One of my gigs this summer is reading the slush pile for an independent literary press. Although I’ve done a lot of slush pile reading in the past, what’s different about this experience is that the writing is not geared toward genre or convention, and I doubt any of the writers expect to sell millions of copies. They aspire to be the next Dave Eggers or Alice Munro, not Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer. That means that (if they do what most literary fiction does) the writing will be focused on character development, interesting and beautiful language, and finding new ways to tell a story. With that in mind (and perhaps a little naively), I expected the slush pile to be filled with writers who command language and write engaging, unique characters.
You can probably see where this is going: to my disappointment, the slush pile is not filled with writers who command language or write engaging, unique characters. My request rate is way down compared to what it was last summer. I’m not actually reading the queries, but I read the first few chapters of a manuscript and then recommend whether to request more or not. So far, I have recommended requesting more of absolutely 0 books.
I think the reason (besides the fact that the manuscripts need work) is that I have higher expectations for literary writers. When reviewing paranormal romances or mysteries, I was willing to let sub-par character development or repetitive language slide (with a note to include it in a revision letter) if the story was remarkable. With a literary writer, however, there is no breathtaking story to rely on. Those elements I would say, “well, we can revise that” for a genre piece are what I am looking for in a literary piece. So you’d better have it down pat.
Considering literary fiction generally doesn’t sell well, I am impressed at the number of writers attempting it, and I applaud their efforts. But craft comes first, second, and third in literary fiction, so you had better get it down pat before trying to publish.