Writer Career Path #1: Literary Writer
How to earn a living in the smallest category in publishing.
So you want to be a Literary Writer?
“Serious Art” Novels
The first thing you need to know is that Literary Fiction is a legacy genre in the publishing world—and “legacy” is a kind, gentle way of saying “outdated.” Literary business models are archaic. The audiences of literary magazines are a fraction of what they were pre-TikTok (and pre-Internet). It’s the career path (sometimes the only path) students most often associate with becoming a “successful writer” (I fell in this category). And it’s the path professors default to when presenting potential career paths. So, on one hand, it’s the most popular and even most desirable career path from a status standpoint. Everyone wants to be the next Ernest Hemingway or Jane Austen.
On the other hand, Literary Fiction is one of the smallest categories in the publishing world. It has significantly less market share than both Genre Fiction (Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, Mystery, Thriller, etc.), and Non-Fiction (Self-Help, Business, Biographies, History, etc.). As a result, Literary Fiction writers generally receive much more modest advances compared to writers in more popular Genre Fiction categories as well as Non-Fiction categories. This is because Genre Fiction stories leverage popular tropes that appeal to a wider base of readers & Non-Fiction books address practical, informative, or motivational topics that tend to have larger target audiences and higher commercial potential. Whereas Literary Fiction is focused on neither, and myopic in its obsession with “craft.”
In a metaphor: Literary Fiction is like classical music. Highly respected and studied by a small number of people—and a far cry from the Billboard Top 100 in terms of popularity and monetary potential.
So, before you set down the Literary Fiction road, it’s worth internalizing: nobody becomes a Literary Writer “for the money.”
The Art Of Literary Fiction
If you want to become a Literary Fiction writer, that means you want to become an artist.
Literary Fiction writers tend to be some of the most-skilled wordsmiths in the world. Even students in top-notch MFA programs (like Iowa Writer’s Workshop) run circles around writers who pursue other more popular and lucrative career paths—from a technical proficiency standpoint. This is because Literary Fiction is all about the writer showcasing his or her versatility. Plot (the dominant attribute of popular Genre Fiction) gets deprioritized. Positioning in the market gets deprioritized. Even “ease” gets deprioritized—the greatest Literary Fiction feeling more like a mental workout and less like a story for entertainment.
There’s nothing enjoyable about reading Crime & Punishment. And yet, you’re left in awe.
The Literary Fiction Career Path
Becoming a successful Literary Writer has rules—more rules than the other Writer Career Paths.
Literary Fiction is a small, high-brow category where success is primarily dependent on a small number of people’s opinions (publishers, agents, book reviewers, and award judges). It’s sort of the verbal equivalent of becoming a lawyer or doctor. Which means becoming a successful Literary Writer means following rules, more rules than the other Writer Career Paths, that require writers to climb a linear ladder and achieve specific (highly subjective) milestones:
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