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The Stigma of Writing What You Enjoy

I write literary fiction. If you know anything about literature, you know that while literary fiction may win accolades, literature prizes, praise from critics, and so on, compared to other genres, it sells few books. But it’s what I write; I don’t see myself venturing down a different path. Growing up I read Hemingway and Kerouac, Dostoevsky and Rushdie, Toni Morrison and Jack London. It’s what I enjoyed reading. Rushdie’s magic realism is about as “magical” as I get when it comes to what I read. Not because other genres are not good—it’s just my preference. I can’t read books with vampires and dragons and werewolves and wizards, or that have characters with names that take me five minutes to pronounce. Nor can I read books with Fabio lookalikes on their covers. It’s just not my thing.

In my house, however, plenty of bookshelves are lined with exactly that (minus the romances). I have children who only read science fiction and fantasy books. Books like the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, the Harry Potter tomes, everything ever written by Rick Riordan including the Percy Jackson books, the Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland and Mike Holmes, and on and on. They also read graphic novels. Me? I’ve read the first Harry Potter and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I didn’t care for Harry Potter, but I did enjoy Heinlein's novel. I’ve just never been able to get past the first line or two in anything else. Writing is subjective. Or is it reading that is subjective? Whatever. You get what I’m saying.

So all that said, I wanted to address something that I know is a point of contention between writers of “serious” writing, and writers who write books in genres that actually sell books. Yes, it’s very clear who sells the most books (and who makes a living doing it). It ain’t even close. According to a Book Ad Report which I pulled from, these are the financial stats for subgenres:

According to Book Ad Report, the following sub-genres make the most money:

  1. Romance and Erotica ($1.44 billion)

  2. Crime and Mystery ($728.2 million)

  3. Religious/Inspirational ($720 million)

  4. Science Fiction and Fantasy books ($590.2 million)

  5. Children and Young Adult ($160 million)

  6. Horror ($79.6 million)

Pretty depressing for writers of literary fiction, but many of us literary fiction writers don’t write for money. We know we’re probably not unicorns, meaning the chances of us being the next John Gardner or Cormac McCarthy, John Irving, Elizabeth Strout or Barbara Kingsolver, are slim. And that’s okay. We write because we cannot not write, just as writers of other genres. But back to the title of this post—The Stigma of Writing What You Enjoy Reading. I know the title is a little click-bait-y, but it’s a topic that exists, though perhaps not stated in precisely that way. Let me explain.

For many literary writers, anything fantastical or romantic or science fiction-based isn’t considered “real writing.” It’s entertainment, certainly, and while you have your Riordans and Sandersons, your Rowlings and Colleen Hoovers and Nicholas Sparkses, it’s difficult for writers of books that are more likely to enter the “canon” to take them seriously. (I’m sure this is where the ire of the fantasy and romance, etc. writers will start bubbling over, and perhaps rightfully so). That type fiction is not what’s historically been taught in universities (although I know these days it’s much more common than when I went to undergrad and graduate school). For right or wrong, those are just the facts. It’s elitist—I know. In a way, it’s like gourmet food versus fast food; French cuisine may be high-brow and well-esteemed, but McDonald’s outsells the shit out of cheeseburgers and Happy Meals so much so that it would be a joke to try to compare the two. (Yes, I know that last sentence can be infuriating and perhaps triggering, but I’m just trying to make a point, however crass).

That said, who cares what I (or any literary writer out there) thinks about what you write? If you write or read fantasy or sci-fi or romance or YA or any other type of fiction, it shouldn’t. You’re a writer, right? You put the work in. Books written by writers in your genres dominate the bestseller lists. I know Jason Kehe just wrote a piece about Brandon Sanderson, who made $55 million last year selling his fantasy novels, where Kehe got ripped for his criticism of Sanderson’s work, but so what. Sanderson made $55 MILLION! That’s impressive for anything. Very impressive. Good for Sanderson.

So maybe there is no stigma for writing what you like to read. Maybe it’s just us high-falutin literary fiction writers who have the problem. Maybe we’re jealous. As I participate in various social media writing groups, it’s very clear what’s popular and what’s not. I’d say 99.9% of the groups that I’m a part of write about pretty much everything BUT literary fiction. The questions from group participants are always about what names to give their vampire princesses or fictive worlds, who’s looking to publish or represent books about gothic romance, and what Bilbo means when he says, “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean . . ..” Or things along those lines. I guess just do you.

My guess is that there’s a generational shift going on. Whereas in decades past, traditional publishing was the gatekeeper to what got published, that particular obstacle is no longer an issue for writers of any genre. More people (and writers) are interested in things other than literary fiction. It’s what sells more and it’s what more self-published writers are writing. From speaking with creative writing professors, they’re seeing more and more of it (fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.), for good or for bad. Like literature in general, publishing a book that sells is an almost impossible endeavor. I’d think that the more books about the same subject matter published would mean less of the pie for each individual author. But that doesn’t seem to be deterring anyone writing in these genres—and I’m not saying it should. It shouldn’t. Write what you want to write. The sales figures are there, so you shouldn’t let anything deter you. Especially not the derision or dismissal of your work by literary fiction writers.

So, is there actually a stigma about writing what you enjoy reading? To some folks, sure. There is. But stigmas are only hurtful if you give them weight. They’re only effective if you make them so. I’ve had friends who wrote YA books be self-deprecating because they said my writing was serious while their writing was just them playing around or having fun. Maybe. But who cares? Like I said, writing is subjective. If you enjoy reading and writing something, more power to you. Have fun with it. There’s no shame in writing what pleases you, and definitely none in writing works that please others. It’s what keeps books around. It’s what opens eyes and spreads ideas and wonder to the masses. So go forth. Hold your head high. There is no stigma in writing and reading what you like to write and read. None.

If you've written a novel and need Substantive or Developmental Editing, drop us a line at to discuss your project. Happy writing!


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