« Back to post listing

Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Twenty years ago, avid fiction readers eagerly opened mailboxes looking  for the New Yorker to arrive to flip first to the fiction page assured of finding an engaging, well-written literary short story.  But things have changes.  Ask readers today how many New Yorker stories they like: "not many,"  "one in ten," "I stopped reading short stories in the New Yorker."  Short stories in other magazines have failed to attract readers too.   Story went defunct.  The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction.  And many small presses have failed.  One would have to assume that readers weren't reading because the quality of story failed to meet what literary readers expected.

Most contemporary short fictional stories are structured differently than those that evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries.  A study of great literary fiction (fiction that is reread for generations and has meaning) shows relatively consistent characteristics in an author's approach to writing.  These writers seek theme and meaning; accurate, sophisticated narration of story; exploration of what it means to be human while writing with an expanded-view of the world and a broad knowledge of humanity.

In the main, academic teachings of today have failed to create writers who can make a difference on the page.  Academics encourages writing about self.  Here are quotes from teachers of creative writing classes and workshops: "I want to read about you."  "Write about your family."  "Write from your view of the world."  "Isolate yourself and let the character emerge [rather than you create] from your subconscious."  "Write only what you know, what you've experienced."  "Don't write knowing where the story is going or ending, it stifles creative impulses."  "I see no difference between creative non-fiction and fiction."  "[As a fiction writer] ask: Where am I in time and space?" A writer is taught to frame a story from his or her view of the world.   It has brought success to many writers, but it has snuffed out availability of great literary fictional stories and turned away literary writers longing for the careful creation of story as an art form.

In essence, academic teachings have produced writers of self.  Even when "imagining fiction," these writers describe memories of humans for characters, memories of events for plot.  The storytelling is all me, the author, telling so that even in a narrator's or character's point of view, characters and their actions are described with the author failing to reach beyond self into the value of collective thinking and human experience of the time.  Most great fiction is told with an expanded view of the world beyond the author, and usually has theme and meaning of what it means to be human.  And although there is variation, great fiction also seems to have a foundation on the unanswerable metaphysical questions—Who are we?  Why are we here? What is justice? Why do I suffer? Does God exist? et cetera—that change readers, enlightening them in ways so that they will never see the world again as the did before reading.

In an interview, Graham Greene quoted Joseph Conrad who said: "Literature is a contrived process of forgetting." And Greene expanded on the idea: "The power to forget is part of the created thing too. It comes back from the unconscious in another form. It's a difference in a way between the job of a reporter, and that of a novelist. It's yours [the journalist's] to remember, mine [the novelist's] to forget. In a way what one forgets becomes the unrecognized memory of the future."

Embracing creative imagination as opposed to describing memory, so antithetical to contemporary workshop teaching, results in fiction with unique, often complexly-profound characterization and stories with purpose to present new, stimulating ideas about our human condition.   Imagined fiction has great potential in story creation.  Memoir (and creative non-fiction) restricts writer choices to produce–through prose and drama–maximum effects of intellect, emotion, and meaning on the reader.

Writers of self have generated a critic's comments at a conference about writing contemporary literature: "I don't want to read about another author's telling of [his or her] dysfunctional family or abuse-laden childhood."  Of course, family and childhood are valuable sources for literary stories, but only with an objective writer creating from a broad view and knowledge of the world that allows a reader to engage and evolve with a character rather than simply be told a character's feelings or events, often related to salacious or shocking revelations.

The literary story, both novel and short story, may have reached its pinnacle as writers of self have successfully inserted memoir and creative nonfiction, even autobiography, into what is presented as literary fiction, and teaching programs have prompted the writers of self with the insidious effect that great fiction with meaning and longevity is rarely promoted and published.   Writers of self, like a federal bureaucracy, form alliances that sustain them in writing their view of the world.  What the reader of literary fiction needs is well-trained storytellers creating stories with objective, broad views of the world imagined from a studied, deeply considered knowledge of what it means to be human.

You may find these interviews with Butler, Shepard, Carlson, Spillman and others interesting. They provide insight into the differences in the ways authors think about writing.

Email This Post Email This Post

Tags: , , ,

« Back to post listing

6 Responses to “Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence”

  1. Tim Chambers Says:


    I agree with you about the paucity of good literary fiction today, and the plethora of bad academic fiction. But what are writing students going to write about today if not their own limited experience or their dysfunctional families? Most of them don't exactly live lives that equip them with with something interesting to say? I think one of the reasons vampire and werewolf fiction are so popular with young writers today is that in their lives they have no models of great literary characters, so they imagine them in the supernatural, but these are just costumes manifestations of mundane people they know. It's all fan fiction in a way, which is a place to start, if not a good one.

    It might be better if they could be trained by reading a few great books and writing their responses to them, so they could start thinking of literature as their part in the great conversation, but how many of them would be capable of it?

  2. William Coles Says:

    Well said. It does seem that literary fiction does benefit from writer's with life experiences. A prominent editor of a literary magazine suggested to summer workshop students that after college, rather than sequestering in an MFA program, that students get out and live life. Something like work in a canning factory, or climbing a mountain. That wouldn't work for most writers, but for those with potential it may be good advice. I think it might help young people to examine their goals as writers. Those whose goal is to be a writer take a different path from those who want to create well-crafted, entertaining stories with meaning. The removal of recognition and financial rewards as goals keeps focus on the process of writing great fiction, a process that takes time and commitment, and a process that is hindered by the need to be published. Your observation about reading great books is right on target, and it's where a writer can learn dramatization, sophisticated narration, and learn to develop and apply imagination to create effective stories. But there is no easy solution for a writer, as your accurate analysis points out. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Peter Lowry Says:

    I hate it when peole tell writers only to write only about what they know. Does tnis mean JK Rowling is a witch, jackass?

  4. Linkdump – One hundred percent Hugo and Clarke Award free | Cora Buhlert Says:

    […] Editor's Opinions, William H. Coles attempts to answer the question why contemporary literary fiction is so often so du…. At the creative writing classes I attended at university, this problem manifested itself in a glut […]

  5. Ornello Says:

    Contemporary literary fiction is a disgrace, unreadable crap.

  6. Ornello Says:

    The idea that one would go to college to learn to write is ludicrous.

Leave a Reply


Visit main site
  Story in
Literary Fiction
Learn the art of writing great literary fiction:
Newsletter published every other week
New: Graphic Novels

Graphic novels: Homunculus and Reddog
New Novel
McDowell by William H. Coles Read a free sample!
Available in print and
eBook at:
Barnes & Noble
and select bookstores!
Story in Literary Fiction Art Gallery