Lessons from AWP: There’s really no pot of gold on the other side of the wall

AWP was very revelatory. I went to a bunch of the popular fiction themed panels, just because that’s a place where I have a hand in. And at a few of them, I heard genre-affiliated people rail about how they don’t get any respect and how the literary establishment should let them in. That’s not a new song, obviously. One hears it all the time on the blogs of SF writers and critics.

But at the conference, I also started to get a sense of what the literary fiction world is like. It was very interesting. There was a palpable sense of desperation hanging over the place. This was not a fan convention. Everyone there was a writer. Everyone was on the make. Everyone was hustling. Everyone was networking. And there was a very real sense that almost no one was going to “make it.” I wouldn’t say that the rhetoric was downbeat, but you just felt in the peoples’ body language and in the tenor of their conversation and in the panel titles* just how desperate people were.

And that’s the literary establishment, people. Genre fiction people rail about the “genre ghetto” as if there’s some beautiful golden metropolis on the other side of those ghetto walls. But there’s not. Literary fiction is just another slum. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s less healthy than SF. Both sectors sell roughly the same value of books every year (as I recall, they’re both about 6% of the total publishing market…and that’s 1/3rd of the share commanded by romance novels).

Yes, literary fiction controls many of the engines that give cultural prestige to authors and works. And it does feel good to get that prestige. But it’s not everything. I mean, what does literary fiction really have that genre fiction doesn’t have? I can only name a few prizes:

  • 50ish slots each year for short stories in the New Yorker and a few more slots in the Atlantic. These magazines reach literally one hundred times as many people as most of the top literary journals (the Paris Review, Tin House, McSweeney’s, etc) and science fiction magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, etc.) Being published in them is pretty much the only way that a short story writer can get their work in front of the eyes of someone who doesn’t normally read short stories.
  • Roughly 25 openings, per year, for entry-level fiction professorships (and a few more unadvertised or mid/senior-level openings).
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • The National Book Award for Fiction
  • And then a few other bonus awards—NEA grants, post-graduate fellowships, etc.
  • The ability to foist a person’s novels onto high school and college kids.

All that stuff is great. And it’s real and concrete and wonderful, if you can get it. But who does get it? All those things go to maybe 50-100 authors a year. Everyone else has to scrabble around in the dirt, either relying on their book sales (just like genre authors) or working a day job.

I think it absolutely would be nice if some of genre fiction’s less-commercial writers were more competitive for professorships, because god knows they’re not earning a living by selling their books. And that’s a fight worth having. To a large extent, it’s a fight that’s been had. A fair number of genre writers (John Crowley, Kij Johnson, John Kessel, Nalo Hopkinson, Brian Evenson, Samuel Delany, Kit Reed) are sitting inside creative writing departments and that number will probably increase a bit in the coming decades.

But I don’t think this is a fight that’s worth getting so frothing angry about. I mean, so you’ll find it a bit harder get published in the New Yorker? So what? Most literary fiction writers will never get in there either. So you’ll find it very difficult to win major literary awards. So what? Most literary writers won’t win them either. People talk about the literary/genre divide as if there were numerous lives and livelihoods at stake. They call it a matter of segregation and ghettoization, but it’s not. Those things affected millions of people. This thing affects maybe 50 people a year. Yes, it’s sad that Cat Rambo is not competitive for professorships and that we’ll never see a Ted Chiang story in the New Yorker. But it’s also not really that big a deal**. And correcting this injustice is definitely not worth my time.

*Examples (all of these are just from Thursday morning)

  • Landing the Tenure-Track Job without a Book: What to Expect in the Job Market
  • Getting That First University Teaching Job.
  • Only Half as Crazy as We Seem: Exploring Unconventional Strategies for Indie Lit Startups
  • Literary Writers Writing Popular Fiction: What’s Up With That
  • What I Wish I Had Known in Grad School About the Two-Year College – (A panel about teaching in community colleges)

**Also, as I noted last year, genre fiction does have _some_ rewards that are denied to literary fiction

Sidenote: Literary authors are also guilty of this same sin. Many seem to think that all commercial fiction authors are rolling in the dough. Not true. I guarantee you that for every Tom Clancy, there are a thousand extremely frustrated military history buffs who are toiling away as insurance adjustors because their novels tanked (and for every one of those thousand, there are another thousand military history buffs who couldn’t even get their novels published)

4 thoughts on “Lessons from AWP: There’s really no pot of gold on the other side of the wall

  1. debs

    Nature claims a readership of 400 thousand. That’s pretty cool. Actually I never thought that the literary scene was paved with gold (perhaps because I’m off the academic track). I always thought there was more money in genre. And I know (internet know) people who have been published in the top magazine and have won awards. I’m not knocking the literary scene, but I never thought it was any better/easier/richer than spec.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Nature does have a lot more readers (and wayyy more general readers) than most magazines that publish short fiction, but nothing ever seems to come from being published there, whereas getting a story in the New Yorker often results in reviews, calls from agents and book deals.

      Yeah, I think what people mostly envy about literary fiction is its cultural capital. Being canonized and getting taught in high school and all that stuff is pretty heady. And while it’s not impossible for a genre writer to achieve that, it is much more difficult. But still, that only happens to an incredibly tiny number of people. If you write genre instead of literary fiction, your odds of it happening might be .001% instead of .007%, but that’s still no reason to cry.

      I think it’s harder to make money as a literary writer because even if you’re a popular writer who sells 50-100k copies of each book, it’s just not culturally appropriate for you to write as many books as a genre writer can. There is _no_ literary writer who puts out 2-4 books a year. Even putting out one book a year is kind of a scandalous level of productivity.

  2. sunscald

    A hearty “agreed” from me. Writing seems to work like most of the marginalized departments of academia. It’s as if it’s because there are so few jobs, slots in major publications, etc. that people get so shouty over boundaries and turf-claiming. Because it’s easier to complain about those things we have the illusion of control over than it is to admit that the whole system is broken for all but those lucky 25 people a year, plus the (what, 7 SFWA members at last count?) rare few writers able to make a living off their work.

    /end screed

    It was a pleasure to meet you finally!

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      My impression is that there are a fair number of SF writers who make a living from their fiction. It’s often not the people you’d expect. What it really comes down to, sometimes, is whether you’re willing to live, year after year after year, on 25k (or less!)

      Also, a numbers of writers make enough money from writing that when they combine it with part time work, spousal income, or freelance/consulting work, they don’t need to work a traditional full time job.

      But yes, on a broader level, it’s really hard to make a living as a writer, particularly if you’re an uncommercial SF writer (i.e. you’re not writing extended series).

      ALSO, it was great to see you!

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