Should You Write Toward Trends?

The Blunt Instrument on Genre and Literary Fashions

The Blunt Instrument is a monthly advice column for writers. If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to blunt@electricliterature.com.

Dear Blunt Instrument,

I recently received an email from a literary agent who read my work online and was compelled to reach out. Excited, I sent her some of my best work to read: a story from my story collection in-progress and the first chapter of a novel. She responded with an enthusiastic yes.

I’m concerned, however, that my style (lyrical language) and preferred literary sub-genre (magical realism) is not “on trend” these days. In fact, a very famous Latina novelist told me that “magical realism has been done” and to focus on more contemporary forms of writing.

Although I haven’t let her words deter me from writing what I love and feel most inspired to write, they have called into question the kind of fiction readers are craving these days. I realize contemporary writers like Karen Russell and Haruki Murakami have put their own spin on the magical realism form, but I’m still concerned that because my writing has a more cultural, historical-flashback, language-oriented feel to it, it might not be well received by readers looking for something more current to read.

Sincerely,

21st Century Magical Realist

Dear Magical Realist,

I recently attended a panel on dystopian fiction where one of the speakers was a YA literary agent who represents authors working in this style (a la The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.). Someone in the audience asked her if she was still looking for dystopian YA novels, and she said no — by the time readers recognize a trend in the market, agents are already bored of it and looking for the next thing. They don’t want to be behind the trend, they want to be ahead of it.

Given how long it takes to write a book, find a publisher, and then see it into production — generally a number of years, even just in the latter stages — it is not realistic to attempt to be “on trend” during the writing process. Trends move fast, and writing, editing, and publishing do not. For all you know, by the time your story collection and novel are finished and published, magical realism will be all the rage.

As for the advice you got from the famous Latina novelist, I have to disagree. Magical realism “has been done,” yes, but so has everything else. Dystopia has been done. Vampires have been done. Suburban malaise has been done. They will be done again. Any genre becomes contemporary when contemporary writers do it. Further, I wouldn’t even say that magic realism is dated outside of America; when I read contemporary fiction in translation I’m often struck by how commonly elements of magical realism are present. YA and genre fiction aside, American “literary fiction” is pretty staunchly wedded to realism, but realism is so pervasive you could hardly call it a trend.

So, my advice to you is, forget about writing toward current publishing trends or for the readers who rabidly follow them. You should do what you do well and I’m sure you’ll find your audience (readers like your agent).

Dear Blunt Instrument,

I miss when poetry collections were just that — really good poems linked by the fact that they were written by the same poet. Will those kinds of collections ever come back in style? Are publishers just looking for linked/project-based books these days?

Thanks,

E

Dear E,

I’m not sure I agree that they’ve ever gone out of style. It seems to me that the poetry books put out by both large and academic presses tend to mostly be unlinked collections of poems; these also tend to be the books that win big prizes. I see the “project-based” poetry book trend as mostly confined to small presses.

I also see it as a somewhat false distinction; poems written by the same poet around the same time and intentionally grouped together tend to be linked in terms of style, form, and theme or subject matter, and whether you view those poems as unlinked or as a project is often a matter of perspective, not to mention marketing.

As above, as ever, I’d advise you not to worry about perceived trends in the market. Write good poems, find your audience, and let your future publisher worry about whether or not they qualify as a project.

–The Blunt Instrument

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