Lit Fic Mags for Spec Fic Writers 102: Is it Literary?

by Caren Gussoff

carenNote: Part One appears here: Lit Fic Mags for Spec Fic Writers 101

This may seem totally obvious, but is actually worth a deeper dive: if you want to market your speculative fiction to literary markets, it has to be significantly literary. Literary markets, though they may protest that they do not like/accept/read speculative fiction, actually do publish fiction with fantastic and futuristically elements all the time. But these stories are also, usually, highly literary. So, before you start packing up stories and entering them into the slush waiting room, you should really discern whether a literary audience is the appropriate audience for your piece…since this is the single most important thing editors will be subconsciously reading for.

Defining “literary” is slippery. If you search around, writers, teachers, and critics have written countless — often contradictory — descriptions of what makes something literary (verses mainstream or for a general readership/”popular”). They discuss everything from what the fiction looks like on the page to the authorial intent behind the piece as “qualifiers” (there’s also the derogatory saws about lit fic: that it is, by nature, self-indulgent, elitist in language and subject matter, or the cookie-cutter end-result of too many writer’s workshops and MFA programs).

In terms of speculative fiction, the shorthand has often been that anything far on either side of the continuum (sword and sorcery on one side, hard sci fi on the other) is usually not literary, while those in the muddy middle — such as urban fantasy, magical realism and soft sci fi, for instance — can be literary.

I don’t think the parameters of what fiction literary is that complicated, and I do believe that high fantasy and the hardest of sci fi can very well be literary (without mentioning the term that attempts to catch-all pieces with weird and literary elements: “slipstream.”)

Fiction with a literary sensibility tends to have two key elements that makes it literary:

  1. Voice and/or style are given precedence as the drivers of the story.
  2. Character rules

Whether it is the narrator’s voice or the authorial voice, the way in which the words are chosen, with thought to the effect, cadence, and connotation, is as important — if not more important — than the plot, idea, or theme. Character dictates in literary fiction, and is supported by voice and style. The style may be applied to the shape of the story itself (it starts where it begins, for example); its representation on the page (lack of indentations in paragraph breaks, use of italics or other nontraditional markers for dialogue or action); by following a deliberate set of parameters or restrictions (omitting a letter of the alphabet, for instance, or repeating the same set of words); or some other method (this list is far from exhaustive). And this applied style does some important work for the story, to deepen/draw out/add dimension/add perspective on and to the character.

What the end result looks and feels like is as different as every writer, every story. Some use these effects in pursuit of verisimilitude, trying to represent internal or external authenticity to a reader. Others are more interested in conveying the emotions of a moment, or expressing something more philosophical or political through the experience of the reading. But in general, voice, style, and character were, in the writing of the story, a more critical means of conveying the story than plot or idea (both or one of which may still be present and strong). As for the two ends of the fantasy and sci fi continuum, there are many sword and sorcery and hard SF stories which are more plot and idea driven than concerned with literary elements…reasons why these two, in our genre, have gotten unfairly dubbed always non-literary. But it is not necessarily true in any way, and there are lots of examples of literary work across the whole genre.

What do you think? Have I missed anything quintessential literary concepts? I’d love to read your comments.

In the last post of this trio,  I’ll feature some of the best (IMHO) genre/weird friendly literary magazines, as well as some great databases that are constantly updated as new mags appear (or disappear.)

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Science fiction writer Caren Gussoff lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and an artist. Her third novel, a post-pandemic apocalyptic little story, actually has a car chase. Publications, awards and mutterings are available at www.spitkitten.com

6 Responses

  1. WHM

    One thing I would add is that lit-fic stories often end in ambiguity or with a minor epiphany. This has become more true of genre short stories, especially at publications that are more on the literary side of the spectrum (like Clarkesworld or Apex), but I think it’s more consistently prevalent in literary fiction.

  2. Elizabeth Moon

    Although lit fic values character-centered work, it seems to me that the interest is in only certain types of characters (and generally characters who don’t interest me much, which is why I know so little about it these days.) Could you comment on the breadth, or not, of character types that are considered worth delving into? And on whether the objection to plot is to any plot, or only to plots that do not derive (as they should) from the characters’ own motivations?

  3. Kyle Aisteach

    Literary fiction is also strongly in dialogue with everything else that’s being published in its genre. (This is true of SF, too, of course, but to a much lesser degree.) Lit fic editors and readers are not considering your story in a vacuum. They’re considering what you’re doing with the choices you make in relationship to what other authors in the field are doing. They’re assessing how well it works, and if it somehow informs how other writers can or should write. Therefore, it’s necessary for the author of a speculative piece that’s being marketed as lit fic to know where it fits in this broader dialogue, and to send it out knowing that it must either deliberately challenge or else fit comfortably into expectations about what a story “should” be. Ergo, it’s essential with lit fic to know the marketplace, understand what dialogue the various publications are engaging in, and submit not based on where a “speculative” story might be acceptable, but rather where the prose itself builds on what the publication has published before and pushes the literary conversation gently in the right direction. Remember, lit fic is the genre of those who teach and theorize about writing. Your story is going to stand or fall much more on its usefulness in the classroom than on what we SF writers would describe as the quality of the story.

  4. Caren

    Kyle: Yes! I agree, almost completely. Not sure if it MUST be in conversation or a challenge to something else. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the greater contemporary rubric. I think these are excellent things to consider when submitting, but I don’t think they are always absolutes, the way style- and character-centric-ness are.

  5. Ashley Borodin

    I just sold my first story to a Literary magazine. It may be a total anomaly, but I’ll share roughly what I’ve gained from the experience through the subtle medium of dot-points:

    * It was my first submission ever
    * They wanted a different ending, I agreed
    * I adapted a chapter from my convoluted and unsuccessful novella
    * The Mag is called Workers Write
    * I discovered the call for submissions on Newpages, straight from a Bing search
    * It was a themed call – Stories from the Cubicle – I got big-time lucky
    * I probably overdid the cover letter
    * I had a few typos, and the ending did need a little work (it was a segue to another bit)

    Some other things: ideology, editorial taste, ‘read us or get out’, etc…

    I may have been lucky because the magazine is targeted at working people who write in their spare time. My writing is pretty grounded in reality and introspection without obvious ideological bias. I happened to have written specifically about a cubicle-worker, total fluke.

    But to drop the false modesty for a moment – I knew exactly what I was doing. I hadn’t read the mag before, having discovered it minutes before submitting, but I did all the research I could – and more importantly all the thinking I could. I also made sure I tailored my pitch to their guidelines – emphasised the cubicle aspect mainly and focussed on the character/story, rather than the broader issues or motivations for writing it.

    I also took a risk and told them I’m outside the workforce, and how I view the workforce as a kind of Wonderland, etc…

    What I conclude from this and my research to date (including this article series) is that the Literary mag scene is varied. If you can connect with the passionate individuals behind the publications, I think you have a better chance of succeeding. I think of them now as special-interest mags, rather than literary. Some are full of postmodern claptrap, but plenty of them aren’t. I found a food-fetishist mag today, for example. A lot of them are fun.

    I’m a bit worried though, that this was a one-off. Especially after reading this article and the comments. Mainly in relation to the zeitgeist stuff – I don’t care what other writers are doing most of the time, especially if it’s fashionable. That may come to bite me on the bottom sooner or later. Especially with regard to modern poetry – if you know what I mean, then you know what I mean.

    I’ve attached my goodreads thingy, so feel free to contact me there, though there’s not much else to say.