Success for literary fiction defined


Success? I don’t know if others are in the enviable position of not writing for a living, but I am. Which is good, because I’m what we used to call glacially slow, until the glaciers started calving and melting with climate change. A friend called it ‘at the speed of continental drift,’ which still works.

My concern is that after I’ve put twenty-two years so far into the first two books of a mainstream literary trilogy, I want READERS. Legacy would be nice, but that isn’t exactly an aim, and if you’re not known during your lifetime, you will have to be unbelievably lucky in today’s world to be known because someone championed your work after you left us.

Disability – and now – retirement make writing my personal choice. I always meant to do it when I retired from computational plasma physics at Princeton; disability just made that happen at 40 instead of 66.

I spend my energy parsimoniously – there isn’t much of it, and I want it spent on writing when it is discretionary. I’m sure that if I had managed to persuade a traditional publisher to take me on, the marketing would have still been a problem – most traditionally-published works get six weeks on a bookstore shelf before they disappear.

I would like to see all the hoopla be about the quality and especially accessibility of the writing itself: as I have always found books such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre eminently accessible STORY- and CHARACTER-wise, that is what I’ve aimed to write. Maybe my view of ‘literary’ is flawed or limited (personally, I’m not a fan of ambiguity – others love it, or of speculative fiction – ditto, or of creatively formatted fiction): I want better, more intense, more compelling fiction with care for all the factors that make a ‘good book’. Which is why I appreciate the genre fiction with a literary quality – ‘Dune’ isn’t just SF: it is at least literary-quality SF, at best literary storytelling.

The problem is that ‘literary’ now covers anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere, a common contamination.

Instead of being the fiction that subtly raises literacy – and pleasure. As it was for me as an American child growing up in Mexico, with limited access to books in English and no libraries.

I want READERS. Readers who find what I write better than their usual fare. That’s how I define ‘success.’ It requires that I do a much better marketing job somehow.


To see what I mean by ‘accessible’ and ‘pleasurable’, try the short story prequel to Pride’s Children.

If you like that, consider tackling the longer novels:

Pride’s Children: PURGATORY

Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD



18 thoughts on “Success for literary fiction defined

  1. acflory

    Thanks for including Dune. I read nothing but the classics as a child – another fluid definition – and I see no difference in /quality/ between Crime and Punishment and Dune, or The Woodcarver of Lympus and The Left Hand of Darkness… or The Blind Man of Seville… or Cyteen… or umpteen other works of fiction that transcend the category in which they are marketed [thanks Chris!].

    Imho, the true test of literary quality is longevity. Is a work /remembered/? And if it is remembered, is it because it says something profound about our shared humanity? Those are the benchmarks against which I judge whether a work has that something…’more’.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      If a high school teacher is still recommending a book two centuries after it was created, there is usually something special about it – and analyzing that ‘something’ is worth the time to read and discuss it.

      There was a reason those stories and poems and novel extracts were in the literature anthologies – because you have to tempt each generation. Kids would have read them in school, but I just read – and picked up that special part by osmosis. It’s not just remembering a few words at the beginning or end, or a famous quote – it was the context.

      I had the pleasure yesterday of recommending A Canticle for Leibowitz to someone who hadn’t read it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. acflory

        Ah no, I remember being bored stiff with the books considered suitable at school. I discovered books at eight whilst recovering from an operation. I still remember it, a story about two children who survived a bushfire. That really fired my imagination. Mary Poppins. The Once and Future King, I ran through the kid safe books very quickly. After that, I scoured the op shops and second hand book stores for books. I think that’s how I got my hands on Crime and Punishment. lol Devoured it at 12.
        Like you, I learned by osmosis rather than formal teaching. I fear schools turn children off reading, not on. 😦
        Go you! That is a classic if ever there was one. I’d love to know what they think of it.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          The recommendation was to Calmgrove, if you follow him; he added it to his ‘books to consider for 2023’ list. I was as persuasive as I could be – I consider it a MUST READ, especially for readers with a wider reach than SFF. The resonances are breathtaking – and Miller got them right. Though I didn’t like the sequel published after his death and finished by someone else (at his request, I believe); it was much more parochial and covered a single time in a weird way. I didn’t like the idea of Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee’s early version of To Kill a Mockingbird), so have no plans to read her first draft work. She kept it in a vault – if she’d wanted it published, she had more than enough people pleading for more of her work her whole life when she could make her own choices.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. acflory

          I just had the oddest thought…some of the great scifi written in that era has already taken on the mantle of ‘classic’, on a par with mainstream ‘literary’ writers. There’s hope for us yet. 😀


  2. Lee McAulay

    “Literary” – I like the notion that it’s a mode of writing, not a category. To me it conjures up writers like Virginia Woolf, the examination of the self in minute detail, the what-I-had-for-lunch blog in prose or a thinly-veiled autobiography.

    When I began my blog a dozen years ago, I thought of it more as a site where readers could find out more about my books. Books first -> blog after. Now it seems the other way around, as I have more blog posts than books; but the subject matter of the blog posts is reflective of my story themes, and the posts display my writing style. If readers like that, maybe they buy my books.

    In a way I consider myself fortunate not to have the deadlines of traditional publishing because I have a life beyond writing which isn’t always amenable to deadlines… and it isn’t a golden goose. Kris Rusch had a great post a while back ( which included the quote, “of the 58,000 trade titles published per year, fully half of those titles sell fewer than one dozen books.”


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Imagine! All the work of submitting, persuading an agent (if required) to take you on, cooperating with the publisher, having the long period (1.5 -2 years traditional publishing often takes to publish a book) go by, SEEING your book in a bookstore – and knowing it sold FEWER than 12 copies. Ouch!

      [Examines own record since publication Sep. 19: 19 copies! Already ahead of the game! Not very great, though. Must market MUCH more. But it was less than a year since finishing the text – that counts for something, right? And surgery used up a far bigger share of my time than I expected. Still, get a move on!]


  3. Chris

    “The problem is that ‘literary’ now covers anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere, a common contamination.”

    Yes, that’s true, I’m afraid. I’ve also been fooled a couple of times – once I was asked to read and review a “literary fiction” novel that proved to be some sort of YA coming of age.

    The reason this happens is because authors (and here it should be said: following the cue of agents, publishers, and readers) think of literary fiction as a genre, whereas it isn’t; it’s a mode.

    A genre is something that groups novels together for marketing purposes (though some artistic discourse can exist via transtextuality). As a result, novels of a given genre follow certain patterns – e.g. in plot progression, character stylization, etc. – that can occasionally be very strong. That is, novels in a given genre portray a very strong degree of similarity, which precisely allows intended audiences to recognize (and buy) the product novel.

    The exact opposite is the case with literary fiction. Whereas genre is about similarity, literary fiction is about divergence. Consequently, whereas genre is about inclusion, literary fiction is about exclusion, which is also one reason why it’s so hard to define: It’s not about what it is, but about what it isn’t.

    I mean, surely, we can say that literary fiction usually contains self-reflection, authentic formatting, unique expression, but we will never create an exhaustive list like that of, say, romance or detective fiction.

    Of course, the above also explains why literary fiction should be seen as a mode, rather than a genre, and your text implicitly acknowledged that: A work, though considered e.g. science fiction (likely for marketing purposes), can also portray plenty of literary fiction elements. We could say that it operates in the literary-fiction mode.

    Finally, one word about ambiguity: I know we’re very different when it comes to it (as writers and readers). I’ve known you dislike it, and you likely remember how ambiguity, to me, is the cornerstone of art. Without ambiguity, I argue, without interpretative room, there is no art. A strong expression, perhaps (and obviously only subjectively defined; though I believe it to be true, I don’t assign it an objective value), but if we approached art from an idealistic perspective, we must recognize that, to have the emergence of something new (creative, rather than reproductive imagination, as Castoriadis would’ve put it), some sort of fluidity, some sort of break, is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I agree on one condition: that the AUTHOR gets the break, the creativity kudos – the reader has done very little to cause it to happen, compared to what the author puts in, to be found.

      I’m not comfortable putting in fifteen years of work to let a reader, in eleven hours of reading, be called THE creative. Maybe the work elicits creativity in the way the reader joins up the given cues with what’s in their head to create THEIR version of your story – A creative effort.

      But I did the work – and I’m sharing it.

      ‘Mode’ works well for me – but it skips an important part for MY fiction, the part that tells you ‘mode applied to WHAT.’ If literary mode can be applied to a cowboy romance, do we get Lonesome Dove (not sure here – I never read it), in the same way literary mode applied to SF produces the depth and beauty of a Dune?

      I would have said ‘mainstream’ fiction, but that, as a category, is entirely gone from a whole generation because Amazon doesn’t use it. They’re big – they want to help people find precisely the combination they want to read? – but the potential topics of mainstream fiction come from a matrix so vast it is basically: EVERYTHING. So, no distinction possible.

      So saying I write MAINSTREAM fiction – in literary mode – is fine. Or even COMMERCIAL fiction ditto.

      And in genre, the literary mode dominates in the good stuff, the prize-winners, that which lasts.

      But only in a few cases does literary mode make an author richer – as it takes a LOT longer to produce it – unless the big publishers have decided that a work, such as, say, The Goldfinch, is THE mainstream novel in literary mode of the season, and everyone buys it, and some people even read it. Also possibly because it has no adequate competition? Once the PR money goes into that ONE chosen book? And anyone who complains about turgid prose and senseless plotting is a barbarian?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Marketing takes time, its work, its exhausting, what works is always changing, meaning what works today, might not work tomorrow… there’s no guarantee.

    But the one constant I keep hearing that keeps working, no matter what’s going on in the marketing world of books, is having an email list of readers that like an author’s work and a newsletter. I haven’t tried this yet.

    I’ve blogged and that worked great for several years. The downside to blogging is you spend most of your writing time with blog posts, not working on the next book. To make it work Blogging had to be a full time job, publishing new posts daily. The reason I stopped blogging regularly is because I wanted to write books. I couldn’t do both without giving up sleep.

    Next, I ran BookBub ADs and that worked great for three years. Then BookBub opened its doors to traditional publishers and almost dried up for indies. What used to be 100% indie is maybe 20% now, and if your an indie author exclusive to Amazon the odds get even worse.

    Now I’m spending MANY hours working on Amazon AD campaigns, and it took me several years to learn how to do that right. The mistakes were costly. Then I found the Author AD school and I’m learning from them.

    Back to email lists and that thing called a newsletter. Last month I paid for an online class to teach me how to do it right, after reading several books and how-to blog posts that didn’t sink through my thick skull and make sense. HA! HA! I haven’t started taking the classes, yet. Dragging my sore feet while madly working on my next two novels.

    I also do not make my living from my books or I’d be homeless.

    Keep writing. Keep publishing. But market less than you write and publish, unless marketing is as fulfilling as the writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Anyone who signs up at my blog OR the books’ blog gets an email when I post, with the whole text. That’s my ‘newsletter’ – and I don’t cull or monitor it – I haven’t hit any limits from WordPress.

      Since I’m such a slow writer, it seems silly to post a lot and hope people will buy my books because I send them one more newsletter/post (though I put at pitch at the end of many of them).

      Sadly, most of the signups seem to be internet marketing schemes who never comment, but I have some good fans mixed in, and no need to ‘clean up my list’ – time and energy are the constraints, not number of subscribers.

      I need to know the information is there, well presented, accurate, and up to date – for now that is enough if someone is looking for it. It includes a book club guide for readers, and I can list reviews I like.

      And if I think of something useful and create it, I have a place to post it for anyone who might like to use it – I just got the nicest email from a young writer in the UK asking for a template I wrote that is my summary and interpretation of Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, and helps me write fiction with microtension on every page. We had a lovely back and forth about writing, and it made my day. Sales? Probably not, though she would benefit from reading and seeing how I’ve used the template – it gives me a lot of ideas to think all those potential tension prompts through.

      Hoping it will eventually lead to more readers – but not trolling the internet for them.

      Good luck with the AD school! Maybe – when I’ve finished the trilogy and prequel and some short stories I have planned.

      That is the ‘slow erosion of reader resistance’ method. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lloyd Lofthouse

        “microtension on every page”

        Many years ago, back when paper for printers was one endless sheet of paper with perforations to make it easy to separate into individual pages, I spent months charting all the plot threads and conflicts in Frank Herbert’s Dune. When done, I learned that every page has to have some kind of conflict (microtension). Since then, my goal is to always include some level of tension on every page even if its just a headache that keeps a character from thinking clearly.

        When I printed that plotting chart out, with different colors for different plot points and elements (developing characters, conflicts of all kinds), it was really long. I never measured it but the biggest room in the house was about 15 feet from wall-to-wall and that wasn’t long enough.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Gak! What a huge – and profitable – exercise for you, breaking Dune down like that.

          My version of that was to pick up on Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, Chapter 8 – Tension all the Time, which I turned into a template for myself (which I’ve also shared). He posits 14 separate categories of opportunities for microtension, analyzes them and provides an example of it. It is an invariable part of my ‘process’ to go through that template and fill in EVERY opportunity I can see for increasing the microtension in the current scene.

          But yes. Without that tension, why would a reader turn the page?


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