serviceable prose and characters who are basically spunky 20-somethings with big hearts.

As someone who grew up in the 80s reading without guidance from the SF shelves in the local library, I'd say that generally represents a big advance over prior decades.

Every time this topic recurs I admit I want to administer a small test to see how many people complaining about literary fiction as Sad Rich People Having Sex have actually read, say, even five novels classified as "literary" in the prior year. I have my own reservations about the contemporary novel, but I get a distinct feeling of strawman presence in some comments.
posted by praemunire at 12:37 PM on November 24 [19 favorites]


(i would like to shamefully confess that i'm not even sure what counts as literary fiction but my heuristic for it is mostly what the cover looks like)
posted by mittens at 12:46 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


1. When I was at a time in my life where I might have attended an MFA/workshop, I would have been the last person to attend something like that, because I was very much of the "why the fuck are you making me listen to other students comment on my work, they don't know a goddamned thing" sort of egotistical shitball. As I got older I began to understand a) not everyone is psychologically built like I am, b) I was an egotistical shitball and maybe I should tone that down a bit or I would never have friends, but regardless the moment for me attending an MFA/workshop had passed.

2. Having taught at Clarion and Viable Paradise, I'm of the opinion that while the workshopping and practical knowledge one gains there is very useful for many who attend (and it's all jammed into a very short time so you don't have to completely put your life on hold), by far the most important thing one gets out of it is a peer group, with whom you will very likely stay in touch for the rest of your career, and also the larger "alumni network" of both institutions (students and instructors both). I suspect that this is also the case with MFA programs; you go to learn, but you leave with a community, and it's the community that ultimately makes what you pay for it worth it.

3. I don't think whatever alleged problems lit fic is going through can be laid completely at the feet of the MFA, but I do think that "writing for other writers" is a real thing and that it's possible it happens more in that genre (yes, it's a genre) than in others, because other genres which unapologetically understand they are genres often spun up/out from commerically-oriented venues and marketplaces where "pull your head out of your ass and entertain me" was the first rule (what qualified as "entertaining" is an exercise in genre definition). Lit fic doesn't seem to have sprung out of the same bald economic imperatives. Which is not to say it doesn't need to be commercial to survive, but the audience does seem to be understood as a) other writers, b) people who aren't writers but think they have a novel in them somewhere, c) the status-aware/anxious for whom reading is a social marker, who may in fact enjoy the books but also don't want to be seen reading "trash." These three groups buy a lot of books!
posted by jscalzi at 12:48 PM on November 24 [36 favorites]


People need to stop worrying about other media replacing books. They haven't ...

Fair enough, but they did replace the short story. Short stories used to be popular and reasonably remunerative; you could even live on them, if you kept and it and were lucky. Popular magazines and even newspapers were full of them, serialized or complete, and there were magazines full of detective, adventure, horror, or romance stories for adults (and some especially for children). They entertained people in waiting rooms, on train journeys, on quiet evenings at home, and everywhere that the paperback did later and that the smartphone does now.

Where did they go? Television ate their lunch. The short story hasn't vanished, but it has become a bird instead of a dinosaur. Genre short stories continue to be popular with genre readers, but the literary short story is largely a portfolio piece for the writer, and its readership is restricted to those who take a few rarefied magazines and those who have a professional interest in literature (which includes those who want to be in the magazine someday). Things can change in the new atmosphere (viz. "Cat Person") but that is where it is at.

My point is: people are going to say Whither the Novel until there are no more novels to say it about, because they want the novel to be safe; they want to love the novel the same way they did when they were young and everything seemed possible but not in a scary way like it does now. I think there will continue to be novels, more than before. But I also don't think that they're safe.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:57 PM on November 24 [11 favorites]


Is disillusionment with the currently en vogue MFA style maybe just an artifact of aging?

I've read one or two novels per week for the last 40 years (mostly 20th/21st century lit fic, science fiction, and fantasy), but now find myself slowly grinding to a halt. Per Eyebrows McGee's comment, I've read all the canonical "my penis, let me show it to you" books, and cannot stomach another. Of the current MFA-wielding exemplars listed in the article, I have not enjoyed either of the two that I've read (Ben Lerner and Rachel Kushner).

In the last 5 years, the only new (to me) author that has astonished me is W.G. Sewald, and the only newly released novels I have loved are: Sewald's Austerlitz; Maxwell's Demon by Stephen Hall; Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk; The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead; and Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash. Of this group, maybe only Habash has an MFA? And his novel about a psycho college wrestler in North Dakota does not fit the MFA stereotype.

(For contrast, popular and acclaimed novels I've bailed on this year include Hamnent by Maggie O'Farrell; Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu; and This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar. None of whom appear to have an MFA.)

Do youngers who have not read everything by like DeLillo or whoever share this disdain for currently popular lit fic? I dunno, and I'm not sure whether widespread MFAs are really hurting literature or whether this is just another variation of get off of my lawn.

Maybe I just need to hit up Frowner's friends for some very serious snob fiction recs.
posted by lumpy at 1:01 PM on November 24 [10 favorites]


(For one thing, there isn't a TON of overlap between people who are great poets and novelists and people who are great Composition 101 teachers; and I wish that universities cared enough about teaching Comp 101 to not just unleash untrained grad students on students to whom Comp 101 is a boring and pointless roadblock to their "real" studies)

This seems like the worst part of MFA programs that are funded like that. Teaching undergraduates to write better (and by extension read better and think better) is important and very difficult, even for teachers with many years of experience. Those undergraduates would be a lot better served by universities hiring composition teachers. And at least somewhat better served if those classes were taught by graduate students who are in degree programs for people who want to go into teaching.
posted by straight at 1:20 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


This seems like the worst part of MFA programs that are funded like that.

Well, they used to hire people like Delmore Schwartz to teach comp at Harvard. Can't imagine that was better!
posted by praemunire at 1:39 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Not sure how I feel about the rest of the article, but I echo others' appreciation for the "low attack surface" metaphor.

I'm reminded that a sphere is the shape with the smallest surface for its volume. And a sphere has all of its corners smoothed off.

It's kind of like the way different models of cars have trended to looking the same due to aerodynamic efficiency.

I could definitely see how a program designed to send writers through a critical workshopping process could lead them to rounding off the corners and smoothing out the edges of their work, to appease the process...
posted by darkstar at 1:40 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


While not perfectly analogous, maybe it's useful to think of literary fiction/MFA programs as similar to classical music/conservatories?
posted by PhineasGage at 1:48 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


I think I was a bit puzzled about the...decontextualization?...of authorship? Because while, yes, the MFA system probably does affect the kinds of work authors produce, there are also all sorts of material factors having to do with production, editing, and marketing that this essay elides. Given that I'm a Victorianist, the first comparison that comes to mind would be the effects of Mudie's Circulating Library on the Victorian novel (along with various forms of serialization). I mean, the Victorians were not spontaneously driven to the production of loose baggy monsters. Presumably someone specializing in contemporary fiction could point to similar factors shaping what contemporary literary fiction looks like, starting, say, with genre categorization and book marketing.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:11 PM on November 24 [10 favorites]


At some point in the 80s my father had a Central American poet as a client. I went to a dinner with them and their Latin American writer friends and they had great stories about a bunch of them attending a year long writing workshop in the great American Corn Expanse.

For them it was all a huge joke, specially considering that they were mostly from what Americans would consider the extreme left.

The way I remember it was:
- Write in your application that you are one of 20 siblings raised by a donkey and a goat in a rubber band plantation.
- Declare that you have never been a member of the communist party and that you don't even know what politics is, you were raised by a donkey and a goat.
- Let an American doctor at the embassy put a finger up your ass*.
- Get a year long paid vacation in the middle of an infinite corn field, where you hang and get drunk every day out with your Latin American writer friends.
- Play a game to see who can write the most ridiculous stories to impress your American hosts.

*Real story. I think Ibarguengoitia wrote a really funny story on how this was a mandatory part of the medical examination for the American visa, only to learn that the embassy doctor did it just for fun.
posted by Dr. Curare at 2:35 PM on November 24 [32 favorites]


"Literary fiction" is not an MFA term, it is a publishing term likely derived from the Library of Congress classification system, which is used by libraries, publishes and bookstores. The term doesn't describe the quality of the prose; what it really describes is the intended readership. There are important distinctions between living fiction authors like Jonathan Franzen, classic authors like Dickens (whose books are in reprint) and authors of commercial, contemporary fiction like James Patterson and E.L. James. The broad category of all of these books is fiction, but although compulsive readers of Franzen and Dickens may also read Patterson and James, the two audiences are typically not the same, and that is reflected in how they're broadly classified by book world.
posted by Violet Blue at 3:09 PM on November 24 [10 favorites]


Dean Young told me my first day that every poem would be better set to music.

That was worth the price of admission to me.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:18 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


I keep parsing this and failing to see that it does anything to define literary fiction -- there's high quality fiction, which literary fiction *must* be and any other category *can* be.
Getting all out-of-my-hat descriptivist, does 'literary fiction' in practice mean 'high quality but not fun'?


Yeah, on second thought, I don't think my definition was very good.
I think literary fiction can be fun. Then We Came to the End comes to mind. But aside from the quality issue, I'm having a hard time defining literary fiction in terms other than what it isn't. And I think I'm probably wrong about the quality issue too. As someone else pointed out, a bad novel could still fall in the category of literary fiction.

I read literary fiction and I write literary fiction, and I'm realizing that I just don't have a good definition of it. It's almost like the old definition of porn for me - I know it when I see it. I also think of myself as someone who doesn't like genre fiction, but A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite novels, and if someone published it today, it would probably be considered genre fiction. The more I think about all of this, the more confused I feel.

Years ago, I looked at Graywolf Press' website and at the time, they said they didn't accept historical fiction, and I wondered if they were saying that historical fiction can't be literary fiction.

So maybe someone here will have a better definition of literary fiction, but it's more than sad people writing about their sad divorces (though I laugh every time Tim Clare describes it that way).
posted by FencingGal at 3:49 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Literary fiction seems to me to be a pejorative genre, in the way "chick lit" is a term almost always used by awful people who think they're better than cheery books written for women.

I've never heard someone describe a book they like as literary fiction, even if it is about how someone's incredibly middle class childhood led to their divorce.
posted by zymil at 3:51 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


does 'literary fiction' in practice mean 'high quality but not fun'?

It means "gatekept as fuck."
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 4:06 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


Workshopping a definition: literary fiction appears to cover what gets called 'drama' on TV/in movies, combined with 'arthouse' and 'experimental/avant-garde'.
posted by bashing rocks together at 4:27 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


I Googled it. Google says that literary fiction focuses on character to the same extent that genre fiction focuses on plot. Google knows everything. You're welcome.
posted by clawsoon at 4:30 PM on November 24 [9 favorites]


MFA programs "teach" fiction in extremely counterproductive ways. They are set up as workshops with students taking turns submitting work for critique, and their peers taking turns offering it. I would guess the workshop approach was copied from the "group crit" that visual artists — painters, etc. — have been doing for hundreds of years. That would have been fine if the creative writing field had developed a systematic vocabulary for teaching the elements of fiction like their visual arts peers.* It would also have been fine if workshops had evolved to help teach writers foundational skills, like plotting and characterization, which the screenwriting industry certainly knows. Historically, however, creative writing programs have staffed their classes with published writers who mostly don't have the interest, analytical skills, training or resources to teach the basic vocabulary of **storytelling** — which isn't the same thing as "writing."

Advice, insight or working definitions of pacing, dialogue, tone, proportion, climax, narrative distance and so on are frequently ad hoc as a result, and often just plain wrong. Stupidities get passed off as conventional wisdom, and students are told to "write what they know," without understanding that shouldn't be limited to their own life story, but extends to anything they know really well. One side effect of this impoverished approach to technique is it opens the doors to student critics eviscerating peer work for reasons of "taste," while not engaging with the work with any objective criteria. Although the rare few forge ahead, it's common for students to throw out something that may have had a kernel of interest or original thought in it, which just wasn't ready for feedback yet. All of this absolutely encourages plotless first person (Strunk and White!) conformity.

Ironically, MFA programs, which are low-investment cash cows for universities, have proliferated at the same time the publishing industry has become ever more consolidated, the market for B-list authors has mostly disappeared and Amazon has taken over 50% of the distribution market — and what they want to distribute is mostly not that literary. None of that portends the end of the novel, but we are certainly not living in a very fertile time for good literature.


—————
* Note that "writing" is typically divided into two broad categories: "technical" or "creative."
posted by Violet Blue at 4:33 PM on November 24 [7 favorites]


When did we start calling things "literary fiction"? I first remember seeing the term in the nineties as a shelving category in a large, fairly well-regarded chain - can't remember if it was Borders-when-it-was-good or Waterstone's. At the time it meant "more expensive format", mostly - this was when the default paperback size was changing from the ~6 inch high to the ~8 inch and the prices were going from $5.99 to closer to $10.

I really think that it's more about marketing and segmentation than anything else - when you call something "literary fiction" you're basically saying that it will reflect the debates happening among the American middle/upper middle class rather than anything beyond that horizon. You wouldn't call Nanni Balestrini's We Want Everything literary fiction, or The Tale of Genji or Marge Piercy's activist novels, etc. You'd shelve them with literary fiction, of course, because at that level it just means "what is not embarrassing for college educated people to read", but you wouldn't describe them that way.
posted by Frowner at 4:44 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]


I knew I had to get out of English as a major when I groaned "I can't read any more stories about a sad white guy waking up hungover and going to the kitchen to smoke and start the day's drinking bender" and there was a deathly silence in the class as several of the guys that fancied themselves Hemingway shifted uncomfortably. (I haven't read anything remotely Serious Fiction in ages but that was the big late 90s-early 2000s trend besides wanting to be Jonathan Franzen).
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:44 PM on November 24 [17 favorites]


2nd try: does 'literary fiction' in practice mean 'high quality but not fun embarassing'?
posted by clew at 5:11 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


I think I remember the last time I was in a brick and mortar bookstore selling new literary fiction, but in practice what drives the category at this point from my POV is being anticipated by The Millions ("The indispensable literary site"), tracked by LitHub (literary is part of their name), excerpted on LitHub, excerpted at Granta, etc. My supposition is that sort of the point of them is to promote books to a sufficiently large audience to keep themselves afloat, so I assume they will skip things from small presses, academic presses, etc. that are literary but not relevant to a discussion of "household names" and that maybe don't strictly need a marketing category besides fiction. Along the same lines, I have no idea how many of the authors discussed on The Millions, LitHub, etc. even have MFAs. But an MFA is something I am not surprised to see in the author bio in a literary magazine like the Kenyon Review or Crazyhorse, and I would wonder to what degree these are the same scenes--some overlap, but I couldn't guess how much.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:20 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


I knew I had to get out of English as a major when I groaned "I can't read any more stories about a sad white guy waking up hungover and going to the kitchen to smoke and start the day's drinking bender" .

Ah, but this is only because you were focused on the 20th century. Move back in time -- pre 1700, ideally -- and you get away from the novel and into wonderful arcane stuff. One of the great joys of working in early modern drama is that the 'Great Literature' you read on a regular basis is more or less the TV scripts of an earlier era. One period's embarrassing garbage is another's deep complexity.
posted by jrochest at 5:56 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


what is a realistic alternative that carries the same meaning so that people know what you're talking about?
Capitalist Realism?
Genre-Shy Fiction?
Rumination-Core?
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 6:36 PM on November 24 [6 favorites]


I did have a workshopping writing experience once upon a time, when I was taking advanced creative writing at my second-tier state university. I can't say that it was much of a great experience, not just because I didn't get much in the way of constructive criticism (I didn't get much in the way of negative criticism, either, it's just that nobody seemed to know what to make of it), but because there were some members of the class who were either working out some deep personal issues through their writing and were really bad at taking any sort of criticism at all, or they just ignored it.

One guy was writing his version of Alien, taking place on a space station orbiting Earth, and decided to make the crew isolated by having most of Earth destroyed by a nuclear war. The crew seemed mystified as to why Earth wasn't responding to communication, and several of us pointed out that, if we could tell what had happened, so should the crew (they had all the info that we did), especially since they were scientists and stuff. When he submitted chapter two, the crew still hadn't figured it out; he just didn't feel like revising his work.

But, hey, I got a B.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:38 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


One period's embarrassing garbage is another's deep complexity.

I, Agree.

this thread rules
posted by clavdivs at 6:55 PM on November 24 [10 favorites]


In 200 years the new Shakespeare is going to be Stephen King, isn't it?
posted by clawsoon at 7:08 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


When he submitted chapter two, the crew still hadn't figured it out

'Off Topic.'
{Edward G. Robinson voice}

"Look here...Bill, shee Bill that add-on in paragraph 3 where there there's no windows, what, the hatches froze, now shee that's what's called triple redundancy blindness and this business with no radio and emergency beacons gone, the ship is busted up shee and your crew is in a tin can playing pinnocle with the air supply. Change it, use gas or some volcano, right? Yeah, the crew is the focal point of the story, not the planet, shee"
great story Jack...this thread rules
posted by clavdivs at 7:11 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


From the article:

Where is the great MFA-takedown novel?


Awesome feminist weird af body horror MFA takedown

W-era, mean, satrirical MFA takedown
MFA Takedown for people who genuinely believe all "literary fiction" is for delusional elitist posers, or whatever and just want a potboiler.

As a sidenote: most of my favorite fiction would be shelved as literary fiction. Sometimes it makes me breathless with excitement and sometimes it makes me cry and sometimes I lose a whole day because I can't stop reading it. Some of it is also terrible and overblown and overrated etc etc. It is absolutely fine if you don't like it (I don't like generally like books about post-apocalyptic dystopias or spaceships, and that's fine too), but it's worth pointing out that I'm not trying to gate-keep or prove anything to anyone with the stuff I like. It's just most often genuinely the stuff I like.

And because it came up in the piece, that Lauren Groff novel about the nuns--Matrix?--it's awesome. It's also queer-heavy medieval-set historical fiction featuring chivalric legends, heavily armed holy women, a straight-up 13th century feminist utopia and a hilariously catty Eleanor of Aquitaine. So if that's the kind of thing that sounds fun to you, you might give it a shot.
posted by thivaia at 7:21 PM on November 24 [9 favorites]


Google says that literary fiction focuses on character to the same extent that genre fiction focuses on plot.

Of course as we know, heavily character focussed genre is very popular too now -- perpetual favourite Becky Chambers, the suddenly supremely popular Hands of the Emperor which is a thousand pages of nothing much happening (I was a big fan of this book and wish deeply for an audio version), even mysteries are often very character focussed though just by the genre there has to be some actual plot.

I read some literary fiction, some of which is better and some worse, some of which asks a lot of the reader and some of which doesn't, like any genre. The middling stuff is samey, I think because of the conventions of the genre (middling SFF is differently samey, while middling mystery and romance are the same kind, I think).
posted by jeather at 7:26 PM on November 24 [6 favorites]


I remember one New Yorker short story where the girl - an undergrad - was flawlessly beautiful, didn't wear make-up and had a perfect figure - but she had a scar across one side of her face, which she hid by letting her beautiful but artlessly unstyled hair fall across it. She also wore, like, men's sleeveless undershirts because she was authentic and troubled and didn't care about stupid girl things like makeup and fashion. (To be fair, the professor was portrayed somewhat unsympathetically.

About ten years ago for some self-flagelating reason I decided to read a bunch of the "middle aged professor has a mid-life crisis and has an unrealistic affair with a hot student" books. I am wondering if, like so many New Yorker stories, that story you recall ended up as a book, since it sounds really familiar.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:29 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]


> But this is apparently what literary fiction in the US currently has to do, write about sad people experiencing sad events and feeling sad about it but in a thinky way

> [& other takedowns of literary fiction]


Aw, quit attacking my favorite category of novel, y'all, everyone knows 90% of the novels in ANY genre or subject or format are formulaic dreck. Judge not lest ye's genre be judged by its worst representatives.
posted by MiraK at 7:32 PM on November 24 [6 favorites]


Literate fiction. Ooh, or literal fiction.

I'd say about novelists approximately what I said recently about lead guitarists: We've had a glut of them since the sixties and probably don't need any more till 2040 or so. Bring back the short story!
posted by aspersioncast at 7:48 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


We don't need more short stories, we need more mainstream media outlets that publish short stories!
posted by PhineasGage at 8:44 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


but a lot of them were just so samey-samey, with the same few topics (divorce, sexual abuse, the immigrant experience in America, my penis: let me show you it, my parents have a lot of money and we their children are going to fight about it for 200 pages but only in very passive aggressive ways

lol iirc some of us here write those books

I mean it’s fine but if you haven’t experienced blithely clicking on an fpp and finding your work mocked (which tbc is not the case for me with this one) I … don’t recommend it
posted by sock poppet at 8:56 PM on November 24 [7 favorites]


heavily character focussed genre is very popular too now

Terry Pratchett's Discworld books leapt ahead by orders of magnitude when he became less interested in worldbuilding and more interested in his characters; his signature characters (Sam Vimes, Granny Weatherwax et al.) don't so much drive the plot as they set the controls of the plot for the heart of the sun.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:56 PM on November 24 [6 favorites]


I’m aware that books like the stereotype exist, but I read close to a book a week, many of them contemporary novels that I saw recommended places like the NYT or nominee lists for prizes, which I assumed equals lit fic, and I’m not reading any books about sad divorces. Nobody is forcing you to read them! There are so many books! Go read some other ones. If you want to read “embarrassing” things but not be seen at it, get an ereader.

I do read a lot of “youthful narrator is/becomes disaffected”, but I like that and I read something else when it feels same-y and I’m becoming a worse reader for those pieces because I’ve glutted myself. A lot of writers addressing a topic that has been popular and relevant for hundreds of years is not a problem, actually.

I also read short story collections, and it is quite possible to pay to read short stories (thus creating a market and supporting the authors) by buying ebook singles as well as the traditional means of getting magazine subscriptions or anthologies. Be the reader you want to see in the world.
posted by momus_window at 9:50 PM on November 24 [16 favorites]


clawsoon, I'm not saying that, exactly. I'm rooting for Pratchett, myself.
posted by jrochest at 11:07 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


something else happened in late 2006/2007 that has had more of a cultural impact than MFAs. Yes, I'm throwing the blame at smartphones and social media

The development of smart phones, social media, and the related Amazon created platform which linked eReaders to an easily accessible online shop meant that people like me, writers outside of the US / UK / Europe / Canada suddenly had a way to get published and find readers. Social media has been a huge support in finding a community of writers to learn from, and being visible to readers.
As a South African writer of genre fiction, I literally became a writer in 2008 simply because Amazon KDP existed.
It's incredibly difficult to get published over here, many publishers and agents have "We don't accept fantasy /science fiction" as part of their submission instructions. The local reading audience is tiny. And good luck with an US / UK etc agent or publisher taking you on as an unknown South African writer.
There has been an amazing growth of African genre writing because of these technologies.
It was certainly a huge relief to me not to have to bother with the condescending and patronizing world of traditional publishing. If that was my only option to get published, I would have stopped writing long ago, and I know this is true for many others too.
posted by Zumbador at 11:12 PM on November 24 [35 favorites]


As for “literary fiction” being a genre, this is, definitely, an American thing. This has spread to the other anglophone literary cultures, but it’s most pronounced in the US. This isn’t the case in other languages, as far as I can tell, but it might be developing in that direction.

When I was living in the US, which was most of the first decade of this century, I came to realize that if I went to the “new arrivals” table of my local Borders, novels who weren’t sold as genre fiction, but just “fiction”, were part of a genre. I mean this in the sense that you could have expectations of what you’d find inside, much like you do with, for example, science fiction or detective novels. This isn’t to say that there isn’t great variety within the genre of “literary fiction”, nor am I saying it doesn’t evolve, but the same is true of all genres.

This hasn’t always been this way in English-speaking fiction. If you go back to the 20th Century, and earlier, you can talk, meaningfully, about “non-genre fiction”, that is books that don’t have clear generic markers. They might be parts of a trend, but that isn’t quite the same thing as genre.

That “literary fiction” in an American context is a genre is something that took me a long time to get my head around, because this definitely isn’t the case anywhere else. If you pick up a random book off the new arrivals table in a country where the dominant language isn’t English, the contents are going to be a lot less predictable. Not that there aren’t trends and cliches (middle-aged male novelists write embarrassing books about younger women the world over), but the variety is much greater, to the point that any kind of claim to being a genre would be incoherent.
posted by Kattullus at 12:32 AM on November 25 [9 favorites]


Lauren Groff novel about the nuns--Matrix?--it's awesome.

Ha. I came in here to say that I just finished Matrix, and it was so consciously literary it hurt. You could probably play litfic bingo with it: present tense, ugly but visionary/powerful main character, lack of quote marks, meandering sentences.... Each sentence was beautiful and highly constructed, but turns out reading seven million beautiful and highly constructed sentences in a row is considerably less enjoyable.

I mean I liked it, and there's enough substance in the queer medieval feminist nuns to keep it grounded, but it felt like the sort of novel on which you might train an AI algorithm for Critics' Darling.
posted by basalganglia at 1:28 AM on November 25 [4 favorites]


The desire to slot writing and other arts into neat little niches is so strong and so consumption based (in the US at least) that it warps everything else around the interest in "sales". Literary fiction wasn't a "genre" until it became a way to slot books as not fitting more stable genres. Unlike, say, sci-fi, romances, detective fiction or westerns, literary fiction isn't slotted by setting or premise, but came out of the aspiration towards literary merit, to be thought of as achieving the standing of "literature" where the writing as writing was considered the key measure of lasting achievement.

One can look to, say, Flaubert or Joyce, Proust or Woolf, to see the investment they make in forming their sentences, to making the word choices "make" the story, the how of expression more central than the what of the action in a sense. This was more or less the condition of art in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, experimenting with the forms of expression, pushing the mediums the artists worked in to their limits in how they might transmit an aesthetic experience, the ideas being as one with the way the attributed of the medium are put to use. Paintings were as much or more about "painting" or seeing the qualities of the artist's use of the medium as they were subject matter, writers pushed in much the same direction.

In criticism, this gave rise to the "new critics" and close reading, where they examined the works line by line for their "meaning", all was in the work itself. But this wasn't entirely satisfactory as artists kept pushing and challenged the division between so called "high art" and "low art", the genre works and other more "instinctual" forms of expression and brought that into their works. "High art" became mixed with "low" and criticism evolved to assess art under these new conditions.

This eventually gave rise to the various "theory" driven schools of criticism and teaching, where what was investigated was the conditions surrounding the creation of art itself, how the art demonstrated some aspect of these conditions, whether through a feminist lens, Marxist, psychoanalytical, colonial, or modernist/post-modernist perspective. This emphasis shifts the emphasis from art as expression and "great art" as the expression of genius, to a more social basis for consideration, but without really providing tools for evaluation of aesthetic quality, one could examine the comic strip Hi and Lois with the same methods one used to look at Madame Bovary. Theory driven criticism and teaching is more about how the art reflects the theory than how the theory explores the art in that sense.

Now of course we have, for obvious reasons, come to a time where moral considerations are on the rise in critical assessment again, using some of the same tools as theory driven assessment, but taking it further into a evaluative claim of "good" and "bad" around the works. This isn't new exactly, though some of the specifics modes of criticism certainly are, moralist assessments of art have popped up throughout the decades to varying degrees of success, now though those assessments are coming from a progressive side rather than the more frequent conservative use. All this has left aesthetics in the dust and opened the way for genre works to be the dominant form and genre based assessment the norm.

Art for art's sake has become an esoteric and arcane niche, of great interest to a few, but widely mocked by the rest as "taste" is virtually the sole acceptable measure of value left. Literary fiction became a genre by accepting that as a market standard, where a certain type of writing becomes slotted in opposition to other popular genres, even though the history of works within often have little, if any, shared resemblance otherwise. While its now taught as a thing in itself as well which further refines the "genre" by many new writers emulating the characteristics of the old instead of the ambitions to change the medium. That emulation of types of stories and elements allow boundaries to be constructed around the writing while eroding the aspirational claims it once held.

At the moment there is little clear distinctions to be made about "types" of genres as the formulaic market driven works define the arts and anything else has to be sorted out from those markers and claimed as something unique, no matter which genre it is slotted under. But given that any claim of merit outside of individual taste is now suspect the overall effect is often minimal.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:54 AM on November 25 [19 favorites]


I had to Google the definition of MFA (Master of Fine Arts?)

Motherfucking Artist
posted by thelonius at 2:58 AM on November 25 [8 favorites]


Quoted for truth:
In 200 years the new Shakespeare is going to be Stephen King, isn't it?
I’m a person who has read thousands and thousands of books. But if you had to ask which author has written the most books that I’ve read, Stephen King is a serious contender. In thirty-plus years of reading I’ve read twenty or thirty of King’s books. There just aren’t that many authors who have written thirty books for me to choose from.

If I were a little older that “most prolific author” might have been Asimov. But Asimov was already dead by the time I was ready for him, while King was still writing.

The idea that “something may be wrong with fiction itself” is the same kind of prescriptivism that causes people to warily split their infinitives. In 200 years, scholars of the end-of-millennium era are going to be interested in what actually shaped the culture. And the fact of contemporary culture is that I can go out on the street and start a conversation with a stranger about Carrie or Cujo or The Green Mile or The Shining and they’re quite likely to instantly know what I’m talking about.

And of course the elephant in the room: the reason a person on the street knows about those four Stephen King stories is probably not that they’ve read them in books, because the cultural nexus in the twentieth century shifted almost completely from print to film and television. The contemporary equivalent of Dickens selling his novels one chapter at a time is J.J. Abrams spending a half-decade improvising on “Lost.”
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:16 AM on November 25 [6 favorites]


Historically, however, creative writing programs have staffed their classes with published writers who mostly don't have the interest, analytical skills, training or resources to teach the basic vocabulary of **storytelling** — which isn't the same thing as "writing."

Got a fun David Sedaris anecdote about being unqualified to teach out of that.
posted by ovvl at 5:22 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]


There's really quite a lot to recommend Stephen King, as long as you assume that "aligns perfectly with contemporary progressive-to-left morality" isn't your criterion. I freely admit that it's been twenty years since I read a Stephen King novel...but on the other hand I remember them very well, and there are plenty of more respectable books that I read in my teens and twenties that I don't really remember at all. He's an ambitious writer and his books convey working class and lower middle class American life without treating it as ipso facto freakish and pathological. I mean, he's a horror writer, he's not the poet of suburbia or anything and his prose concerns are not "how do I make lyrical unique prose". Further, he has a viewpoint - not maybe a coherent philosophy but a fairly stable outlook on the world which is expressed in his books and is more than just "here is a moral tale".

When I ran my class/book group (I did a little structured teaching, we read some history and theory) I felt like there was a pretty sharp generational divide between GenX/Boomers and younger (happily, this was a really age-diverse group; I was about in the middle) and it was a really mixed thing. Worth noting that everyone had fairly similar left politics and tended to run in an activist/weirdo/hippie/punk social milieu, and that I chose stories that were more or less left - we weren't exactly reading Orson Scott Card and "The Cold Equations" here.

The Millenial/younger participants really completely prioritized moral argument - did the story center marginalized characters who were complex and whose identities were positively depicted, did the story have a good political message, did it work the political message out in a reasonably complex way that didn't have any contradictions or errors, how did the prose support the moral message of the story, etc? This did not actually lead to terrible, rote discussions - you can explore stories in quite good depth this way, particularly when you have a group with enough shared background to compare books and refer to the larger history of the genre.

The Boomer/Gen X participants tended to be equally interested in the "message" of the work (science fiction is a didactic genre after all) but less interested in seeking out primarily books that were left wing. This sounds a bit like "hooray those bold readers" but really it boiled down to the expectation that of course all left/female/queer/BIPOC readers were going to read quite a lot of stuff with belittling messages, that was just the price of engaging with the genre.

Now, there are a certain number of hard core science fiction nerds of all ages who aren't just taking an SF class because it is fun - those people are going to go back and read all the retrograde stuff or the ambiguous stuff or the difficult stuff as part of their desire to understand the genre. I'm not talking about those folks. I'm talking about people who like to read for fun, and who like to read fun science fiction. That's where the generational split was.

The younger people would, for instance, preferentially seek out, eg, anthologies of left science fiction even when the quality was extremely uneven because they wanted stories whose messages would align with their beliefs. The older people would seek out anthologies with more emphasis on prose quality or historical importance and would avoid left anthologies if the quality seemed poor. (There were a number of self-funded anthologies around 2012-2016 that we used and that were pretty uneven.)

Again, this sounds like one is saying "look at those older people reading for quality, hooray" but it's more that the younger people more consistently viewed the books as a way to explore viewpoints and ethics - to get the news, as it were.

I mean, this might be purely age-linked - there's some circularity in activism, it might be that the same people who were super interested in left fiction regardless of quality in, like, 1995 have now read so much left fiction that they only want the very fussiest prose. But it did really stand out.
posted by Frowner at 5:56 AM on November 25 [19 favorites]


Well I don't know about Shakespeare, but in 200 years Stephen King should be at least as well known as E.D.E.N. Southworth is now. E.D.E.N. Southworth, you know, the most popular American novelist of the 19th century? Writer of The Hidden Hand among her sixty or so other novels? What? You haven't heard her name brought up recently? Weird. Almost as if we aren't that good at judging the future from tastes of the now.
posted by gusottertrout at 6:09 AM on November 25 [9 favorites]


On the other hand, we do still read Dickens - sentimental, sexist, racist, anti-semitic, lot of people don't like his prose that much, etc - and at least some of that is because his work was widely distributed and made into plays, kids' versions, cigarette card sets and then of course movies and TV shows. His "philosophy" is not what you'd call that sophisticated, either. Who knows? People may look at It the way we look at Bleak House now.
posted by Frowner at 6:40 AM on November 25 [7 favorites]


I was thinking, instead of Dickens, Stephen King might be like Margaret Oliphant, Dickens' contemporary who published 120 books during her lifetime. Wikipedia lists 97 novels she published.

People now know Melville for Moby Dick, but that book was a commercial failure. Now the novels that were insanely popular during his lifetime are only read by Melville scholars.

After reading his book on writing, I decided I should give Stephen King's novels a chance. I read Rose Madder - I thought it was bad, but read an interview with King where he said it was bad. So I tried The Shining, which King has said is his best work. I still think it's just not very good. King complains that the New Yorker won't publish his short fiction because he's popular - well, he's welcome to use a pseudonym and submit to the slush pile with everyone else. He could feel totally vindicated if his work ended up in the New Yorker that way.

King seems like a cool guy, and it's great that he's brought happiness to so many people. But that's not the same as literary merit, which I believe is a real thing even though I'm a professional copy editor who is fine with split infinitives.
posted by FencingGal at 6:47 AM on November 25 [5 favorites]


I'd suggest that a major part of the reason Dickens has remained relevant is because he was held up as a "great writer" and taught in schools as such as much as any popular acclaim of his day. Most popular works fade because they are felt to be of their time and the mass audience tends to prefer works/artists of the moment and allow the rest to fall behind. While the hardcore aficionado cultivates and maintains a strong interest in works from the past and continues to push for their relevance long after other works wane in public interest and thus has a greater effect on what is considered of cultural importance and becomes part of the curriculum, or so it seems to have gone up to this point, how it goes from here may be entirely different. Who knows? Maybe the neuroscience based crowd wins out along with AI and the most popular books of the future will all be tailor made to fit the reader's desires.

(I am neither a particular fan of Dickens myself, and definitely not one of the neuroscience and AI approach to art, but obviously my feelings also matter little in such things.)
posted by gusottertrout at 6:57 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]


Margaret Oliphant is still pretty well known as a writer of ghost stories - several of her short stories are widely anthologized and I see recommendations for her supernatural fiction all the time. "The Lady's Walk" is really good and I like the other ones.

While we're wandering afield, that's another consideration -19th century writers of middling ability who have a couple of well-known books, or who are well-known for only one aspect of their work. Louisa May Alcott wrote a ridiculous amount. I'd also submit Arnold Bennett - you're only going to read most of his work if you're a huge fan, but the first Clayhanger novel is really, really good and, pace Virginia Woolf, anticipates a lot of modernist and even Woolfian things.

Mods are asleep, post personal literary opinion: It's not that there's no good and bad and it's all a matter of taste, but still different novels do different things well. King writes well about ordinary, unthinking daily life and he combines this with vigor, scandal and sleaze in a way that makes him more gripping than, eg, Dreiser even though Dreiser is much smarter. Also, I think he has a good, accessible and yet interesting way of writing time/pastness-in-the-present, etc. Of the King books I really liked when I was in my teens and early twenties, I'd say that It really does this - the geological time of the alien intersecting with human scale time paralleling the way that specifically American racism and violence echo down through generations. I'm not saying that he's Proust - I haven't picked up a King novel since probably 1995 and can't even remember what happened to my copies - but he does some stuff well that's worth doing.
posted by Frowner at 7:03 AM on November 25 [10 favorites]


Ooh, or literal fiction.

Oh I really like this. That’s what litfic feels like to me, a hyper-focus on only portraying things that could very well be happening next door to you. Non-speculative fiction.

I am in a speculative fiction writing group which is currently going through a writing book called Story Genius, which is all about ensuring that your story is driven by who your characters are and not the other way around. We’re all finding it extremely useful, but it’s also very clear that it was designed around literary fiction rather than speculative fiction, even though the author insists that’s not the case. And one of the clearest indicators of that is the example novel that develops throughout the book, which another writer wrote from scratch based on her methods. It’s about a woman who’s a TV writer with emotional intimacy problems and hates dogs. We all came into the workshop with story germs like “what if a planet rotated at human walking speed” or “what if a guy could punch ghosts”, and our goal is to serve those ideas with the best-written characters we can; this person’s germ was “what if a woman hated dogs and wound up having to take care of a dog and learned something about herself.”

The writing book is great! It really is! We’re all getting a lot from it! But for almost all of us, it’s also reinforced out bafflement with the litfic genre.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:19 AM on November 25 [9 favorites]


Even the popular writers who are hardly read anymore sometimes leave traces.

"Henchman" was originally just a Scottish word for servant, until Sir Walter Scott had villainous Scottish Lairds issue orders to them.

"Svengali" was a sinister character in a novel by George du Maurier.

And on the Ancient Warfare podcast I was listening to lately they were complaining about the false idea that ancient warships were rowed by slaves, but mentioned when Lew Wallace wrote "Ben Hur" in the 19th century this was what scholars believed. The idea has been unshakeable ever since.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:20 AM on November 25 [7 favorites]


different novels do different things well.

Yeah, that and the mention of Alcott are certainly true and can keep an artist at least on the fringe of the culture for some small part of their body of work or allow their work to wax and wane in notice rather than disappear almost entirely.

Even the popular writers who are hardly read anymore sometimes leave traces.

This is also good. Influence can extend far beyond its point of origin, making it invisible to the majority but, hopefully, still remembered by some few.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:26 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]


gusottertrout: E.D.E.N. Southworth, you know, the most popular American novelist of the 19th century? Writer of The Hidden Hand among her sixty or so other novels? What? You haven't heard her name brought up recently?

Funnily enough, a couple of weeks I finished an 800 page behemoth of a newly published Icelandic novel where one of the main secondary characters is pointedly named after Capitola, the heroine of The Hidden Hand.

Your point stands, however.
posted by Kattullus at 7:30 AM on November 25 [3 favorites]


Thank you for this, gusottertrout. It goes a long away to nailing the crisis in so-called lit-fiction. Certainly as I experienced it in a rather highly regarded MFA creative writing program (2010-12).

Now of course we have, for obvious reasons, come to a time where moral considerations* are on the rise in critical assessment again, using some of the same tools as theory driven assessment, but taking it further into a evaluative claim of "good" and "bad" around the works. [...] Art for art's sake has become an esoteric and arcane niche, of great interest to a few, but widely mocked by the rest as "taste" is virtually the sole acceptable measure of value left. Literary fiction became a genre by accepting that as a market standard, where a certain type of writing becomes slotted in opposition to other popular genres, even though the history of works within often have little, if any, shared resemblance otherwise. While its now taught as a thing in itself as well which further refines the "genre" by many new writers emulating the characteristics of the old instead of the ambitions to change the medium. That emulation of types of stories and elements allow boundaries to be constructed around the writing while eroding the aspirational claims it once held.

* Rather like lit-fic itself, these "moral considerations", when they popped up in a workshop critique, generally didn't get communicated in so many words, but rather, you had to dig to find them. For instance, a critique might be prefaced by "This isn't the kind of thing I'd normally read but ... ". My initial response to something like this would be a knee jerk "then why the hell should I care what you think about it?" (not spoken out loud, of course). But then, on reflection, I'd realize it was an entry into seeing how this (almost always) younger writer had come to value moral considerations/intentions magnitudes higher than I do. Or more to the point, I've learned over the years that the kind of fiction I value does a good job of dodging ideological filters of any kind, whether moral, political, other.

I want my reading to get me inside things I didn't previously understand, not necessarily so that I'll agree with them, but at least I'll have a better grasp of these ideas, notions, passions -- a sense of the humanity that informs them.
posted by philip-random at 7:41 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]


OK, the world may have forgotten E.D.E.N. Southworth, but everybody remembers Winston Churchill, right? No, not the British prime minister, this guy.
posted by Epixonti at 7:44 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]


I still think Bleak House is pretty good

(But if we’re doing oversized 19th c. British novels, Middlemarch is the best. THE BEST, I say)
posted by thivaia at 7:50 AM on November 25 [6 favorites]


Funny, as the youngest of the Gen X group, I would say my reading in SFF has gone the other way -- I've read enough of the classic regressive stuff and though I don't necessarily need a good and deep moral message (and I read enough fantasy with monarchies anyhow), I am definitely not into racist or sexist or homophobic or heavily right wing etc etc work.

Honestly sometimes I'm just tired and I want something that is not work to read, and even things that are work can also be enjoyable while reading, and I'm not into punishing myself byreading.
posted by jeather at 7:53 AM on November 25 [4 favorites]


I'm finishing up the first book in a fae trilogy touching on issues of colonization and man this discussion is giving me nerves. ;)
posted by warriorqueen at 8:01 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]


Also, I know both essays have been referenced, but I still haven’t read better critiques of the MFA system’s effect on literature than Eric Bennet’s How Iowa Flattened Literature and especially Elif Batuman’s Get a Real Degree. This part from the latter is still really pointed, over a decade later:
McGurl never quite articulates the law that enjoins some writers to write what they know and others to find their voices, but he comes close to it during a discussion of Bharati Mukherjee’s essay ‘Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!’ (1988). Mukherjee, an Iowa graduate who writes about Bengali Americans, claims perspectival mobility ‘as the special property of the immigrant writer’, enabled ‘without difficulty to “enter” lives, fictionally, that are manifestly not [her] own’. ‘Chameleon-skinned, I discover my material over and across the country, and up and down the social ladder,’ she writes, striking that note of naivety mixed with self-congratulation often sounded in the programme discourse by ‘writers on writing’. As McGurl astutely observes, the ‘facts of literary history’ belie Mukherjee’s claim: it has been largely ‘white writers like William Styron and Russell Banks and Robert Olen Butler and Neal Stephenson who ... assert the privilege of other-narration’, while ‘minority writers ... have typically been asked to slot themselves into a single ethnos.’

But McGurl doesn’t follow this thought to its logical conclusion. The point is less that Mukherjee has been ‘asked to slot [herself] into a single ethnos’ than that she has never been made to feel that her writing would be ‘richer’ or more ‘multifaceted’ if she wrote from the perspective of an autistic concentration-camp survivor. In the programme discourse, ‘virtuosic’ chameleonism is the purview, not of immigrants, but of people like the Iowa graduate and Vietnam vet Robert Olen Butler […]
posted by Kattullus at 8:04 AM on November 25 [5 favorites]


With the science fiction, to give an example of what I mean: We were reading a series of feminist science fiction novels and (for reasons I forget now) I had chosen Marge Piercy's 1976 novel Woman On The Edge Of Time and the group hated it so much that we didn't finish. I had not foreseen this at all. The fact that it had a Latina protagonist but was written by a white Jewish novelist, the fact that the utopia had mechanical wombs so that no one carried babies in their bodies and something about the sexual norms of the utopia (I really don't remember what but I have a dim sense that teenagers in the utopia started being sexually active with other teens at 14 or so) were so frustrating to the group that we just stopped after about the first third. It was disappointing to me because that's an important book if you want to understand feminist science fiction qua feminist science fiction, but what are you going to do?

As time went on, I felt more and more that I could not choose (I was asked to choose by the group - we had experimented with group planning and abandoned it) from a full range of science fiction by women. (And I wasn't just dishing out TERFism from 1975, either - I was trying to find representative work that might be flawed but wasn't exclusionary, indifferent to racism, etc.) To me it was important to understand feminist science fiction as a sub-genre with a history but when we talked about this in the group, while people were happy to understand that there was a history, they really didn't want to read it. Which was legit enough but didn't match my interests.
posted by Frowner at 8:22 AM on November 25 [6 favorites]


Oh wow, a “history of feminist science fiction” reading club sounds amazing!
posted by Kattullus at 8:42 AM on November 25 [3 favorites]


Is it no longer fashionable to blame the CIA for workshop culture and the focus on the individual instead of the polemical?

This is surely a cyclical argument, and I imagine it will go on and on without much impact on the milieu it critiques. What I'm curious about is how the writing MFA culture mirrors that of fine art? I still happen to think that going on to get a PhD in fine art is a waste of time, but over the years I've come to accept that a) universities are going to carry on opening these types of courses, as they are indeed lovely little cash cows, and b) artists will keep going to them, but for a reasons that have little to do with abject professionalisation: as mentioned above, they go to create a network, and to have the space to work. A paid-for programme keeps you off the streets, and if you have to produce a poxy 10-20K word dissertation to justify your time, it's more than worth it compared to the dreary jungle of writing funding proposals or attending yet another blue chip opening full of phonies. Though of course you don't stop going to those.

But why a)? I'm sure it has something to do with the rise of the YBAs and how mom and dad can be convinced that art is indeed just as viable and renumerative a vocation as Becky's forensic accounting degree. Forget the lottery-like nature of it all, the thumb on the scale of the rich/famous or the 36 month boom/bust cycle promoted by voracious second market profiteers. That's all to come! But it does explain zombie formalism and if there's anything attempting a lower attack surface, I've yet to see it. The rise of taught fine art in the contemporary vein (as opposed to the old Academy method still employed in places like China and eastern Europe) has contributed in some way directly to these abominations so... is there a more cohesive literary critique that actually attempts to skewer the writing decried by the FPP author directly? Because I have a hard time believing that say, Cusk is in any way objectively worse than Franzen. (Or King worse than Dickens, for that matter.)
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 8:44 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]


Oh wow, a “history of feminist science fiction” reading club sounds amazing!

On balance it was. With the generational differences stuff, the main problem was that I was the organizer/Bringer Of Readings - if someone else were to organize a "feminist short stories after 2010" reading group where we literally only focused on reading contemporary work as broadly as possible, I would be totally in for that. Actually, I wouldn't mind organizing that, because then my goals and the group's goals would be aligned.

But yeah, I feel like I learned a LOT more about science fiction in those years (basically we did different themed sessions - straight up history, YA, Marxism, utopias, etc.) and I found a lot more resources online. I was so anxious and sad during the first year of the pandemic that I pretty much could not enjoy science fiction anymore, so there are a lot of important things that I have not read or heard about, but I am slowly getting back to it.

To me it seems like "organize your reading better" is the way to solve a lot of literary conflict. Like, no one needs to sit down and chew through Franzen and Smith and Foster Wallace and Baumann and Moshfegh just because they are famous and therefore one must Have An Opinion. But what if you said, "I'm going to read some novels about women and mental health, starting with [Early Book] and going up through My Year of Rest And Relaxation, so that I can compare them and think about ways that this theme gets worked out" or if you decided to read all novels with unsympathetic viewpoint characters, or all 21st century Indian writers, or all Nigerian science fiction, or all the writers Sally Rooney cites as influences, etc.

When you do this, you get something out of it that's more than just "keeping up" - more than just a sense of the contemporary and more likely to last, and even a novel whose style or concerns you dislike can be illuminating when you read it against something else.
posted by Frowner at 9:00 AM on November 25 [14 favorites]


You know, I had heard about the CIA's influence on workshop culture, but it only just now occurred to me that they might have had a hand in shaping the writing professor's traditional indifference or even contempt for genre works. This is going away as professors get younger and come from more diverse backgrounds, but it used to be that a creative writing professor would say "no science fiction or fantasy" on the first day. Not to sound like a conspiracist, but it does seem like the CIA would take an interest in discouraging writers from imagining other ways of life. (But then, of course, I am thinking of Ursula K. Le Guin as I think of this, and most SF/F writers are hardly such persuasive anarchists. Plus snobbery needs no encouragement from the government.)
posted by Countess Elena at 9:01 AM on November 25 [8 favorites]


"organize your reading better" is the way to solve a lot of literary conflict. Like, no one needs to sit down and chew through Franzen and Smith and Foster Wallace and Baumann and Moshfegh just because they are famous and therefore one must Have An Opinion. But what if you said, "I'm going to read some novels about women and mental health, starting with [Early Book] and going up through My Year of Rest And Relaxation, so that I can compare them and think about ways that this theme gets worked out" or if you decided to read all novels with unsympathetic viewpoint characters, or all 21st century Indian writers, or all Nigerian science fiction, or all the writers Sally Rooney cites as influences, etc.

When you do this, you get something out of it that's more than just "keeping up" - more than just a sense of the contemporary and more likely to last, and even a novel whose style or concerns you dislike can be illuminating when you read it against something else.


I know myself, and I know I would not follow through on one of these plans just for myself (maybe a book club, which I never quite manage to find), but this sounds like an absolutely great way to organize reading.
posted by jeather at 9:17 AM on November 25 [3 favorites]


Just pulling this out of my ass based on a few comments here but:

American Literary Fiction is a genre and method that formed in the vacuum when massive Cold War government funding for the humanities was withdrawn. In the absence of external funding and favorable immigration policies, these structures turned inward to the sort of local people who could afford and imagine themselves participating.
posted by wotsac at 9:33 AM on November 25 [3 favorites]


Related to that idea of Frowner's, completely by accident when I visited Paris, I had scheduled art museums more or less in chronological order, and it was absolutely illuminating in a way I had not at all anticipated. So I can imagine this being great for books, too.
posted by jeather at 9:35 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]


jeather that's pretty much exactly how to build a seminar -- let's read all these related or interconnected works from a particular genre, or plays written for a particular set of theatres, or manuscript poems circulated among a particular community. Seeing how people pinball off of each other's work is fascinating, and it's particularly fun when it hasn't been ossified into A Canon.
posted by jrochest at 9:42 AM on November 25 [4 favorites]


"If I buy a chair made by the local Amish artisans because I think it's of better quality than a chair from Target, nobody is going to blink an eye..."

Chairs feature large in 20th century art, and they are a pretty accessible way to display how cultured you are... The Eames chair is so famous for this that I can't see one without thinking its real reason anyone has one is as a sneering flex of elitism. Maybe the appropriate comparison is not Target vs Amish furniture but Art Chairs vs all the other everyday chairs (which includes Target chairs, Amish chairs, Shaker chairs, etc...) Though, now that I think of it, anyone who is really into chairs as objects of art and design is probably also really into those ubiquitous injection-molded stackable plastic chairs, which succeed wildly as both objects of design and objects of everyday use, so maybe the distinction I'm trying to make isn't so clear.

I wanted to make a long, well researched, and digressive comment about this, which would, I hope, have made the point that while many Art Chairs are fine examples of craftsmanship, many of them are also hideous examples of flimsy uncomfortable garbage, suitable for looking at maybe, but not sitting on, and the various art movements of the 20th and 21s century are directly to blame for that. Then I would have tried to link that back to MFAs and literary fiction, somehow. I think the comparison would probably be a fairly straightforward fine art to fine art kind of thing...

Instead, I made it as far as De Stijl and the Red and Blue Chair, and I realized that those designs are long out of copyright and then I fell into a rabbithole of people making various versions of that chair. So thanks to this thread for that!
posted by surlyben at 10:55 AM on November 25 [5 favorites]


while people were happy to understand that there was a history, they really didn't want to read it.

This just seems so impoverished to me. I mean, read whatever you want for pleasure, there are no rules. But if you only read stuff that is already completely ideologically comfortable to you, how are you going to enrich yourself? If a white author does a bad job portraying a POC character, that's one thing. But an sf reading group that sets aside a book because it doesn't like the utopia is closing its mind instead of expanding its horizons. And expanding your horizons is like the whole point of reading novels, especially sf.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 11:59 AM on November 25 [4 favorites]


I mean, that's definitely not the whole point of reading novels for these people, evidently?
posted by sagc at 11:59 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]


Writing is not necessarily a path to fame and fortune.

What! Why was I not informed???

I'd suggest that a major part of the reason Dickens has remained relevant is because he was held up as a "great writer" and taught in schools as such as much as any popular acclaim of his day

His reputation has been up and down over the decades. I'd put much of his endurance down to an astonishing cast of unique characters, to the point that they've got their own adjective. Even people who don't read Dickens know the names and conjure pictures in their minds, refer to the characters to describe people they know. Then of course there's the readiness by which his work can be and has been dramatized, even in his own lifetime. Forster calls them flat, but even he has to admit that they get the job done.

Cf Stephen King? Even with the help of movies, have his characters really entered the English stock vocabulary? Carrie perhaps, but she's less a character than a maguffin, which is kind of the case with a lot his work. I suspect that if you ask the man in the street the name of the character Jack Nicholson played in The Shining, the answer will come back Johnny. Of course, I may live on a different street from you, and I'm not widely read in the King oeuvre, much less what critics make of it, so, time may well prove me wrong.
posted by BWA at 12:19 PM on November 25 [6 favorites]


I really enjoy Stephen King's prose. And the beauty of his characters being kind of interchangeable and his plots being kind of formulaic is that every few years I get to pick up something of his that I already read and enjoy the prose all over again, without being distracted by spoilers; it doesn't really matter what kind of hokey supernatural horror he's inflicting on this particular cast, it's the musicality of the text that the joyous part of reading him for me.

I'd rate Misery as his best book, mainly because the horror is completely plausibly human rather than lazy supernatural schlock, and Annie Wilkes is definitely a character name I've heard used as shorthand to invoke off-the-rails obsessive abusive derangement. More so after Kathy Bates's fabulous film portrayal, obviously.
posted by flabdablet at 12:37 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


"Sewer clown" has started getting into vocabulary, plus King has added some other catchphrases that may or may not survive, but I do think that King's work is broad, unique, timely, and colorful enough to be well known as part of popular culture when (if) scholars look back in a couple of hundred years. I don't know if too many of his works will be read or not, but they will be known.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:08 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


"organize your reading better"

I spent a year trying whichever books people in what I was reading mentioned reading -- fiction or biography -- and then looking for a link backwards from there. I don't have Latin or Greek so I kept stalling out in Fox's Martyrs, Pilgrim's Progress, or Swedenborgianism, but there was some good stuff by the way!
posted by clew at 1:31 PM on November 25 [4 favorites]


This just seems so impoverished to me. I mean, read whatever you want for pleasure, there are no rules. But if you only read stuff that is already completely ideologically comfortable to you, how are you going to enrich yourself?

People with marginalised identities have always created and consumed books about alternate worlds where they would be less persecuted.

Wanting "ideological comfort" or a lack of persecution in your books seems to me to be at least as good a purpose for science fiction as some traditional SF prompts like "what if I could have sex with a lot of alien women" or "what if I had a cool computer friend who could help me run a libertarian dictatorship on the moon".
posted by zymil at 2:37 PM on November 25 [14 favorites]


what is a realistic alternative that carries the same meaning so that people know what you're talking about?

Bougie-lit
posted by acb at 3:32 PM on November 25 [2 favorites]


IDK, one of the unfortunate things about SFF that sometimes does not age well is when authors don't accurately predict social changes. Just as a work of history (or even historical fiction) always tells you just as much about the time in which the work was written as about the time of its setting, works of SFF often contain the anxieties, preoccupations, and contexts of the years in which they were written. Sometimes I really enjoy that sort of thing as a journey into a twice-different world, but sometimes the alienness is too jarring and certain assumptions ring hollow.
posted by sciatrix at 4:00 PM on November 25 [4 favorites]


We all came into the workshop with story germs like “what if a planet rotated at human walking speed” or “what if a guy could punch ghosts”, and our goal is to serve those ideas with the best-written characters we can; this person’s germ was “what if a woman hated dogs and wound up having to take care of a dog and learned something about herself.”

The woman hating dogs book sounds boring to me too, but for writers and readers of literary fiction, exciting plots and fun aspects like punching ghosts just aren't the point. I mean, if you described Pride and Prejudice as "a woman dislikes a man at first but learns something about herself and marries him," that doesn't sound particularly engrossing either, but people have been reading and loving that book for literally hundreds of years and will probably still be reading it long after almost all the contemporary fiction we're talking about is forgotten.

Just to be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with preferring science fiction, horror, fantasy, and other things that get called genre fiction, and most literary fiction isn't Jane Austen - I'm just saying that fiction that adheres more closely to normal life isn't innately boring.
posted by FencingGal at 4:45 PM on November 25 [3 favorites]


The woman hating dogs book sounds like the most commercial. Put the dog in a Christmas sweater and you have a heartwarming "tail" you can sell to the Hallmark Channel. She thought she was saving the dog, but what if the dog was saving her?
posted by betweenthebars at 5:56 PM on November 25 [7 favorites]


I feel a little bit called out for dunking on literary fiction so early in the thread. I don't know if people were directing their comments at me or not -- this isn't all that's in the genre, people are using strawmen, it sounds like people don't actually read in the genre. The thing is, I really read A LOT of litfic. A LOT. And yeah, during Covid, I have slowed way down. Pre-Covid I read 1-2 novels a week. During Covid, and partly because I have small children who are now ALWAYS HERE, I read 1-2 novels a month. That's a huge slowdown, and I definitely FEEL it in how I've only read a handful of the big prestige novels this year. But I try to read everything nominated for the Booker, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Awards. I try to read everything Graywolf publishes, because I think they're fascinating and innovative. I try to read the Caldecott and Newbery books every year (and give them to my children, and discuss them). I read 5 to 6 poetry collections a year, which I sort-of suspect is more than anybody who does not actually work for a poetry publisher. I read the NYRB, I read the Millions (I had a piece published by The Millions, about The Goldfinch!). I try to read at least one Great Classic of Literature that I didn't read in school, every year. (This year is War & Peace. The best year was Moby Dick, tho. That book slaps.) I also try to read emerging playwrights and buzzy plays, although I'm not as systematic about it. (This year I really liked "Gloria" by Branden Jacobs Jenkins and "Lipstick Lobotomy" by Krista Knight -- I'm more likely to read plays being put on in Chicago.)

I just finished "Mrs. March" by Virginia Feito. Right now I'm reading "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" (Marisha Pessl); next up is "Long Way Down" (Jason Reynolds), which I'm a couple of years late to (but, you know, Covid). After that is Lauren Groff's "Matrix," and then Franzen's "Crossroads," but I have to wait for it to be available from the library because I object to paying money for his books.

I don't have a degree in English. I only took one literature course in college (a freshman writing intensive that was the professor's choice, and my professor chose Arthurian literature). I am not a "literary person" per se; I just really love to read, and I do a lot of it, and I'm fascinated by what The Culture considers important, innovative, impressive, etc. I do think I have a sense of what constitutes good writing, and I do think the quality of a work matters. I also have a pretty strong sense of what appeals to me and what doesn't -- I often tell friends, "So, I hated it, but it's really well-written, even beautiful, and I think it'll probably be to your taste. It just wasn't to my taste." I often read things that I know I'm not going to like, that other people LOVE, because I want to understand why they like it. (I'm reading a popular manga a friend gave me right now, and I kind-of hate it and find the plot devices incredibly irritating, but I am totally getting why she loves it and why it's popular and high-quality, and I'm glad to have had the chance to read it and understand better why it's so beloved.)

I just think a lot of litfic is BAD. A lot of it is workmanlike at best. A lot of it is painfully self-consciously aiming for Importance and Good Writing in a way that undermines those aims. A lot of it is repetitive and lacking in innovation. Because I am currently reading Tolstoy, I have Tolstoy on the brain, which is an unfair comparison for 99.9% of writers, BUT imma do it anyway. So many literary fiction novels try to be psychological portraits of a particular person, going through a particular thing, but they're often really shallow, and lacking in the sort of deep humane understanding of human nature that defines Tolstoy. I often feel like literary fiction authors don't even have a real good grip on what motivates their main character -- or, what motivates them beyond their big main motivation. Tolstoy gets all those currents and impulses and motivations, the ways we're at odds with ourselves, the things we're searching for. So many literary fiction authors who are lauded for their psychological novels just ... don't? They've got a couple of insights, and I enjoy those insights, but it's not a novel's worth of insights into character and psychology. (Also, the number of male novelists who cannot imagine the internal life of women and who just write them as blank brick walls, and pretend that's actually on the narrator and his misogyny, but like, Guy, we can all tell that your female romantic interest has no internal life and is not just a mystery to your dumb narrator but also a mystery to you the writer. It's so galling. This is not just in literary fiction, but I do find it extra-annoying when a 21st-century litfic author is widely lauded for his psychological portraits ... of men and men only. Like, oh my God, you know I can just go read Tolstoy, right?)

The other thing that so, so many of them lack is any sense of joy. You don't come out of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, who are not really happy fun novelists, without feeling uplifted by the book, by what you newly understand about humanity, by the beauty of the work. And it's unfair to compare works of literature that have entered the canon to commercially-published authors in the 21st century, many of whom will disappear beneath the waves as completely as Booth Tarkington. But GOD, I can think of very few things in the Western canon that are so relentlessly DEPRESSING as a lot of literary fiction. Not all of it! But a lot of the time I finish a novel and I'm like "... that was a really dark and depressing way to spend my time, and I have come out of it with no better understanding of the human condition." I don't feel like the authors enjoyed writing them (or rather, constructing them, since they tend to be highly-constructed). I don't feel like I'm supposed to enjoy reading them; it's meant to be a more didactic experience where I am reading A Good Novel. But there is rarely any sense of joy, and I think it's a real struggle for ANY art to be great art without a sense of joy in it. (A sense of searing pain would be the alternative (Guernica), but literary fiction doesn't trade in that either; this is just kinda dull everyday pain.) I often wonder if those authors actually like reading? Or if they just want to be authors, divorced from the joy of reading or writing.

I guess then the question is why I read so many of them, and I guess -- I like to talk about books with other people, and literary fiction is the easiest genre to do that with. (I'd give my right arm to be in an SFF book club, but I've never known enough other SFF readers.) And sometimes you do run across absolute gems in literary fiction. But so much of it feels like a slog, like the author thought it was a slog to write, and like nobody's having any fun reading it. (I often think literary fiction short stories are more enjoyable, since they tend to be "as long as they need to be" and not "the length a book is supposed to be regardless of how much I have to say." You can hang a short story on one or two insights. Two small insights have to realllllllllllly stretch to take them to 300 pages, though.) And, you know, 90% of everything is crap, as they say. So it's fine that 90% of literary fiction is crap ... it's just irritating that I'm expected to pretend that 50% of it is amazing literature because it's there in the genre name!

(Also, PS, I hate Dickens.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:23 PM on November 25 [18 favorites]


And expanding your horizons is like the whole point of reading novels, especially sf.

For you, this is true, and for others, evidently not. And added to that, I read different books for different reasons. Sometimes I'll be intrigued by the original and experimental. Sometimes I will read for comfort, or to be distracted from whatever is worrying me.
I suspect this is true for most people but they only count some books as *real* reading and discount the others as guilty pleasures, or books they had to read for school, and not part of their identity as a reader.
I try not to shape my identity around the kinds of books I read. That means I can read whatever I like, without worrying that enjoying a certain book means I'm *that* kind of person. My reading preferences don't make me trashy, snobby, superficial, unintelligent, conservative, pretentious. Nor do they mean I'm creative, innovative, progressive, original, intelligent, realistic, or whatever other quality.
I might be any or all of those things, but not because of the books I enjoy.
posted by Zumbador at 8:28 PM on November 25 [6 favorites]


I guess actually the much clearer, and shorter thing to say, after I wrote that whole novel, would be, "I can think of very, very few literary fiction novels that would reward rereading." I can hardly even think of any I would want to reread! But rereading Jane Austen, or George Elliott, or Tolstoy provide you with new insights, a new sense of wonder every time, new appreciation for the art. And fundamentally, I can think of a couple of literary fiction novels that would reward rereading, but most of them definitely would not; they are disposable commercial fiction that are "literary" only in the sense of the genre markers that they have.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:31 PM on November 25 [7 favorites]


I often feel like literary fiction authors don't even have a real good grip on what motivates their main character -- or, what motivates them beyond their big main motivation.

Katherine Dunn does.
posted by flabdablet at 8:48 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


But rereading Jane Austen, or George Elliott, or Tolstoy provide you with new insights, a new sense of wonder every time, new appreciation for the art. And fundamentally, I can think of a couple of literary fiction novels that would reward rereading, but most of them definitely would not; they are disposable commercial fiction that are "literary" only in the sense of the genre markers that they have.

But...you must know that Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy were writers in their own swarm of now-forgotten, often-not-very-good contemporaries. If you single out a small handful of writers from each generation (across Western civilization!) and compare them against the vast heaving mob of even those self-selecting into "literary fiction" of the present day, of course they're going to come out on top.

I'm kind of depressed to think that you're persisting in reading a swath of novels of a kind that you largely don't think are worth rereading. If I found knocking off the major prize lists every year offered so little lasting value, I'd probably move on to something more rewarding.
posted by praemunire at 8:58 PM on November 25 [8 favorites]


I like to talk about books with other people, and literary fiction is the easiest genre to do that with. (I'd give my right arm to be in an SFF book club, but I've never known enough other SFF readers.)

One of the positive things about the shift in the center of online genre book discussions over the last few years from Goodreads and review blogs to YouTube, Tiktok, podcasts and Discord is that there's now a (somewhat parasocial) online SFF book club open to all.

If you can find a couple of book review/recap creators who have taste that matches yours you can usually find a lot of people to talk about books with in their audience.
posted by zymil at 9:56 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


I was about to say the same as praemunire. 80-90% of the works in any art form - and any genre within those art forms - are disposable. How much mediocre art have we all seen, how many forgettable bands have we listened to? Only a few gems emerge from the mountains of human creativity, which is fine and great, and not a reason to criticize any style or genre of creativity itself.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:58 PM on November 25 [3 favorites]


After finishing 'We', the literal "Glass Ceiling" of Readable Dystopia, alot of novels seemed bland, no, mostly American. Sorry to Thomas Pynthon but I can't fucking finish 'Bleeding Edge' or Burroughs' ' Magical Thinking' because I need to sweep up the glass, dudes. So I re-read Yosimotos' ' Kitchen' but only felt what I felt then, applying it's theme to society now and it still seems like it's new but not, as if it hangs in histories edge, the dialogue frozen in thens now. Nostalgia for the current, an overlapping mound of texts saturation harnessed to the hitching post of clarity and confusion. Though not fiction, 'A Daughter of Han" resonates with almost universal aspects of bewildering human nature, the poverty, society, the strength of character, hard to replicate in a fictional text. An aspect to literary fiction, for me, is it worth saying which is the high wire act central to alot of workshops. someone up thread, mentioned the Kenyon Review and CrazyHorse, hard publications to get into and the sticky wicket of literature and poetry workshop politics qua this genre, this classification, this narrative almost becomes the Dewey decimal system of the avant-garde. Perhaps that's the way it should be. John Adams wrote that he was fighting for his children to learn a higher education and that their children even higher education perhaps we've reached the point that so many people have so many stories to write and share that John Adams dream has become an overpriced ticket to the literary establishment. As with yoshimoto in 93, that anticipation to be able to read a work of significance is thriving, that part I don't think we'll ever die.
posted by clavdivs at 10:43 PM on November 25 [6 favorites]


I just think a lot of litfic is BAD. A lot of it is workmanlike at best. A lot of it is painfully self-consciously aiming for Importance and Good Writing in a way that undermines those aims.

That does sort of speak to the allure of traditional genre fiction a bit, where with much of it the quality of writing isn't deal breaker for still getting some sense of pleasure from the book. I don't of course mean there isn't quality writing in genre fiction, but that the trappings of genre do a lot of the heavy lifting for pleasure when the writing itself may not be top notch. A detective story, for example, can be rewarding just for the central twist in the plot matched to the familiar elements of figuring out who dun it, or seeing how the, often already familiar, main character works the case.

This is connected, I think, to why we value art for providing a sense of the extraordinary or for showing us the familiar as "strange". Literary fiction, when it deals primarily with events of normal life, requires the writing itself, the way the world is shown to us and explored to provide that sense of a new frame put on familiar events to see them in a way that is recognizable simultaneously as "true" and "strange". The deepest experiences of art have a tension to them that can't be easily resolved, it acts as something of an intermediary between our own understanding of the world and that of another/others, whether the artists or the characters or just the perspective of the framing of the work. At its best, literary fiction, whether it overlaps with another genre or no, provides some of the most potent examples of this tension because it is framed as being closest to our own lives, yet still shows them to us in a new "strange" and powerful way.

It's also why, as children, we so often first come to books and other art through fantastic stories, where the main elements of the story offer a sense of the world that itself feeds our sense of wonder, anthropomorphized animals or objects, fairy tale creatures, or exaggerated human characters offer a way to see the world that speaks to the gulf between our developing knowledge and desires for connection and the indifferent silence of continuance in the day to day world. We want to know what a dog thinks, or feel that the moon cares if we wish it good night, that our feelings about things gain like response in some form or that there is some reason behind events that explain them in clear motivational terms, whether evil witches or Decepticons, or the mockery of ducks leading to swans.

As we grow older and enter into the world and understand our own motivations, some of these things lose their charm, but the desire for the fantastic can remain and genre fiction can fill that want even when poorly written just by offering a new idea to mull. (Of course too much desire for "explanation" can lead to conspriracy thinking and other perversions of the aesthetic experience too.)

In the same way, this also informs why so many people hate literary fiction even at its "best", as well as other art that doesn't speak to them. It triggers a defensive response for seeing other people claim meaning where they see none, so it gets labeled pretentious or phony or some such as we tend to fall back on the belief that our experience and understanding is true and any thing that doesn't speak to us is therefore false by definition.

We like to think we like something because its good or dislike it because its bad, but it is as often that we believe something is good or bad because we like it or don't and opposing perspectives are threatening for suggesting we might be missing out on something or "wrong". The less fantastic the art, the more threatening it can sometimes become for seeming to deal with the known and the more the claims for it can sound like conspiracy theories, as they indeed sometimes are awfully close to being in some instances. There can be enormous frustration at having some talk about a scene or even a sentence in a story with a sense of wonder when it sounds plain and dull to our ears, so we say the emperor has no clothes and its the other people who are being gulled.

In the US at least, we've taken this to extremes, where the distrust over art, and all the associated perspectives on life, are only left to be understood through individual taste and allegiance. There is little faith in expertise, in learning to develop a wider sense of understanding for art coming from a different and perhaps challenging perspective, we are becoming increasingly attuned to art that gives us what we want, or is just a series of seemingly unending twists and plays on tropes that doesn't really go anywhere beyond feeding a memory of motion as there is no real resolutions and only minimal challenges to the norm presented. And the culture has latched on to that in many cases, giving us very little except the illusion of movement by design. Literary fiction that does this is incredibly tedious because there is not much else there to grab onto, while genre fiction has a built in sense of exaggeration about it that provides some pleasure, even when there is little else there.

The question of how or who determines merit is, of course, the thing that isn't so easily settled as it isn't just a matter of taste, at least it shouldn't be for considering lasting cultural value, it is something to be discussed and debated. It requires critical attention to detail and extrapolation and is something that needs to be learned and shared through a community of invested participants. As we've witnessed, this doesn't mean we'll get it "right" in the sense of providing one true answer for all time, but that celebrating the things we think are of cultural value has its importance for providing a sense of the world that is open to response that we can talk about and share. Stories that offer pat resolutions, if any at all, can be fun, but they don't offer much in lasting value for tying as there is no lasting tension involved. We don't continue to mine them for thoughts, we read them and move on, having used up the pleasures they offered.

There are not infrequent attempts to argue art is important because it "teaches" us something, morality or how to do such and such, that's not it at all. Art doesn't teach it offers us a frame to view the world or some part of it in ways we haven't considered before and that are open for revisitiation and continuing discussion because it doesn't resolve itself neatly, it remains "alive" to new possibilities for response and appreciation. That isn't easy art, offering the simplest pleasures, but it is what keeps certain works relevant for speaking beyond their time.

(None of this is of course meant as a reflection on the books Eyebrows was speaking of or anyone's responses to any mentioned works, just a way to speak of the overall concepts we're talking about in my usual longwinded way.)
posted by gusottertrout at 12:15 AM on November 26 [11 favorites]


I was in a book club for a while where I basically didn't like the books, most of which were lit fic. The point of it was to chat with friends, so the books didn't need to be great--just readable, fresh, and something everyone could talk about. I found pleasant things to say, and it was reasonably fun? Very convivial. FWIW I think France's rentrée littéraire is stuffed every year with books that fit that profile too, like involving bad relationships, depressing topics, etc. (Among things I've read, Amélie Nothomb's Les Prénoms épicènes and Leïla Slimani's Chanson douce leap to mind.)

Probably the impulse to have shared experiences with other people--like, to participate in a general interest literary culture, good and bad--is both common and understandable. So it's not surprising that there's a strategically selected/marketed category for it, and insofar as it has genre features, I'm sure that's frustrating both to readers who feel tired of it and authors who might have off-trend texts they're trying to publish. But I don't think MFA programs are the problem with any of that.

Incidentally, I think many of my peak experiences as a reader have happened when I was so far off the map that I could be pretty sure there was no chance I'd have a real conversation about it. It's not that what I was reading was 'better' because it was obscure or whatever, but it was somehow a lot more peaceful--like ... quieter?--when I could just assume no one would care about it. It feels just a tiny bit like going off into the wilderness to be alone for a while or visiting a desert island? I still find ways to share that stuff (e.g. recently, the ~dozen shipwreck narratives that I appreciated most and read more carefully out of like a hundred that I tried), but it's not a puzzle for the social aspect of it to be super minimal.
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:10 AM on November 26 [5 favorites]


And I've thought about asking for suggestions, and hesitated, from Eyebrows observation, at some point I think I'll as for quality book suggestions that are joyful.
posted by sammyo at 9:18 AM on November 26 [1 favorite]


I love good books. I don't really care what label marketing puts on them except when said labelling gets them buried in a pile of crap. For instance, I find it's really hard to find good sci-fi without someone I trust recommending it. And, with regard to fantasy, I guess I'm still waiting for someone to even begin to accomplish what Tolkien did. Hint: I'm not looking for more elves, orcs, dwarfs and related Norse myth infused world building -- he already did that brilliantly. I want whole other worlds/universes that somehow manage to be pragmatic, relatable.

I suppose where a lot of sci-fi/fantasy fails for me is not so much the imaginative part as the human part. I don't care what planet or mystical-magical mirror image world they hail from, if the characters (and their situations) don't connect with me on the level of being sufficiently intriguing to keep me turning pages, I stop turning pages. I'm definitely not one of those readers who has to finish a book. A quick perusal of my apartment reveals at least eight books I'm currently working on -- only three of which I'm pretty sure I'll actually finish, read every word.

And none of those three are what I'd term Lit-Fic.

Sorry, I'm just too burned out on getting deep into some serious somebody's situation only to find out it's just not that serious, it's ultimately less compelling than my own particular problems-challenges-strivings. Or as I've heard it put "if I'm the most interesting person in a particular room, I need to get out of that room." That's how I feel about way too much fiction, particularly those fictions which have chosen to be driven primarily by character.

I mentioned I was in a fairly big deal MFA program not too long ago. I was older than almost all of the other students (and some of the profs for that matter). Which I considered a feature by the way, not a bug. But one of the obvious downsides of being younger is a lack of experience, a shortage of adventures not just embarked upon but seen through to some sort of culmination (even if that culmination is just surrender). Long story short, my experience there was that a writer lacking in real life experience is immediately up against it when endeavouring to write compelling character driven fiction. You just can't fake that stuff, even in fiction.

One notion that didn't come out any workshop but rather from hanging out in a bar post workshop was what a few of us termed the RISE breakdown.

Research
Imagination
Style
Experience

That is, all compelling writing (regardless of genre) contains a combination of these four ingredients. Sometimes one dominates the rest big time. For instance, experience. If you're the lone survivor of a plane that crashed and all the immediate survivors ended up murdering and eating each other -- well, who cares really if your story lacks in research, imagination and style? Just tell me what the fuck happened.

Something that's style dominant is really hard to pull off. Rather like how a great guitar solo can serve a great song but can't save a turd. And if all it is, is guitar solo, well that gets tired pretty quick. For me anyway.

Likewise imagination. Standing on its own, it gets thin quick. People hail Tolkien's imagination, the world/universe he built. But first he had survive the trenches of World War One. He brought the gravity of those horrors to his imaginings and, for me, they hold everything else in place. And don't discount his research, his fully formed grasp of linguistics and philology. And mythology, of course. He knew his stuff.

Which gets us to the R part of the RISE breakdown. Research. The one thing every writer can embrace regardless of age, inspiration, craft -- they can dive deep into the study of their subject matter. Which is the one piece of advice I'd offer any aspiring literary fictionist.

Do your research. Love your research. Get lost in your research. The readers you want are the ones who want to be taken to places they've never been, even if it's just inside the mind (and heart) of an everyday office worker who just happens to be in the midst of a profoundly compelling personal crisis.

By all means write what you know, but if what you know is roughly the same shit everybody else knows, you've got to expand your knowledge.
posted by philip-random at 9:20 AM on November 26 [6 favorites]


Claire Allfrey of The Telegraph weighs in today with "The crisis at the heart of literary fiction." Allfrey says that the shortlists for the Costa Book Awards are dominated by what she describes as "issue-led fiction," meaning topics like racial injustice, climate change, etc.

Allfrey is also alarmed that most of the nominees are women, and suspects that many of the nominees were "selected because of the piety of their subject matter rather than for their consummate storytelling skills." And she quotes literary agent Clare Alexander, who blames this sad state of affairs on the fact that "Most of the tastemakers in publishing are now young women."

Since the Costa Book Awards are for residents of the UK and Ireland, there are probably few MFAs in the nominee group. So maybe the problem with lit fic is too many women instead of too many MFAs?

Ultimately, all the hot takes seem completely off base. The "problem" with lit fic is not MFAs or young women tastemakers for fuck's sake.

Maybe the problem is one of gatekeeping or winnowing. Who will identify the new novel that is weighty but not depressing? That speaks to our world without getting caught up in the literary flavor of the month? That is entertaining but not formulaic?

Sadly, I don't think it will be the Costa Book Awards. It is intended to "celebrate the most enjoyable books of the year," but the blurbs make the nominees sound anything but enjoyable.
posted by lumpy at 12:28 PM on November 26 [2 favorites]


Rather like how a great guitar solo can serve a great song but can't save a turd. And if all it is, is guitar solo, well that gets tired pretty quick. For me anyway.

Maggot Brain. But I digress...
posted by clawsoon at 1:10 PM on November 26 [3 favorites]


I never really fit into my workshops, where it seemed like the instructors' litmus for great art was boring stories about well-to-do white people. Funny how boring, well-to-do white people decided that books about their own lives are the true standard for what constitutes literature, I wonder how that happened.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:11 AM on November 28 [7 favorites]


where it seemed like the instructors' litmus for great art was boring stories about well-to-do white people

I'm white and middle class and once spent about 10 minutes arguing with a fellow workshop participant about whether or not dark coloured sheets could develop salt stains. (A detail in my story but also something I have actually owned.)

He, retired banker, was writing a novel about his year abroad discovering his own superiority, so there you go.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:20 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]


Half-baked theory: Since us white middle-class people are living in Graeber's "utopia of rules", we don't have much in terms of interesting plot in our lives, therefore our write-what-you-know output is going to naturally end up being mostly character without much plot.

And if our lives don't have much that forces us to develop our characters, we might end up without much of that, either.
posted by clawsoon at 7:11 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]


In another context, I have seen that some people in philosophy are questioning if the "moral intuitions" grounding some of their discourse are not possibly just the received ideas of upper-middle class academics, rather than a direct hotline to universal truth.
posted by thelonius at 7:52 AM on November 29


what is a realistic alternative that carries the same meaning so that people know what you're talking about?

There probably isn't one; but in my head I call this stuff "Plain Realism".
posted by vincebowdren at 9:50 AM on December 1 [1 favorite]


Plausible Fiction?
posted by bashing rocks together at 1:18 PM on December 1


frowner, in high school in the 90s I stared reading science fiction in chronological order, after I found a Cuban translation of a Soviet anthology of science fiction stories from the 40s and 50s titled “Historias Soviéticas de Anticipación”.

I asked my English teacher for some 70s recommendations and he pointed me to Asimov and Clarke, but a few days lateras he passed me, literally under the table and wrapped in brown paper, a copy of Woman On The Edge Of Time. Until you mentioned the book here and II could not remember the title and was not even sure if the book existed (googling for gender fluid teenage sex artificial womb science fiction is not as fun as it sounds).
posted by Dr. Curare at 9:22 PM on December 1


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