Writing: literary fiction or literary quality?

*A shorty.


I am not a literary writer – I believe in good writing regardless of the genre.

I have come to call what I write ‘commercial mainstream fiction.’ With literary quality.

The difference between literary fiction and what I call literary quality is that I am focused on plot and character, not language. The language is a given, but I control very tightly to make sure my tiny excursions into literary quality are 1) consistent with the character who is speaking or thinking them, and 2) incredibly short, and 3) not allowed to stop the flow of the story.

I have no narrator – either as an avatar of me or as another character, so I don’t have a place for a voice distinct from my characters where I might write just for the hell of it.

The fiction I’ve seen that is classified as literary has long paragraphs of flowery language rhapsodizing about the quality of the blue of the sky, and it drives me crazy to read.

My touchstone: skimming

Any time you are reading my stuff, and you find you are skimming because I’m taking flights of fancy, let me know. Out it goes. Story is primary.

It takes long enough to get all the points in I want to write: if I add too much beautiful description, the reader will abandon me.

Does that make more sense? Someone today gave me another word to describe the kind of book I’m trying to write – she called books like The Thorn Birds ‘epic’ – I liked that description. I want to write epic.

Epic contemporary mainstream commercial fiction.

None of this is saying anything in literary fiction is ‘wrong’ – it’s just not me. Some people love literary fiction. But it’s too rich for my blood.


*Shorties are me NOT going on and on with an idea for a post. Get in, keep it brief, get out.

Expand in the comments – it if catches someone’s eye.


13 thoughts on “Writing: literary fiction or literary quality?

  1. Janna G. Noelle

    I too consider literary to just another genre – one that happens to emphasize symbolism and introspection and pathos in lieu of other story considerations. Just a different set of conventions and a different set of choices made in how to convey the story. The only thing wrong with it is how hoity-toity some folk get over it.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I think the question is not so much how ‘they’ – the MFA graduates with the florid prose who ’emphasize symbolism and introspection and pathos in lieu of other story considerations’ and those who aspire to the same (I’ve seen eminently skippable long paragraphs in indie stories – and I skipped them, and found that the story was indeed thin.

      There nothing wrong with it – it has a different audience than the one I think will like my work.

      Ultimately, the only thing that matters is that the readers and writers agree on what is what – so they can find each other.

      Some want limpid prose, some want a story to GO somewhere and make a statement, and others want to be so short and staccato I feel I’m under attack. There’s reader for all of us – and some of those readers overlap.

      I just don’t think that having a story means the writing can’t also be of literary quality – the right word vs. the obvious one, the right simile instead of a cliche. But no padding, and no flights of fancy.

      By the way, the ‘literary fic’ types, the real ones – they think they’re the only good writers. We’re more nuanced.


  2. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    I think it’s often hard to decide how to categorize one’s stories.

    Like you, my focus is on character and plot. My words must serve those two imperatives. But I also care about language. I want to convey my story cleanly and with just the right word for both meaning and connotation. Finding that right word never feels hard for me. Each one is always right there at the tips of my fingers while I write, ready to be typed into the file.

    But how do I categorize my stories?

    I care about language the way a literary writer might, but I’m not going to burden my reader (or myself) with words for the sake of words alone. For that reason, I consider myself a genre writer.

    And which genre is quite clear: I write fantasy.

    Determining the category within fantasy is more tricky. I once wrote an entire blog post on the subject. (And took some flack for it, when The Passive Voice picked it up and some TPV readers took exception with the categories I chose. 😉 )


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You should have left the link to your blog post here – please feel free – I think WordPress complains when there are too many links, but relevant ones are always welcome. Saves me having to go dig it up next time.


      I updated my comment policy to reflect this – it just hadn’t come up. I think you can leave 1 or 2 without requiring moderation, if you have commented here before.


        1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

          Cover copy is hard!

          At least, I find it to be so. I must write a dozen different “product descriptions” when I get ready to release a title. And while I like to think that the one I settle on is the best of the lot, I’m always certain that it could be better.

          I’ve gotten guidance on the “how to’s” from several authors who are much better at cover copy than I’ll ever be. But the lack is not in their instruction – which is excellent – but in my novelist’s non-marketing brain. I understand the instructions. I just can’t follow them as well as I would like to!

          I have another post on cover copy, as well as the one you found. You may have already seen it. But in case you haven’t:


          Really glad you’ve found some of my posts helpful. That’s the main reason I post the publishing-oriented ones: to help other writers, passing along the help that others have given me.


        2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Yup – have that one bookmarked, but I’m glad you posted it here.

          I finally figured out the problem: I’m aiming at several audiences, but Amazon will only allow me ONE description. So I have to go for the one with most appeal, and then go to the special places with audiences I want to bring in, and give them a different blurb BEFORE they get to the official one, pointing out why I think they would also like it.

          Marketers face this problem all the time – it usually means creating several different ads.

          There are also the keywords/tags/whatever they’re called – which allow readers to look for what they want. That will be even more fun.

          Words have weight, and connotations, and nuances, and tentacles – and some of my choices are incompatible.

          We do it anyway, but it’s good to know for sure what we’re trying to do, who we’re hoping will read. That analysis is next (though it’s been ongoing as I wrote).

          I am going over your posts, and all the other ones, and those sections about things like cover copy in the books I have on indie publishing – the answer is in there somewhere.

          Curiously, going on Wattpad – to look for one of my alternate audiences – also gave me some insight in how to attract that audience. We’ll see.


  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    I can do first person, and I can do third. If forced to, I might write second, or have a narrator tell a story. I don’t think I’m capable of omniscient.

    Be careful not to read old favorites as a writer. I was rereading Dune, and asked myself that question, and figured out it IS omniscient, and was very unhappy about having spoiled the magic. I will endeavor to forget this.

    I want the logic: a given person, however fictional, is telling/living this part of the story and we are right behind the eyeballs, hanging on for dear life, and loaded for bear. Putting on their persona as a second skin, as it were. More like being a character in a game, I guess I’m not that I’m much of a gamer (by the time they had the good ones, I didn’t have the capacity to move, think, and shoot that fast). Myst was about my speed – before they gave you an automatic camera function, I DREW those places as the kids and I went through them. We still have those drawings somewhere – haven’t been able to throw them out.

    Just don’t tell the MFA graduates that they are just another genre these days, even if that is how Amazon classifies them.


  4. chrismcmullen

    Ep cont ms com fic sounds good to me. Or, rather, the way you described it. 🙂 Soon, I’ll face such challenges. Not sure yet how I’ll handle them, but I’ll take the literary car out for a test drive and find out…


  5. juliabarrett

    What? No third person omniscient??? I’m shocked! Actually nobody really knows what to call lit fic these days. I think it’s just one more subgenre.



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