Skip the MFA 3: English Lit in 2000 Words or Less

Where do you even start? Read on and I’ll tell you.

You don’t need to be a literary expert to write stories.

Anyone can pick up a pen and start transmitting their imagination to the page, but if you’re serious about growing as a writer, you should develop an understanding of the broad canon of English literature and your place within it.

Genre conventions and expectations have everything to do with how your story is received. A plot twist or character that readers of fantasy love might fall flat in a political thriller or literary coming of age story.

Today I’ll walk you through the broad outlines and categories of English Lit, and give my suggestion for a good book to read as an example of each category. Reading books in a similar style or genre to the stories you want to write is an excellent (and enjoyable!) way to grow as a writer.

To begin with, let’s get the most basic division out of the way. All writing in English falls into one of two categories: Fiction, and Non-Fiction. The distinction between the two should be fairly obvious, and for the purposes of this series we’re going to be focusing on Fiction.

The list of possible fiction genres can get enormously long, depending on how specific you want to get, but let’s try to keep things simple by dividing things again into two categories: Realistic and Imaginative fiction.

Realistic fiction includes all stories firmly rooted in our world as we understand it. They don’t violate the laws of nature or established events in history.

Here’s a list of Realistic fiction genres, and a suggested book for each one if you’d like to explore it a bit further:

  • Historical Fiction: Gates of Fire, but Steven Pressfield
  • Western: True Grit, but Charles Portis
  • Crime and Thriller: The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris
  • Romance: Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden
  • Literary or Dramatic Fiction: Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

Imaginative fiction, which is sometimes called Speculative fiction, contains elements that break or go beyond the known laws of science or historical events in some way. This can range from the strange new worlds of fantasy and sci-fi, to the “what if” events of alternate historical fiction.

Here’s a list of Imaginative fiction genres, and a suggested book for each one if you’d like to explore it a bit further:

  • Fantasy: Tigana, by Guy Gavrial Kay
  • Urban Fantasy: Storm Front, by Jim Butcher
  • Science Fiction: Earth, by David Brin
  • Magical Realism: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Marukami
  • Alternate Historical Fiction: The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick

Many of today’s popular genres, such as paranormal romance and supernatural thrillers, combine the Imaginative Fiction approach with aspects of a more traditional genre, often to great success.

It’s critical that as you continue to grow as a writer you develop a more thorough sense for where your voice, style, and interests fit within the scope of English Literature. As you do, reading everything you can get your hands on that falls within your genres, whether good or bad, is one of the best ways I can think of to hone your skills, vocabulary, and creative energy.

What genres appeal to you most as a writer? How about as a reader? Let me know in the comments.

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