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Opinion: Where Is The Great Indie Literary Fiction?

Opinion: Where is the Great Indie Literary Fiction?

Dan Holloway head and shoulders

ALLi's News Editor Dan Holloway

ALLi's News Editor Dan Holloway, author, poet, journalist, campaigner and performance poet, writes with characteristic passion about why it's important for both authors and literary award organisers to embrace self-publishing as the natural home for literary fiction.

Where is the great indie literary fiction? In short, it is nowhere. Or, if it is somewhere, we have no idea where, and until literary awards and media get their act together, that will remain the case.

Literary fiction has been on ALLi’s mind a lot of late. And it has never really been off mine. But three things have converged in the past couple of days to prompt me to write this, more as a plea than anything else.

    1. On Wednesday, Eimear McBride took part in a Guardian webchat. She is, of course, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which won five major awards including the Goldsmiths Prize, set up to celebrate novels that push the form to its limits (but closed to indies). But, famously, she very nearly didn’t get a publisher, finally hooking the brilliant Galley Beggar Press after many years. I asked her if she thought the book would have got the recognition it did had she self-published. Her answer was that she thought it would have sunk without a trace.
    2. On Saturday, I was privileged to take part in a panel at Triskele Lit Fest (alongside Galley Beggar’s founder Sam Jordison) called Preserving the Unicorn, talking about uniqueness in literary fiction, specifically how I am working to preserve the uniqueness in my role as editor of Rohan Quine’s stunning new novel The Beasts of Electra Drive.
    3. Before that, I was at the City and Guilds MA show, where some beautiful pieces by my friend and collaborator of old Sarm Derbois were being shown. We had one of those wonderfully intense, frank conversations you can only have with fellow artists who believe that art should bend for nothing.
      Each of these things has made me think about self-published literary fiction. Not about where the great literary fiction is. There isn’t any (then again with a gun to my head I could probably only list 3 great literary books published this century – White Teeth, 2666, and House of Leaves – “Girl” will almost certainly join the list). But about why it isn’t there.

Let me rewind a moment. I am sick to death of the fact this paragraph needs writing but it does:

I love genre fiction. I write genre fiction. Genre fiction can be great art. But what I don’t love is the anti-intellectualism that attends some elements of the literary/genre debate, which shoots down anyone who mentions “art” for being arrogant, which makes accusations of snobbery, which patronises or belittles the experimental, and has no place for anyone who wants to take their place on the wider historical stage.

So, let’s get clear what I’m talking about. Great literary fiction not only does change the world. In its own way it sets out to change the world (of course not all lit fic writers set out to change the world. Not all set out to write great literary fiction, and that is absolutely no negative reflection on them or their writing and I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO SAY THAT). However small that change, it has an awareness both that it is part of something larger and that it is contributing its own footnote to that larger thing. It has something to say, and it attains greatness when that utterance finds the technically perfect medium for expressing it.

And in the current self-publishing era, unlike with genre fiction (Becky Chambers’ Long Journey to a Small, Angry Planet being the obvious example), there simply isn’t any.

Photo of Joe reading before an audience in Blackwell's bookshop

Performing his improvised punk rants at Blackwell's in 2010, Joe Briggs writes the closest I have ever read to great self-published literary fiction. If only he'd write a novel.

That’s not to demean my fellow literary fiction self-publishers. But it matters. It matters because too many people (and discovery websites) will tell you there is. And that does readers a HUGE disservice. Because they will stop trusting us.

There is a lot of very good literary fiction self-published. At least the equal of a lot of traditionally published work. And that’s fabulous to read, but it’s not great.

The problem is we have found ourselves in a Catch-22 that McBride’s comment captures perfectly. Many readers who want to read this kind of book still go for their recommendations to the prize lists, to certain places in the media. So as long as they remain closed to self-publishers, those who are most likely to produce great literary fiction will be most likely to go the traditional route – and the growth of fabulous small presses means they are more likely than ever to succeed. Yet because there has been no great self-published literary fiction, those prizes have little reason to open up. All the more reason that when they do, as the Young Writer of the Year has, writers consider self-publishing and entering.

Cover of Cured Meat by Polly Trope

Polly Trope's “Cured Meat” is the best self-published literary novel I've read

There are people self-publishing who have the potential to write something truly great. Rohan Quine is one of them (if he spends enough time with the right editor :p). Interestingly, the list I would reel off is significantly shorter than it would have been two years ago as more of those on it turn to small presses.

We need a great self-published literary book to open the media and the prize world – McBride’s brush with rejection was clearly not enough of a warning to them of what they might miss – which is very disappointing. But for that to happen we need enough writers who want to create that kind of book, who think that deeply about their place in cultural history and want to contribute a line, to stay self-publishing. We need a place for them to gravitate to, and we need the promise that they just may get read by the right people. And we need to be ruthlessly honest about just how rare great literary fiction is (whilst welcoming all with the ambition to write it).

That’s a big ask.

OVER TO YOU We'd love you to join this discussion via the comments box, and Dan will be glad to reply.

Why #selfpub is the natural home for great #litfic - and why awards need to admit its writers by @agnieszkasshoes Click To Tweet

By Rohan Quine, whom Dan cites in his piece as a potential author of great litfic

Author: Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines, which has appeared at festivals and fringes from Manchester to Stoke Newington. In 2010 he was the winner of the 100th episode of the international spoken prose event Literary Death Match, and earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available for Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Transparency-Sutures-Dan-Holloway-ebook/dp/B01A6YAA40


This Post Has 37 Comments
  1. That was a great post, and a very thoughtful one at that. But some of what you say does trouble me. I think it’s important to bear in mind that we are still only at the dawn of the golden age of indie writing. And if the history of the arts has taught us anything, it’s that:

    1. To misquote the Gospels, “no prophet is respected in his own time.”

    2. The academy is almost always closed to the true innovators.

    I therefore think it very likely that the greatest and most innovative contemporary writers, regardless of whether we use the term “literary” or not, almost certainly ARE indies. But it may be decades before their real merit is recognized.

    Although on the other side of the ledger, and more in line with your own thesis, bearing in mind once again just how young this cultural shift still is, it’s quite possible that while Giotto already walks among us, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael (and Oh Hell, let’s just go with it!) Donatello are yet to emerge.

    I confess your assertion that great literary fiction changes the world also makes me uneasy. I don’t quite want to say it isn’t true… But I also find that can’t help but think of Peter Cook’s famous praise of “those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.”

    One might also say the same of Guernica.

    How far art – in any medium – can change the world is a difficult question.

    One that challenges us all.

  2. Apologies for my tardy reply. Insanely busy week. First of all, it’s good to see Mike Sahno on this thread. I just finished reading his novel, Brothers’ Hand, a few weeks ago and I was enthusiastic about its literary merits. The Imagination Thief by Mr. Quine is now on my list.

    Dan’s post reflects a growing discontent with the status of literary fiction in the world of indie publishing–one reason I impatiently started my survey series with authors of literary fiction. Any effort to knock down the wall that keeps literary fiction from broader acceptance in the publishing world is a worthwhile endeavor, in my opinion.

    We are all impatient for that breakthrough literary novel in the indie space. One ongoing challenge, I think, is that of marketing. As a daytime marketing professional who writes on the side, my instincts lean toward the promotional. I would argue that is not the case of a lot of our most worthy writers of literary fiction. And that is not a fault-finding statement, by any means!

    Additionally, I would argue that a decent amount of prejudice remains against indie authors within the larger reading public. While we, ALLi members, recognize the intense professionalism of our fellow indie writers and our ongoing quest for more of the same, ours is an ongoing struggle for legitimacy. If readers are no longer traipsing to the bookstore for their latest reads, it’s because they’re going to Amazon…where the category of literary fiction in the Kindle store is glutted with traditionally published works and dismissable and inappropriately placed romances. For God’s sake, Jay Lemming said aloud.

    As Ms. McBride suggests, were she to have published A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing as an independent author, it would have sunk without a trace.

    Patience and persistence. In addition to more writing. That is what is needed. Our time will come. The time of the great indie literary novel will come. As long as groups such as ALLi continue their advocacy for independent authors while encouraging its members to continue to work against lingering prejudices with ongoing writing excellence, that wall will finally crumble.

    I personally think that great literary novel is already out there, lost in obscurity due to the lack of sufficient promotional support. But it will ultimately see the light of day. Or its author will eventually publish another great novel when conditions are more salubrious for indie publishing success and recognition.

    Great post, Dan. Thank you!

    1. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/opinion-where-is-the-great-indie-literary-fiction/#comment-613657

      Thanks Jay — your good labours in creating the survey series of author interviews that you mention here, currently unfolding on your website, are a much-appreciated contribution to this arena. I’m sure the series will come to be seen as having provided us with an unusually wide-ranging and resonant snapshot of where many disparate litfic authors feel things have got to and should progress to. Dan’s and my recent interviews with you in that series were at
      and at
      — and I’m aware you have many more interviewee voices coming down the pipeline there. I’m optimistic for the slow but majestic crumbling of that wall you mention. Onward and upward!

  3. Thanks, Dan. I suppose Irish writer or English writer etc are just labels in the end. I was born in London myself, to Irish parents – the family moved to Ireland when I was six.

    That said, if you want to look through a list of several hundred Irish writers – and some listed because of strong association with Ireland – you might if and when you’ve time like to browse my website Irish Writers Online. I’ll put the link in the website box below. I started it back in the nineties when few had a website and I wanted to put some friends as well as myself up there, and it just grew over the years.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks for this piece–well said. I’m one who has a foot planted firmly on both sides of the conversation. I’ve always loved both literary fiction and genre fiction; I want my Tobias Wolff, and I want my Stephen King.I have an undergraduate degree in English/Creative Writing from Stanford University (literature-heavy, that) and an MFA in creative writing from a program that, like many such programs are, was canted heavily toward literary fiction/fellowships/prizes/traditional publication.

    I am also a dedicated indie, currently with a literary historical fiction standalone, as well as a first-in-series post-apocalyptic novel. With many dear writer friends who consider themselves as either fish or fowl, trad or indie, I’ve heard both sides cast off-hand aspersions at the other, and it’s a conversation that typically sets my hair on fire! Knee-jerk characterizations are so pointless and hurtful to all writers. The literary camp can sound precious, snobbish, and hyper-academic, when they’re actually struggling to understand the sea change in publishing and figure out how to bolster visibility for their work. Meanwhile, the genre camp can come across as anti-intellectual and pugnacious, when they’re actually reacting to many years of being told they’re less-than: the under-talented wannabes whose writing couldn’t cut it with “real” publishers.

    We’re all writers, we all want readers, and the vast majority of us care deeply about the work we create. I’m looking forward to a deeper cohesion among all of us as we go.

  5. I think there are other issues involved in the general public preference for genre fiction besides mere anti-intellectualism (a sneer in its own right).

    While there are certainly exceptions, the “story” in well-done genre work typically features active protagonists trying to accomplish something (and sometimes failing). Some are character studies, but they are character studies of people with a purpose and a goal. We re-read the great ones, because they show us how to live (and die). Even the ones that end in tragedy are uplifitng.

    From the point of view of human psychology, that surely has to be the fundamental point of story-telling, whether round a campfire or on a page.

    Too much of the lit-fic I’ve read is more about mood and reflection, and less about the struggle to do something. For me, it has less “story”.

    I exempt the older classics from this — I don’t think of them as lit-fic at all (nor as genre fiction in the modern sense, which is why the term “classic” still retains a certain currency). Where would the great 19th-century classic novels be if they didn’t tell real stories? Who would call To Kill a Mockingbird lit-fic? Classic novels whose readership persists across the generations are not necessarily lit-fic — they’re just novels. Joseph Conrad, Hemingway, Nabokov, etc. They’re beautifully written, but they tell stories. Stories with resonance.

    Note that classic novels of this kind can and do become bestsellers.

    It’s the absence of “story” that makes me dread lit-fic books when I experiment occasionally, to keep my hand in. I don’t see pushing the form as an all-sufficient virtue; novelty does not make up for other issues. If I want novelty, I can go reread Tristram Shandy. Anti-intellectualism has nothing to do with it.

    1. This is exactly my problem with a lot of literary fiction, and I have to say – and I know it makes me unpopular here – I think indie literary fiction is more guilty of it than that which comes from small presses. There are some incredible stories in contemporary literary fiction but as a genre (for want of a better term) it is by and large ruined by the too many ponderous books that are all beautiful sentences and navel-gazing.

      1. Now, mind you, I’ve just had a long debate with my husband on this topic, and he’s inclined to sweep any “quality novel” into the lit-fic designation, whatever its vintage.

        Part of the mismatch of opinion seems to me to be a function of modern genre classifications as marketing categories.

        Dickens & Trollope were pulp writers as much as Kenneth Robeson in the early 20th c and John D MacDonald in the 1950s-80s. We call the first group literary classics, the second disposable pulp, and the third popular fiction (which evolved for the most part into a thriller/mystery genre). But arguably, they have a lot in common — they were all very popular, they were all prolific writers who didn’t necessarily know how their plots would evolve until they reached the end (MacDonald the exception), and they were all commercial writers. None of them were interested in changing the format or being innovative in some avant garde way.

        In the 19th century one spoke of the gothick (sic) novel, or the historical novel, or the comedy of (contemporary) manners, or the sporting novel. These were descriptions of subject.

        We eventually added the social problem novel (Dreiser, et alia), the women’s novel (domestic), the business novel, and so forth.

        Almost all of those categories to describe novels have fallen by the wayside. The only one remaining is the vague concept of “classic” having to do with our education priorities, esp. for the 19th c. (Walter Scott, Stevenson, Trollope, Dickens, Fielding, and a few dozen more all over Europe and America). That makes “classic” a sort of sui generis category, into which we can sweep part of the 20th c. (Hemingway, etc,) — again, partly a reflection of our “in the canon” education. These things are in the canon for a reason, and we mostly still agree on that, though we may argue about the details. But is that a reason we should call them lit-fic?

        Most of our modern genres don’t work that way as categories. From Sherlock Holmes on up, our fine divisions reflect commercial buyers and special marketing needs. Penny dreadfuls and dime novels needed to be clear about what they were providing, and that requirement traveled all the way up to respectable mysteries, westerns, romances, thrillers, imaginative fiction, etc.

        When you properly plug so much product into appropriate categories, what do you do with the novels that are left? Do we call them all lit-fic? Do we just label them “X: A Novel” and hope for the best? In so far as this question isn’t really resolved, some of us declare those leftovers to be “lit-fic” as a genre category — good, bad, or indifferent.

        I have some sympathy with that position, but then I would resist lumping “the canon” of classic literature in with that, for they seem nothing alike. You can argue the details (Nabokov – lit-fic; Steinbeck – popular novelist), but I can’t call the whole canon lit-fic — Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and all.

        Personally, I use “classic literature” for the canon, and lit-fic, for the most of the uncategorized products of the last few decades, with “popular novel” or just “a novel” for things which don’t fit the categories but don’t have the avant garde ambition that I take to be part of the lit-fic definition. I’m not real happy with these very fuzzy distinctions.

        It’s a mess.

        1. Sorry, my reply ended in the wrong place:

          “I agree the terminology is a mess, and I agree that what we call great literary fiction now would never have gone by the name at the time, but I do think that what, say, Dickens has is that sense of contributing something important to a wider context, which is what I have identified (arbitrarily by many measures, of course) as the thing I’m talking about – I don’t think the ambition has to be avant garde, although it can be – take Roth and Franzen, who haven’t an avant garde bone between them but consider themselves part of the literary conversation.”

  6. I’d love to be that rare indie literary author whose work gets recognized for its greatness in his lifetime. I won’t go the trad pub route, and, in fact, started my own pub company just for literary fiction. I think the market for great books is still out there, even in our post-literate age.

    1. It’s good to hear that you will be sticking it out to make it work as an indie – very best wishes. I like the inclusion of a form for people to take to their libraries on your website, by the way

      1. Thanks, Dan. Hadn’t gotten back to your page to follow up on the comments until now, but I think it’s great that you’re posting about this. Thanks to Jay Lemming for the shoutout as well. This is a great community.

    2. I agree the terminology is a mess, and I agree that what we call great literary fiction now would never have gone by the name at the time, but I do think that what, say, Dickens has is that sense of contributing something important to a wider context, which is what I have identified (arbitrarily by many measures, of course) as the thing I’m talking about – I don’t think the ambition has to be avant garde, although it can be – take Roth and Franzen, who haven’t an avant garde bone between them but consider themselves part of the literary conversation.

  7. Dan–Yours is a post worth reading–thank you!
    Indie literary fiction gets no attention, because literary fiction depends on “guerilla marketing”–the use of blurbs from readers/writers with name recognition, placed in major publications. The ONLY indie work that ever gets attention are those novels that for whatever reason end up being blockbuster commercial successes. These are always genre novels. Then and only then does the publishing industry take notice. Ultimately, the only way an indie writer of literary fiction could get anywhere would be if s/he had powerful friends who went to bat for them. But if a writer has such friends, chances are s/he will get a commercial publisher.

    1. Very interesting – the “powerful friends” is, I think what was behind the success of Sergios De La Pava, who is the only real “literary” breakthrough novel there’s been – that was much hyped at the time but I’ve heard very little since, and the follow-up, which had a mainstream publisher, seemed to disappear

  8. Great topic! In college I majored in Spanish literature and minored in English literature. Whenever I tell indie author friends that I still enjoy reading literature the response is, “Yuck.” I’ve also been at writer’s conferences where speakers joked that if you’re book is selling, it’s genre; if it’s not selling, it’s literature. Attendees love these comments. But why must the indie community — or at least some in the community — have this bias against literature? I enjoyed The Girl on the Train but I loved All the Light We Cannot See, which could be classified as historical fiction but also literature. And I still enjoy short stories by Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. I guess what I’m saying is that I like a good mix and choose not to exclude literature from my reading list.

    1. I honestly don’t know why the feelings are as they are – it’s easy to blame a general anti-intellectualism, and that’s certainly part of it, but I wonder sometimes if people just don’t know what to make of us because they can’t figure out what drives us.

      Spanish literature sounds like a wonderful degree – my knowledge of actual Spanish literature is woefully underdeveloped, but in Oxford we are ridiculously lucky when it comes to literature written in Spanish – in the last year or so we’ve had wonderful events with Yuri Herrera, Carlos Gamerro and one of my absolute favourites Alejandro Zambra – often in conversation with their translators, which makes for a fascinating discussion.

    2. Frances– In the U.S., this tendency to make mock of literary fiction is very strong. I am convinced it’s because most readers aren’t educated as readers to appreciate literary work, and most writers aren’t capable of creating it.

  9. I am on the Board of the M.M.Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Our 2015 winner, announced earlier this month, is Into the Hidden Valley by Stuart Blackburn. It completes with the finest literary masterpieces written. It was published by a very small house that did little promoting and went out of business. My own books pale by comparison, and yet, they outsell it. It languishes with only three reviews, yet it has won what is becoming a highly prestigious literary award. None of the faults that plague Indies,myself included, are present in Balckburn’s book.There are no issues editing or formatting. It suffers from a lack of promotion and a lack of faith on the part of those who market books with prejudice toward the big houses. Even winning a $500 prize awarded at the HNS convention is apparently not enough to cure the disparity in how books are perceived. .

    1. I had no idea there was a prize in her honour and am delighted to hear there is.

      I wonder if historical fiction is slow to catch up, because what in is marketed as out and out literary fiction, coming from a tiny indie press is a positive plus media-wise (just look at the headlines for this year’s Booker shortlist about the tiny Scottish Press taking on the big houses – it was the same with Unbound, and the same with And Other Stories in recent years).

  10. Literary fiction is hard to define. The “cured meat” title you featured would leave me cold.

    Quality writing is also hard to define, more complicated than banning adjectives.

    Arnold Bennett once wrote the he was fascinatied by “the everlasting interestingness of things.” His novels were about ordinary but much-loved people. Before he wrote them he had worked as a journalist.

    There’s nothing like learning your trade.

    1. “Literary fiction is hard to define.” – we might have different tastes in books, but I can certainly go with you on that!

      Journalism’s an interesting background – it’s worked well for the likes of Howard Jacobson and Will Self in contemporary fiction. And it’s certainly good for getting used to deadlines. Journalists like Jon Ronson also write some of the best non-fiction.

  11. Another aspect of the challenge you describe is that, just as great literary fiction is rare, so it’s comparably rare for any one commentator to house a combination of (1) the cultural bang-up-to-dateness, (2) the eclectic well-readness, (3) the passion, (4) the chutzpah and (5) the platform, that all need to occur together in order for this particular dilemma to be communicated with the authority, clarity and force it requires if it’s to be heard at all.
    Luckily, I suspect (1)-(5) have just been combined on this page. This piece here, and the growing reach of this ALLi venue, are currently *being* that ongoing and necessary change, today.
    And heavens to Betsy, what a merciful thing I did indeed stumble across that rare editor you mention! – to wit, Rogue Interrobang, https://rogueinterrobang.com/

    1. we have had the Betsy and Murgatroyd discussion elsewhere. I can see the show now, “Thank Heavens for Betsy and Murgatroyd” – all neon and sparkle, until the lights go out and the screaming starts

      1. Refreshing to read about literary fiction in the Indie world. Thank you.

        I could be wrong but I think we’re relaxed about literary fiction in Ireland. Banville unabashedly thinks of his literary work as art, but writes detective fiction too. No big deal. One of the finest literary stylists, Eoin McNamee, writes mostly about crime, beautifully.

        Publishers like to put writers in boxes, I think, but a lot of writers, like Dermot Bolger and Sebastian Barry, and indeed myself, like to – need to – wriggle out of them.

        Over here there are two other literary fiction writers that I know of who like myself have turned Indie, having been prize-winning in the conventional publishing world. One is Brian Lynch, whose Duras Press heroically publishes other writers too; the other is Emer Martin, recently moved to California and part of an Indie co-op, which she named Rameash.

        I was previously published by Lilliput here in Dublin, and Picador in London, garnering a sheaf of great reviews. But of course my books didn’t sell, or not enough.

        I’m now writing history, a long-term, complex project which conventional publishers aren’t interested in, because, and here’s the box again, they know me as a novelist, not an historian. I’m looking forward to returning in due course to fiction and poetry, and publishing all my future work myself.

        I relish the the freedom to do that, to publish what I want, when I want. I relish the fact that I own my own work. I relish the fact that because of world-wide Indie publishing, that albeit rare reader in Brazil, or the US, or Japan, or the UK, is moved by what I write, and goes to the trouble of telling me. In the end that’s what it’s about, whether the writing is deemed literary or not.

        1. The Irish literary fiction scene is fascinating but I feel like it’s a huge lacuna in my knowledge, much to my shame, save for Kevin Barry and Julian Gough (I’m not sure if Eimear McBride is thought of as an Irish writer). It’s interesting that in the UK at least one of the boxes publishers love to put writers in most is Irish writing (at its peak as I recall when I was a Masters student and The Weir had just come out), which I imagine is deeply frustrating.
          And thank you for adding to the tbr pile!

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