Author Caren Gussoff has a post on the SFWA Blog about the differences between spec fic and lit fic. She called out two major differences: that voice/style are predominant drivers of lit fic stories and that lit fic stories are necessarily character-oriented. I agree, and I commented over there with what I see as a third difference. But as it’s also applicable to SF and worthy of greater exploration, I wanted to talk about it in more depth here. And that difference is to what extent your piece is meant to be in dialogue with what other writers are doing.
To explain what this means, I’ll take a spec fic example: The vampire story.
Bram Stoker effectively invented this sub-genre. He introduced a number of tropes: Vampires turning into bats (and, often forgotten, wolves), garlic and crucifixes as repellants, vampires not reflecting in mirrors, and the two means of destroying a vampire — sunlight and staking. People writing vampire stories embraced these elements, and readers of vampire stories came to expect them. Then, almost a century later, another witer (I’ll be honest, I’m not sure who) changed one of the tropes: vampires can go outside during the day, but they’re weak. Other tropes emerged, including rules about how vampire powers work, specific mechanisms by which a vampire sires another, etc. Now readers expect these newer tropes. Then, Stephenie Meyer comes along and changes up the vampire-sunlight trope again, by making vampires sparkle, but all the while embracing many of the other ideas about vampires created by earlier writers.
Now, if you were to hand a typical Twilight knockoff to someone who had never read a vampire story, had never even heard of a vampire, do you think they’d understand it as thoroughly as someone steeped in vampire stories would?
Everything we write — everything — is informed by what has come before, and stands alongside what other writers are publishing currently. You can protest this. You can complain. But you can’t change it. Unless you’re going to create your own language and build up a literature from scratch, the very words and phrases you use were learned and taught using literature, and how we read the language is based on what literature has taught us as the “right” way to interpret this silly symbols on a page or screen.
With lit fic, there’s a deliberateness to this. Writers and editors of lit fic are generally the people who teach writing. They’re always looking at how a story or novel reinforces or challenges our notions of how a story or novel should be written.
Now, it’s easy to dismiss this and say, “This story challenges how a story should be written because it’s better written than all the crap this magazine has published to date!” In fact, I’ve seen this sentiment expressed in cover letters. We have a word for these authors: Unpublished.
(We have several other, more colorful, words for them, too, of course.)
To understand where these authors are going wrong, it’s important to remember that what is meant to be going on is a dialogue among the stories. In an academic conversation, you’re expected to have listened to what has been said before, and build your responses on it. The story that completely disregards what other writers have been doing is akin to the guy who barges into the room where everyone is discussing politics and starts talking about music while handing out flyers for his band’s free show down at the local dollar noodle joint. His band might be brilliant. It probably isn’t. And even it it were, it has no place in this conversation. So rather than expecting editors and readers to bow and scrape at your genius for not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re expected to enter the dialogue by mostly fitting in with it. You’re then allowed, even encouraged, to do a couple of innovative things, which the lit fic crowd will notice and evaluate. If they like what you’ve done, next time you’ll be able to push it a little farther.
Now, in lit fic, this is largely the point. A writer has to be prepared for it, because lit fic is first and foremost an academic exercise. But it happens in spec fic, too. That magazine that publishes low-key, feminist sci-fi and fantasy? You don’t get to burst in with your Golden Age space opera. Even if it’s brilliant. But if you can produce a low-key, feminist space opera, you might just be hailed as an innovator by that editor.
This, by the way, is a big part of why it’s so important to be versed in what’s being published right now. It’s not enough for you, as a writer, to be up on the classics. You’ve got to know what was in the major magazines last month. You’ve got to know what’s coming out from the major SF imprints this year. You need to have read them, and assessed what their authors are doing (particularly the newer authors, who are getting picked up because someone thinks their work is fresh and exciting despite their lack of a built-in fan base who will read anything they publish). You need to see how your work fits (or doesn’t fit) with what others are doing. You don’t necessarily need to rewrite (though if someone inspires you to do so, by all means, follow that instinct), but you’re in a much stronger position if you submit knowing what dialogue the publisher is engaging in and what you have to say in that conversation.
Or, to hearken back to the earlier analogy, you can talk about music in a political discussion, but you need to be able to frame in in the political first.
This, by the way, is one place where I think the cover letter can be useful. I’m not a fan of putting tons of information in the cover letter. (In general, “Thank you for your time and consideration” is plenty, in my book.) But if you can identify why you’ve taken a different tack than the publication usually sees in a sentence, put it in there. For example, “I’m a Lakota Sioux, and I strive to incorporate Indigenous techniques into my storytelling.” Or, “I’m a computer scientist, and I was interested in the way object-oriented information architecture would affect the way an AI perceives reality.” These are things that will make an editor sit up and take notice of what you’ve done that’s unique and different, and see how that innovation could only have come from you. But then the story itself needs to be close enough to what the readers have come to expect from a story to make sense to them without that piece of information you put in your cover letter.
So even though this — I guess we can call it an interfictional dialouge? — interfictional dialogue is paramount in lit fic, it exists in all fiction. And so, this all comes back to the old advice that if you want to write, you should be reading. Lots and lots. Because what you write is going to be read in terms of this dialogue, and you want to be in control of your side of the conversation.