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What Is Literary Fiction? Literary Editors Share Their Views
by Moira Allen

Return to Other Fiction Genres · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Many articles and books on the art of writing fiction tell you that getting a few stories published in leading literary magazines can do wonders for your writing career. Breaking into the literary magazines can help you "get noticed." And when it comes time to submit that novel to a publisher, having a track record of literary publications certainly won't hurt.

But what, exactly, is literary fiction? While there are hundreds of literary magazines, ranging from top-name publications that have been producing award-winning fiction for decades to tiny zines that spring up (and quite often disappear) overnight, obtaining an actual "definition" of literary fiction is not so easy. Many articles try to define it by stating what it is not: "genre" or mainstream fiction, for example. One book even defines literary fiction as work that would be read "in college English classes" as opposed to "the grocery checkout line." [Source: The Beginning Writer's Answer Book, by Jane Friedman].

Unfortunately, the writers' guidelines posted by many litmags aren't terribly helpful either. While we're always told to "check the guidelines" to determine what a publication wants, many litmags simply tell us that they're looking for "great writing" or ask writers to send "their best stories." Some don't even say that much, but simply specify a maximum word count.

To attempt to answer this question, therefore, I decided to go directly to the editors themselves. Over a dozen literary-magazine editors weighed in on what they believe makes a story "literary," what they look for in a literary story, and what they recommend for writers who seek to break into literary magazines.

It's About Style...

Two qualities emerged as being of paramount importance to literary editors: style and innovation. "Literary fiction for me is primarily based in language," says Marc Fitten, editor of The Chattahoochee Review. "How is the writer using language? A strong, distinctive voice is the first thing I read for. Whammo! Does the voice grab me as a reader and make me read the story?"

According to Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters Quarterly, literary fiction "uses language in fresh ways, and uses form in fresh ways. It does not rely on convention but... on process of discovery. Editors are looking for something that is unprecedented." Alyce Wilson, editor of Wild Violet Magazine, feels that "literary fiction... often aims to do more than simply tell a story: whether to explore a concept or to complicate traditional narrative and character development. Typically, literary fiction offers the reader a deeper look at the human experience."

Often, this means that the structure of a literary story may be experimental or nontraditional. "The writer does not set out to tell a story from start to finish and follow the usual rules of engaging the casual reader's attention," says John Reid of WinningWriters.com. "Instead, the writer's approach is experimental, although it also helps to adhere to some of the current academic precepts such as limiting dialogue (or dispensing with it altogether), and abandoning formal structures of plotting and characterization."

G.S. Evans, coeditor of Café Irreal, believes that "in its broadest sense, literary fiction is fiction that attempts to communicate ideas, concepts, or feelings that transcend the structural elements of the story, e.g., the plot, the characters, the setting. Thus, there have been many exciting and entertaining stories about ships at sea, but a work like Moby Dick is more than that in that it also explores certain symbolic, psychological and metaphysical themes." Alan Davis, senior editor of New Rivers Press, says that "literary fiction renders an experience that has not been rendered before (originality) in language (style, voice, etc.) unique to that experience." He recommends that the writer "enter a theater-of-the-mind, and make sure that you give your reader sufficient sensory detail to experience the human drama unfolding in that theater."

"When I think of the word 'literary,' I envision writing that is entirely memorable, vivid and original," says Veronica Ross, fiction editor of The Antigonish Review. "The language is wonderful. The story can be quite simple, but it will impart a certain feeling when you read it. A feeling of joy, of surprise perhaps. There is nothing predictable about these 'literary' stories. The voice is big."

One word that came up more than once in reference to style was "panache." Kathryn Gray, editor of New Welsh Review, seeks "originality, daring. That indefinable thing: panache." Chris Busa, editor of Provincetown Arts Press, expands on the "indefinable" bit by noting that literary fiction "describes storytelling that possesses creative panache in metaphorical thinking and uniquely individual phrasing, the voice of an interesting mind speaking freshly and authentically. Such voices arrest our attention."

It's About Character...

To many editors, character development was nearly as important as style. "It is usually about characters and 'what happens'... the arc of the narrative -- if there is a narrative -- is driven by the characters' conflicts or desires," says Beth Alvarado, fiction editor of Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. "The best of literary fiction gives us glimpses of the characters' particular worlds and relationships and also opens a 'new' window on to our own worlds and lives and relationships." She looks for "characters that are compelling. They don't have to be sympathetic, but we have to be engaged by them. We want to believe them -- even if they're 'unreliable' -- we want to see the worlds they inhabit, we want to be emotionally or psychologically grounded in their reality -- but there also needs to be some kind of imaginative transformation of 'the real.'"

Ronna Wineburg, senior fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, defines literary fiction as "fiction that focuses on character development, language, metaphor, and, to a lesser extent, on plot... Characters are developed and dimensional." To Wineburg, "uniqueness of characters, description and situation" are particularly important.

"I believe literary fiction is character-driven, not plot-driven," says Regina Williams, editor and publisher of Storyteller Magazine. "Because of this, readers sometimes find the stories have unsatisfactory endings. Literary fiction deals more with the characters themselves and their internal struggles." Such stories, she notes, may not have happy endings -- and may not even have "likeable" characters so long as they have good characters, "even good bad characters." Robert Stewart notes that literary fiction should "confront or have the character confront a moral dilemma."

To John Wang, editor of Juked, literary fiction may be "anything that sheds some kind of insight on the human condition, escapism that ultimately brings you back to the present world in a way, teaches you something about it. You can have literary genre fiction... but that fiction has to do something to shed light on our world, and not only take you away from it. While doing so, it should challenge our understanding of the world; make us question our preconceived notions of it."

Alexis Enrico Santi, editor of Our Stories, explains how these two elements of style and character can be woven together: "Literary fiction is writing that concentrates not on the climax but all the foreplay before and after... It's not exactly that a story about the last time you fell in love isn't interesting; it's that the story is inside of the human element that makes up their actions and the individuals which stand in their way... What bridges the gap between the reader and writer is the essential senses of human emotion: smell, sight, hearing, touch -- these are universal. Everyone who reads is looking to access their own emotions to 'live' inside your fiction. Whenever you are communing with these senses, you will be connecting with your reader."

But What About Plot?

Over and over, editors stated a belief that one of the primary differences between literary fiction and mainstream fiction was that mainstream (including genre) fiction tends to have a stronger emphasis on story or plot than on character. Ronna Wineberg, for example, feels that "most 'mainstream' fiction is plot-driven rather than character-driven." Alyce Wilson believes that "mainstream fiction focuses primarily on telling a story." Beth Alvarado says, "I don't think mainstream fiction... takes as many risks with character, form, subject matter, or style as literary fiction can because its primary concern is the market place."

Does this mean that plot is unimportant in literary fiction? Not at all, according to Wang. "You need to provide a compelling plot. A vivid setting. Everything, really, is rather important." Alan Davis says that "plot is the crucible that reveals character." Francine Ringold, editor of Nimrod, looks for "plots that are intriguing, that are not predictable. A strong sense of place is good, and a novel use of timing is inviting." Regina Williams points out that stories must have "a believable storyline. You have to make the reader believe it's possible."

According to Ronna Winegold, "If literary fiction doesn't have a plot or narrative movement (even just in the inner life of the character), it won't hold the attention of the reader, won't be effective. Beautiful writing needs some glue to hold it together. As an editor, I read stories that are elegantly written, but nothing happens in these stories. One could say these stories are examples of literary fiction, in terms of the descriptive style, but they don't work. The details are authentic, but there is no narrative movement, so we reject these stories, no matter how beautiful the writing is."

Winegold also points out that "suspension of disbelief," so often a requirement in mainstream fiction, is just as important for literary fiction. "The reader has to 'suspend disbelief' in any kind of fiction... Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term, 'willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.' I've always thought in any kind of fiction, the writer has to convince the reader that the narrative is what actually happened or what could have happened (John Gardner says this in his The Art of Fiction)."

This ability to suspend disbelief often enables literary fiction to cross the line into the realm of the fantastic and "surreal," if not directly into speculative fiction. Beth Alvarado notes that "for instance, in magical realism, a very old man with wings may fall from the sky -- this happens in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's famous story, 'A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings' -- and the reader suspends disbelief that this could actually happen and is interested, instead, in how this event affects the villagers, how they treat the old man, and what that reveals about them and, by extension, perhaps us... In George Saunders' story 'Sea Oak,' the protagonist's aunt literally comes back from the dead, but the issue is... what her 'resurrection' means to him, what it reveals about their lives. In literary fiction, I think we're more interested in the characters' psychology, how they react to these fantastic situations and what the stories mean or what they reveal about human nature or about our society."

Despite editors' emphasis on the "experimental" structure of literary fiction, the necessity of having a "plot" brings the writer back to the necessity of being able to construct a story with, well, most of the elements we commonly associate with stories. Regina Williams, for example, sees too many stories where writers "cannot keep the story together from start to finish. So many manuscripts I read fail in that respect. The first paragraph doesn't catch my attention, or they stray off course in the middle or the ending doesn't bring it all together. If any of the three fail, the entire story fails." Her most common reason for rejection is "endings that fall flat." Alyce Wilson also has a problem with poor endings. "One of my pet peeves is unjustified endings. If the ending is weak and/or unjustified, I usually end up rejecting it."

Alexis Enrico Santi, on the other hand, looks for "a winning opening page. It has to move, it has to matter. If it is dry and makes us wait it isn't working. I am looking for a good, beautiful story that makes me learn something new about life. I reject at least forty or fifty stories a month that just don't go anywhere. The pacing and tension are slow... they assume that the reader is interested in continuous tags of dialogue, riddled with unimportant gestures and gesticulations -- they're not important. At the root of every story is what matters. This root can be death, love, friendship, whatever... so the writer has to keep building around that, slowly and methodically, and do so in a way that is going to entertain us. As long as everything points back to your core message, your root, then you'll be fine."

So How Do You Get There?

Not surprisingly, editors had a variety of tips for writers seeking to develop their "literary" voice, but one emerged above all the rest: "Read, read, read!" Joseph Levens, editor of The Summerset Review, adds, "of all that you read, highlight that which you really liked. Read those stories again, critically. You learn more than you think by reading work you enjoyed." Alan Davis advises, "Read, read, read, and read some more, not as a critic but as a writer -- that is, read the way a musician listens to music."

"Read short story anthologies and all those 'Best of...' anthologies," advises Beth Alvarado. "Read literary magazines and journals. Find a writer you like and read everything he or she has written. Borrow some of their techniques; experiment seriously and with intent. Take a class. Keep a writer's journal. Be curious." Christopher Busa adds, "Push your imagination. Develop it like a muscle kept supple through daily use."

"The most important thing is to be well read," says Kathryn Gray. "That means strongly, knowledgeably connected with contemporary literature, as well as respectful and aware of the tradition. Any writer of merit is a passionate, engaged and discriminating reader. I [also] think most writers suffer from over-enthusiasm: running before they can walk. Writing is a long-haul journey. Take your time, develop and hone your craft, make those important mistakes in private before you start sending out. There's no hurry."

"Never give up," says Regina Williams. "Even the most well known authors have gotten rejection letters. Rejection letters should just make you more determined. Read a lot of literary fiction. Learn the craft before submitting. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again."

Alexis Enrico Santi takes us to the bottom line: "Read, read, read everything you can get your hands on. However, don't be afraid. Take some damn chances and be audacious. It won't get written until you decide to cast fear aside and pull that damn trigger. Let your imagination explode all over the page and cry over it, sweat over it, and pour everything you have into that first draft getting your story out and then, when it is all done--go back to it and revise."

And that's good advice, no matter what kind of fiction you're writing!

Ten Reasons for Literary Rejection

  • Stories that are unsuitable for the magazine. (Regina Williams, Storyteller Magazine)

  • Stories that are well written but predictable. Spelling errors can be fixed, but "a prosaic story remains boring." (Antigonish Review)

  • Stereotypical plots. (Francine Ringold, Nimrod)

  • Stories that have not been thought out. (Marc Fitten, The Chattahoochee Review)

  • A weak opening. "If a manuscript does not open with a strong lead, I often only skim the rest of the story. If it does not grab me right away, it will not grab our readership." (Alyce Wilson, Wild Violet Magazine).

  • Too much cleverness. "[Writers] get carried away with their own cleverness and exhaust the reader's patience," says John Reid. "People try too hard to be clever," agrees John Wang of Juked. "Many stories immediately come off as being the work of an amateur because the writer is going out of his/her way to sound smart and funny."

  • Stories in which the voice sounds false. (Chris Busa, Provincetown Arts Press)

  • "Sluggish prose, overwriting, lack of originality (i.e., derivative), lack of texture, weak tone, rambling submissions that evidence no knowledge of the magazine or the type of standard and style we favour." (Kathryn Gray, New Welsh Review)

  • Repeated or careless use of the same word (Joseph Levens, The Summerset Review); overuse of pet names (Francine Ringold, Nimrod).

  • Stories that are otherwise excellent but just don't fit the editorial mix of a particular issue. "For example, we can't publish four stories on breast cancer in one issue or include four stories told by a child narrator. We need a balance of subject matter, style, voice, and point of view in each issue of journal," says Ronna Wineberg of The Bellevue Literary Review. Beth Alvarado of Cutthroat agrees: "We don't want all of the stories in one issue to be about relationships or grief or fishing. We also want some variety in craft: we don't want all of the stories to be from a first-person point of view or to be heavy on narration. Usually one or two stories really stand out, and then we arrange the rest of the 'bouquet' of stories around them, so that the issue has some texture and depth."

The Literary Magazines and Presses:

Here's how to find the magazines and presses cited in this article: [Note: Several publications have closed since this article was written and are no longer listed here.]

The Antigonish Review
Bellevue Literary Review
Café Irreal
The Chattahoochee Review
Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts
New Letters Quarterly
New Rivers Press
New Welsh Review
Our Stories
Wild Violet Magazine

Find Out More...

Getting Past the Gatekeepers: Submitting to Literary Journals - Jocelyn Kerr

To Lit or Not to Lit? - Moira Allen

Copyright © 2010 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


Copyright © 2017 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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