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Academic Fiction: A Distinct Genre Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Great literary fiction, enjoyed and sustainable for generations, is not, for the most part, contemporary fiction, a fiction better described as academic fiction.  This is not a trivial, or false, distinction.  Academic fiction has insidiously replaced literary fiction with the result that readers who loved significant, well-created fiction stopped reading, and publishers, eternally concerned with blockbuster commercial success rather than literary quality, no longer considered literary fiction for publication.

Academic fiction shape-shifted from classic literary endeavors when film and TV began to dominate as popular media for the delivery of stories.  Prose writers shifted to memoir and creative nonfiction and abandoned the skills needed to create significant literary fiction.

Academic fiction has surprisingly consistent characteristics: 1) The fiction of authorial self, that is a persistent authorial presence in the prose and limited authorial view, rather than broad view, of the world for characterization and plot richness,  2) Unsophisticated, confusing narration with shifting voices in point of view and unstable morality and credibility,  3) Overemphasis on strident, irreverent  voice rather than a credible voice consistent with a clear, momentum-based prose,  4) Failure to dramatize story,  5)  Overwriting–with the absence of good story, authors strive to impress readers with obscure, excessively poetic prose, and pseudo-intellectual ideation that works against story. 6) Loss of character-based and character-driven plots traditionally created through in scene action; instead, the persistence of fatalistic plots in narrative description altered from real life.

Academic fiction is now primarily produced through workshops and writing courses in universities, MFA programs, writing organizations who use academic teachers and writers, and by many writers believing the skill of reading and writing at any level is sufficient to write great literary stories.  Of course, not all academic fiction is written by academicians and very good literary fiction writers exist and teach in academic settings, but they are rare to find and difficult to identify.  It is also true that there are readers, and careful readers too, who enjoy, even prefer, academic fiction.  Since their needs are amply filled, it's time to devote attention to the promotion of great literary fiction as an art form that will be remembered and passed to future generations. 

New writers' quests for learning literary fiction are thwarted by the emerging tendency of academics to teach creative writing as a mixture of fiction, memoir, and creative nonfiction.  In many workshops, students are accepted to change their memoirs into fiction or polish stories about their past, a trend antithetical to creating literary fiction.  Some prominent editors and teachers have even declared "no difference between fiction and non-fiction" and "write from your own experiences, what you know of your world."  Prominent academicians have also stated that "literary fiction is not for the enjoyment for the reader," "It's dangerous to think of meaning for your fiction," and "I've never thought of literary fiction as entertainment."  Ideas not applicable to the literary fictional story.

The worst effect of not distinguishing literary fiction from academic fiction is that literary fiction requires years of practice and application plus mounds of intellect.  Literary fiction is character-based fiction that drives a plot with significant theme and meaning about what it means to be human.  Academic fiction does not achieve this to any significant extent, resulting in constricted world-view for creation, and often weak characters with minimal dimension. 

For academic fiction, a writer can produce without much practice, and a writer can ignore the honing of talent required for literary fictional story.  For the survival of literary fiction, let the educational systems, and the publishers of fiction, recognize literary fiction and academic fiction as separate genres, if necessary, and give literary fiction the opportunity of rebirth in the contemporary sea of prose production.

Literary fictionAcademic fiction
*Theme and meaning emphasized *Theme and meaning not required
*Story emphasis: beginning, middle, and end * Story discovered while writing
*Dramatized fiction (action, conflict) *Predominance of narrative description of passive events
*Prose with momentum *Abstract, still prose
*Use of personal experience only to stimulate imagination *The fiction of authorial self
*POV choice most effective for story *Overuse of first person POV
*Clear distinction between narrator and character voices *Indistinct narration with multiple voices in POV
*No authorial presence *Predominant authorial presence
*Action dependent, usually in scene *Voice dependent fiction, descriptive and with unrestrained internalization
*Created always to please and entertain reader *Described from authors perceptions with emphasis on clever prose
*In scene conflict and action for objective characterization *Authorial-based character subjective description
*Clear, story-oriented prose *Excessive lyricism, often associated with obscure ideation and strained metaphor
*Concrete rather than abstract *Abstract rather than concrete
*Clear imagined character arcs *Inconsistent emotional character arcs
*Character development integrated and driving plot action *Ignored planning for character development and plot
*Emotional arcs synergistically created to support plot line *Illogical mesh of character emotional arcs and plot line
*Emotions shown through action *Emotions told in description or internalization
*Timeline meticulously considered for dramatic effects *Failure to address narration and timeline
*Minimal back story *Frequent back story often manipulated for cleverness
*Comprehensive worldview *Restricted worldview limited to authorial world

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2 Responses to “Academic Fiction: A Distinct Genre”

  1. Tim Chambers Says:

    As per my previous comment on your February post, I would agree with you in everything you say about the difference between academic and literary fiction. I see no harm, however; in encouraging students to write from their subconscious provided they are taught, as a conscious process, to go back and find the thread of a story and rewrite that as a conscious process. I found that to be an excellent technique in writing my first novel.

    I think of writing as a process of discovering what I have to say as a writer. I write from my subconscious to avoid the sort of cant and white noise that often comes from a more conscious process. I read to stimulate my thinking and write in response to what I read, as I am doing here, and work at it until I find some clarity. Only then do I know what I really want to say.

    I remember, back when I was in school, how we were encouraged to read avant guard fiction as models for our own writing. Books such as Molloy, for example, which are considered great by the academic critics, are terrible as models of story telling. But that is often the sort of thing young writers are expected to respond to. I think a new paradigm is needed, myself.

  2. William Coles Says:

    Interesting how individual the writing process is (and how thought processing differs among humans). Your use of the subconscious is developed for good story telling. There are students, encouraged by teachers, who use the subconscious as a sort of memory tool to provide stimulus for a descriptive process. That seems to self-defeat the goal of creating great literary fiction, which needs form and coherence freshened by imagined ideas. As you've suggested, the subconscious can be used in the creative story process to positive effect for a quality stories. Thanks. Enjoy your thoughts.

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