12.5: Literary Fiction

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

This week we talk about the genre of Literary Fiction. Our first hurdle is the word “literary” whose use in this context can imply that all other genres are somehow not literature. In that vein, then, we’re talking about mainstream, or “non-genre” fiction which is crafted with close attention to the finer points of the prose. After framing our discussion, we dive into the nuts and bolts of writing in the Literary Fiction genre.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


You drive your spouse to the airport and watch them fly away on a trip. Then you go straight home, and find them there in the house, sitting at the computer…

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (print and ebook available here)

16 thoughts on “12.5: Literary Fiction”

  1. I’ve wondered if a lot of literary fiction are stories driven by the protagonist, while a lot of genre fiction is driven mostly by the antagonists, and protagonists have to discover what is going on.

    In the latter, the antagonist has a plan and knows the most about what’s going on, the protagonist is largely left to react to it until they can turn things around. It’s reactionary. While with literary fiction typically is where protagonist has a plan, knows the most about what’s going on, and the antagonist reacts to it. It’s progressive.

    So if you want to portray people who are trying to change the world as the bad guys, write genre fiction!

  2. I just wanted to pop in and say how happy I was to hear a shout out to Delaney! Loved this episode – I’d love to hear more about some of the techniques used in literary fiction (like the setting as character example) drawn out over a full podcast.

  3. Great episode. Nice to hear the new voices chiming in.

    Hopefully there won’t be a descent into argument, but for what it’s worth, here’s my thoughts on this.

    Literary fiction isn’t a very useful term, as pointed out. Mainstream or general fiction are terms that sometimes works better, although I still sort of suspect this isn’t quite getting to the heart of it either. Part of the problem is that the ‘literary fiction’ published in a lot of small presses is a genre unto itself, which means we tend to confuse the literary fiction genre with the use of ‘literary fiction’ in a broader sense to mean either ‘general fiction’ or ‘good fiction’, for a given definition of good, or maybe ‘word-crafted fiction’. If genre represents a set of tropes readers are familiar with, bleeding into archetypes, the sort of ‘Litfic’ stuff I’m thinking of is often both trope-driven and (often) quite dominated by masculine voices. There’s often a lot of Yang, very little Yin. For some examples of the sort of ‘literary’ tropes I’m thinking of: the ageing (usually male) university professor who is having an affair with a younger (usually female) student as a part of his life crisis / the adult (usually male) big city escapee returning to visit the small town where they grew up / the artist struggling with lack of success and mental health problems (this one usually ends up standing in the rain at the end of the story, experiencing some sort of mild life epiphany). So, anyway, I don’t think lack or presence of tropes alone is a very useful yardstick.

    Both Moorcock and Le Guin in their various essays have used a Realistic / Imaginative dichotomy, where realistic fiction is attempting to generate a verisimilitude of the human experience, whereas Imaginative fiction is more obsessed with possibility, novelty, the weird. The divide here is perhaps between ‘what is it like to be’, and ‘what might it be like to be.’

    This may help a little, but I think we need to add another layer onto this–poetic and prosaic–which addresses the level of writing that is focused more on sounds of words, rhythms and cadence at one end (poetic) and a clear, untroubled experience of the narrative dream at the other (prosaic).

    So, anyway, I think you can have any combination of these. Prosaic realistic, prosaic imaginative, poetic realistic and poetic imaginative, and it’s all a sliding scale too, so that some works are borderline or drift from one sphere into another.

    A third dimension, if we want to create a cube, is challenge vs entertainment (which Mary touched on). Or possibly, philosophy vs escape. This plays into the fundamental emotive reward. Being challenged and changed at one end. Obtaining some respite and relief, excitement and entertainment at the other.

    Let me see. Very roughly I might divide up a few of the more ‘literary’ SFF authors like this:

    Poetic imaginative escape = Bradbury
    Prosaic imaginative philosophy = Vonnegut
    Poetic imaginative philosophy = Le Guin / Atwood

    I’m simplifying vastly of course. There is life philosophy in Bradbury, especially works like Dandelion Wine, and Vonnegut can pull out some beautiful turns of poetical phrase. Le Guin’s Earthsea books or her Gifts, Voices, Powers series are a touch more prosaic, whereas Always Coming Home is firmly in the Poetic camp.

    So. Yes. Anyway. That’s my take on it. Ramble, ramble, mumble, mumble and so on. That may or may not be useful to anyone else, although looking at fiction in this way has tended to help me think about where I want to be coming from with a given work etc. It tends to break it down a bit into something more comprehendible than a nebulous fiction / genre divide.


  4. Great episode, but I wish they would add the authors and books that they mention to the show notes as it can be difficult to correctly spell the names of authors/titles and then try to find them.

    Two authors that I couldn’t catch the names of were (what sounded like):
    – Beau Jeweldon/Jouldin (they mentioned her Miles/Myles Corsican series/character)
    – Nora/Kay? Jamieson

    Can anyone help me out with those authors names?

    Other authors/books mentioned that I know or could find online:
    Ursula Le Guinn’s Steering the Craft
    Jo Walton
    Cory Doctorow
    Helene Wecker’s The Golemn and the Jinni
    Patrick Rothfuss
    Joseph Delaney


    1. I’m not sure who the first author is, but the second one is NK Jemisin. I’ve read the first two books in her broken earth trilogy (starting with “The Fifth Season”) and can confirm that they are quite good.

    2. Nora = N. K. Jemisin. She wrote The Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, Kingdom of the Gods), the Dreamblood duology (The Killing Moon, The Shadowed Sun), and has published 2/3 of her Broken Earth trilogy (The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate; the 3rd is due out Aug 2017), and a bunch of short fiction. She is AMAZING. The Killing Moon is one of two books ever to make me cry (in a good way).

  5. Setting as a character brings Dune to mind. Arrakis sits there in the background dominating events. If my memory serve, there is the planet Perlandra by CS Lewis. Both very interesting view of religion.

  6. Yay! I am so happy right now. This is easily my favorite WE episode ever. I write non-genre fiction (I’ll avoid the term “literary fiction” for now) and although I glean something from each podcast, this one really met me where I am. May we have a Part 2 please with more nuts and bolts? Creating a strong sense of place. Word choice. Cadence. Sentence structure. Whatever else the hosts think would be helpful. Thanks for considering it!

    1. Yes, please +1 for the nuts and bolts of being more literary.

      I mean, what does it even mean to treat your setting like a character?

  7. The Chicago Foursome are at it again! This time, with a podcast all about literary, whether that’s mainstream or genre, and some of the writers and methods they use. What do Samuel Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, N. K. Jemison, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Helene Wecker, and others have in common? Stained glass windows? Well, read the transcript, available in the archives or over here


    and you’ll see what they are talking about. Baroque, rococo, a bit of gilding, or just plain transparency? It’s your choice!

  8. I’m really enjoying this season with the new hosts. This episode was helpful in figuring out why I like the books I do (for reasons that have nothing to do with genre). The definition of literary – focusing on language, structure, and form – is also super useful, I think.

  9. I would just like to point that I don’t believe that you can tell a story without using some tropes, even a mainstream story. This is because tropes are how we convey ideas. The tropes in mainstream fiction are less noticeable because we use some tropes to describe what is going in real Life.

  10. Did I miss something? Was there any discussion of the actual book of the week, Midnight’s Children?

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