The new impostor syndrome: redefining the literary genre

Single perfect yellow bloom with the words: Quality - who decides. Alicia Butcher EhrhardtRANTING ABOUT CATEGORIES GETS YOU NOTHING

It is funny how the meanings of things change, and with the change, a whole cascade of other meanings change.

Critics have quoted a ‘tsunami of crap’ as coming from the new self-publishing authors; defenders have responded with versions of Sturgeon’s Law: ‘90% of indie/SP/SF/… is crap, but 90% of everything is crap.’

The percentage varies according to the viewpoint and attitude of the critic.

Is literary the new mainstream?

But I digress from the point I wanted to make, and which I’ve mentioned before: that the category my writing used to fit into naturally, mainstream commercial fiction – set in the present or near past, with realistic settings, dealing with current human problems – has disappeared, leaving me with no category to put my non-genre fiction in – except General Fiction.

General Fiction covers too much ground, and makes no implications of complexity or quality.

Those of us in this position who aim for complexity and quality are thus, perforce, labeling ourselves ‘Literary Fiction.’

And ‘literary fiction’ is now considered a genre, much like science fiction or paranormal romance or mystery/thriller.

Who are the ‘literary’ writers?

Which puts me in an odd position of ‘competing’ with the likes of Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie – who are highly literate types of the kind who publish in literary magazines and are pushed by literary small publishers and not expected, necessarily, to sell much. But who may aspire to Nobel prizes in Literature, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Or with the likes of Donna Tartt and The Goldfinch, a ‘literary’ anomaly in that it sold millions of copies.

I feel like an impostor when compared with what I used to assume were the literary writers. I feel less of an impostor when compared with the books that have done the same as mine, crowding into the literary category, but not necessarily supported by the MFA or the professorship in English Literature which used to be de rigeur, credentials I don’t have.

What the ‘real’ traditional practitioners of literary fiction think of this travesty, I can only imagine. It was hard enough competing against all those MFA graduates for the limited number of poorly-paying slots in literary magazines with tiny distribution but with prestige, and now they have to compete with all those upstarts who should have been weeded out firmly by the editors at the publishing houses who were known for publishing literary works.


Possibly, I am reversing an earlier unfortunate trend, in which authors such as Charlotte Brontë wrote ‘a novel’ such as Jane Eyre, which has now become a ‘literary’ classic. They used what they knew: an education in the classics, including Greek and Latin, would have been natural for a parson’s children; their writing reflected who they were, what they’d read, how their world was organized. They were not aiming for ‘literary’ – but simply wrote with the care and knowledge that would be common to their position in society and their level of education.

That education would have been based on reading widely; there may lie the root of my comfort with the idea of classifying my writing as, among other things, literary. My youth was spent reading everything I could get my hands on – including much of what is now considered literary canon.

I found, though, that I did not like a lot of the more modern work. I read Toni Morrison and The Color Purple and Seize the Day and hated their preciousness in focusing on language to the exclusion of plot and characters I could identify with (yes, that makes me a heathen). I read Down and Out in Paris and London, which I liked, but can’t get past page one of Ulysses.

Categories change; we change with them

So I’ve decided not to worry about impostor syndrome and calling myself literary, and assume that the category is broadened, by necessity, to accept us johnnies-come-lately who actually may be hewing to the earlier, classical meaning of novelist – one who writes stories – without going so far as to kick the others off the high end of the island (those who write stories I can’t read because they seem to be missing the ‘story’ part).

De gustibus non est disputandum (no accounting for taste). There’s room for all of us, and, in this day of algorithms, we must make some accommodation for others so we may all be found at Amazon.

We indie literaries probably escape the notice of those who are firmly in the publishing grasp of the real literary publishers, anyway. But I’ve stopped worrying about being an impostor – because I care about the results.

Are you categorizing your writing as ‘literary’? Do you find reading material with ‘literary’ as a keyword? What do you believe the literary writer promises the reader?


15 thoughts on “The new impostor syndrome: redefining the literary genre

  1. Holly Jahangiri

    We’ve imposed scholarly and qualitative connotations on a word that once meant little more than “written, printed stuff meant to be read.” Now we burden the word with notions of “high quality” and some sort of rarified academic merit – as determined by whom?

    Does your work elevate the human condition? Does it invent a new philosophy? Does it cause consternation among graduate students of fine literature as they try to puzzle out the multiple, nuanced meanings layered into your rhetorical devices like Aunt Rosa’s nine-layer bean dip? Does it provide a bored housewife with a few hours’ entertainment on a slow afternoon, as she waits to hear the sound of the school bus brakes outside? Isn’t “quality” to be determined by the buyer – the reader?

    I’d much prefer not to have to classify work. It’s a necessary evil, but one I’d gladly leave to others.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You still have to FIND readers – if you write fiction.

      I’m convinced that’s what I need. The people who have stumbled into the fold have written such nice reviews (in general).

      And yes, I do elevate the human condition, and there are multiple nuanced meanings layered in – but no rhetorical devices.

      Whatever stalls the story – out it goes. Now, this doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to have to wait for the end of the third book in the trilogy to ‘get’ some of those layers. I designed PC to be something you can reread, I hope with pleasure. One reader objected to this. It’s a feature, not a bug. EVERYTHING is connected, but the reader doesn’t have to do the work of figuring that out – that’s MY job.


  2. Janna G. Noelle

    Genre headings are inherently problematic because there is so much blending between genres nowadays. As a writer, I quite like the ability to do this, but as a reader, it can make it difficult to find the sort of reading experience I’m looking for.

    But I sort of feel your pain, though. The heading that I toss around a lot (historical fiction) technically isn’t even a genre (it’s a setting). There is no HF section in Chapters, and while there is one on Amazon, what’s on offer varies greatly, from historical romance bodice rippers to literary works like Wolf Hall and All the Light We Can Not See. Looking through the first four pages of results on Amazon yields nothing similar to what I’m working on (again, because of genre blending), which leaves me in a similar position as you: what the heck do I call this thing?

    I’m really starting to recognize the benefit of comparison titles for situations like these. I used to think it pointless to compare your book to another just like it (why read yours then when another just like it already exists?), but I see now that comps can help one zero in on the unique combination of elements one’s book has to offer (it’s like X meets Y meets Z). Other than that, in your specific case, subgenres might be useful. True, you may be writing experimental literary of the sort that wins all the fancy awards, but maybe figuring out what subgenre of literary you’re in can help send that Imposter Syndrome packing.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author


      I never thought of sub-genres in literary, but you’re absolutely right. I’ll investigate.

      Comps have been very hard because I write with a lot folded in from everything I’ve ever read, Sherlock Holmes to Jane Eyre to Dune (not much romance, though).

      But a new idea may yield some.


  3. Alice Audrey

    I personally run screaming from the word “literary”, but I’m not generally a fain of Mainstream either. Off-beat mainstream, by recommendation, but otherwise I’m firmly in the Romance and SF/F fields.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I love that writers of all kinds are friends – because we write, and have stuff to share. Each of us has a different audience – which means, when it works right, that all readers can find work they love.

      I run from the ‘literary’ of, say, the past 20 years, which is more experimental. I like taking my time (that’s one of the reasons I’m so slow), but it’s to try to make a complicated story possible.

      Shrug. You write what you like to read. And who you are – among many things.


  4. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Possibly, I am reversing an earlier unfortunate trend, in which authors such as Charlotte Brontë wrote ‘a novel’ such as Jane Eyre, which has now become a ‘literary’ classic. … They were not aiming for ‘literary’ – but simply wrote with the care and knowledge that would be common to their position in society and their level of education.

    Yes! Very much this^. As a reader, I loved the older classics, but – honestly – didn’t (and don’t) much like many “classics” from the later 20th century and onward.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Let’s not be impostors together.

      I think some of the modern stuff should just be called experimental or speculative fiction, such as in what happens if you leave out something important like theme (a stream of consciousness is NOT, IMHO, a ‘tour de force’; it is an abomination), or plot (nothing happens – but with possibly ‘elevated’ language), or characters who make some kind of sense.

      I read Khaled Hosseini’s third book, ‘And the mountains echoed,’ and was stunned by how incomprehensible, muddled, and unintelligible I found it. Individual pieces were okay – but the whole made no sense at all, names of characters were repeated (as they do in families) over several generations, the time skipped around all over the place… Maybe he knew what story he was telling, but I gave up, skimmed the rest after a while, and have decided not to read his other books (which are supposed to be much better). I had started The Kite Runner once, but got bored – ‘slice of life’ isn’t a story, however accurate a portrayal. ‘Bad things happen’ is not a theme, even if it is true.

      Sigh. I should probably delete this comment.

      Liked by 1 person


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