Good Lord, Lincoln Michael is a treasure. He lives with one foot in genre fiction and one foot in literary fiction, and he’s erudite enough to use that vantage point to illuminate the literary landscape.
Every time I read one of his Substack articles, I come away with five tabs open for further reading, and a whole new vocabulary to describe topics that I had vague ideas about, and which he has described with exacting precision.
In this post, Michael suggests that the common discussion of “invisible vs. visible” prose is shallow, and Max Gladstone’s tension between “textured and aerodynamic” prose adds to the conversation. He follows that up with a discussion of yet more theoretical axes for comparing fiction: plot-forward and prose-forward.
As an author who is published about equally in the SFF ecosystem and literary fiction ecosystem, this is a topic I think about a lot. It’s very easy to say “all these labels are false and mean nothing!” And obviously as someone who writes both SFF and “literary fiction” I think the binary is bullshit, the snobs on both sides are annoying, and all of these terms are fluid, overlapping, and spectrums. Etc. At the same time, questions of what gets called literary and what is embraced or rejected by SFF readers is a practical concern. Saying “it’s all bullshit” or “it’s all just marketing” doesn’t change the hard reality of where your work gets published, whether you have shots at awards, and how readers will find or fail to find your work.
I often hear SFF people ask why some speculative writers are embraced by the literary world and others aren’t. I think “prose-forward” is much of the answer. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that “prose-forward” writing is the defining quality of what is called “literary” in general. (Note that in my view authors can be simultaneously literary and genre. This is a Venn diagram, not a binary.)
Prose-forward doesn’t mean a specific style but rather that the prose itself is an integral part of the work. The texture of it, to use Gladstone’s metaphor. That texture might be dense and lush like Southern Gothic or gritty and minimalist like dirty realism or a million other things. But the literary world places great focus on the texture of sentences, whatever that texture might be.
I’m a big fan of anyone who can get past the supposed binaries that people love to define for these kinds of topics, and Michael is great at sussing out those details and making me want to dig deeper.