This is a guest post by Khanh Ha

Well, what is literary fiction? A slippery term sometimes identified with ‘highbrow’ and ‘pretentious’, it is usually connected with critically acclaimed, award winning fiction. ‘It's those serious-minded novels,’ said Robert McCrum, ‘of high artistic intent by writers with a passionate commitment to the moral purpose of fiction.’ Sounds lofty?

You, as a writer, must have often asked yourself that question.  Readers, those who don’t write, don’t usually ask such questions. Serious readers might ponder this phenomenon, though. And if literary fiction is dead, to your dismay, those readers will seek pleasure elsewhere, obviously not through the reading form of printed words.

So, it’s you the writer who wants to be read that worries. And then the editor who makes a six-figure salary to edit a quarterly literary publication. Nowadays, the editor laments the steadily declining readership, the dwindling subscription of his university-based quarterly. Who does he blame? He blames the glut of the MFA programs by the academic institutions, too many, that have produced a surplus of writers who, according to Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, ‘bored readers with work that is insular, self-centered and often unreadable, when fictions should be concerned with big issues, radiant and reflecting the larger world.’ One thing for certain is the fact that these writers, should they not make it as ultimate authors, would likely end up teaching, editing, agenting. And they are serious readers in this read-no-watch-TV-yes world, unlike those referred to by Gore Vidal: ‘. . . reading of any kind is on the decline. Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half.’ Amen.

So, is literary fiction dead? Not yet. But it’s very sick. Now, don’t blame the MFA programs, the ‘navel-gazing MFA graduates,’ says Jay Nicorvo, who are killing literary fiction. Then what’s killing literary fiction?

Picture a ballroom full of book editors with commercial publishers as their hosts. They’re here to play the game of musical chairs. ‘When the music stops,’ Nicorvo wrote, ‘the editor who isn’t on the acquiring end of a New York Times bestseller—Poor Little Bitch Girl, anyone?—is left without a desk chair.’ Today, editors don’t nurse an author, giving him time over the years to develop his voice, his style to become a family member of the imprint. Tastes no longer dictate what an editor acquires for. He, like an investment banker, now acquires what makes megabucks for his bosses. With this blockbuster mentality, publishers have killed the midlist authors. This mentality takes the mass market’s pulses and feeds the market what it craves. It aims at blockbuster books that pay the bills. Books that might have lasting literary quality bow to books that reflect the current social, political trends.

What has changed drastically is the publishing landscape. Traditional book reviewers have as much impact on a book’s sale as amateur reviewers on Amazon, which is out of editors’ control. The sure thing for them to do now is to model after the movie business: producing blockbusters. This is like the world of dinosaurs when the meteors hit the earth. The dying breed of literary fiction writers now run for their survival by self-publishing their work through print-on-demand (POD) to preserve themselves. Or they publish online through, say,, where writers become eBook authors overnight. Online publishing has become the nesting ground for e-magazines. Look at the growing popularity of indie publishers like McSweeney’s, Tin House, Dalkey Archive, A Public Space. Perhaps printed literary magazines should rethink of making themselves a permanent commodity, instead of just another issue, completely disposable, which costs as much as a new novel.

But don’t blame anyone else yet. Look at the quality of literary fiction recently. Does it excite you? Don’t blame the readers who gobble up thrillers, YA fantasy, horror and crime novels. Why is that? Well,  literary fiction is too boring, ‘if anything ‘too PC’’.

Now, literary fiction isn’t dead. Readers, writers, editors, publishers: give it a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, because if it dies, each of you is to blame.

‘If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry,’ Nicorvo said, ‘aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.’


About the author: Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years he began writing short stories which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. He is at work on a new novel.

Connect with Khanh on his website, blog, Facebook, GoodReads, or Twitter.

About the Author

  1. This struck me as a very interesting and timely article. I think you make some very insightful points about the state of the publishing industry, especially with respect to the declining power of professional reviewers and editors’ desire to find the new blockbuster. I do, however, strongly disagree that literary fiction is too boring, or too PC. This is certainly not true of the literary fiction I’ve been reading. If anything, literary takes more risks because it refuses to adhere to a a more commercial “crowd pleasing” formula.

  2. It is a bit like feeding the kids. Don’t tell ém it’s broccoli and cover it in cheese sauce. The Maltese Falcon is literary fiction, genre and an extraordinary work of art.
    We are creating a tautology by loading lit fic with all the baggage that it is hard to read, unpopular and full of long sentences and big words. In these terms lit fic has to be dying.
    I read the detective genre but not many other genres.
    The problem with formulaic books is they are addictive and so the reader will demand more of the same. In other words they want novels which are not novel.
    And of course, internet retailers base their marketing around the concept of genres.
    For all this, lit fic dominates many conversations on Goodreads so I am not too worried. More concerned about mid-listers becoming the de-listed.

  3. I have issues with a few things in this article. For one, it – ironically – needs an editor to point out a few inconsistencies.

    A commitment to high artistic intent in a work of fiction can be devoid of any moral objective or rumination, case in point, much of what we term Post-Modernism. There is the ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ school of thought, which positively turns its nose up at the slightest whiff of moral instruction, striving instead to perform literary gymnastics with the text much to the alienation of so-called uninitiated readers, the if-you-haven’t-read-so-and-so-you-won’t-get-it school.

    With or without these characteristics in a work, ‘literary fiction’ has shrunk, but why aren’t we looking closer at the readers? It’s not like they’re not influencing the market. Of course, we can’t deny some of the economic forces that are making for less elbow room for new authors at the various publishing houses, but the fact that they’re choosing to publish specific content speaks more to the readership rather than the homage-ridden, insular, vanity projects that MFA programs usually churn out.

    Another point I’d like to make: people were reading less in the 1950s. For Americans, this represents an astounding increase of 47% in readership in 2005 compared to just over 20% in the 50s. These are from Gallup surveys, and can be found anywhere online. The quality of the books is another thing, which I say again, speaks more to the reader than some clandestine conspiracy by publishers. Readership brings up a lot of questions about education, quality of living and so on – just things to think about and needless for me to go into.
    I think technology has more than risen to the occasion to meet the demands of modern living and maybe even to create a little demand, seeing how easy it is to get books online, legally or no, but also how less cumbersome they can be to carry around. E-readers can adjust the font size, contrast, among other things, not making the reader confined to the physical (and maybe even excluding) parameters of the physical book – it may even represent CARING on the part of publishers.
    So, as you can see, there are many more factors to be considered. I will mention one more, this one coming from Neil Gaiman, who is a successful genre writer, insofar as he makes his living doing nothing but writing (editor’s note: not entirely true – he tours quite a bit). I’m sure Neil hates the term “genre” writing, preferring to consider himself as simply a writer. Anyway, Neil mentioned in a Tweet not long ago that among the rare figure that
    contains published authors, a small percentage (maybe 1-3%) of that already minuscule percentage – involving writers who have merely, actually been published in the first place – actually make a living EXCLUSIVELY off of writing fiction.
    The world is large.

    (I took the liberty to make some quick edits as this was typed on a Blackberry. Apologies for any typos etc.)

  4. The literary fiction the Life of Pi is set to be a massive popular hit as a movie.
    As for independent bookshops dying, that is most unlikely. I will take that large bet with you that both lit fic and indie bookshops will be doing quite well in 10 years time.
    Isn’t it terrible that lit fic writers expect the reader to bring some energy and thought to reading their books. Far better to be manipulated like a Pavlovian dog, lapping up the same ol’ same ol’ of genre. I would have thought a genre writer is pretty condescending to their readers in wtiring the same book 20 times.

  5. I dont think that literary fiction can die, there would be still many left who would love to read such great work!

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