Is breakout fiction the first cousin of cult fiction or are they identical twin?
In today's publishing climate, most major publishing houses want to see a breakout title by the author's third attempt. But what is breakout fiction? Let's take a look before we compare breakout fiction to cult fiction.
The definition for breakout fiction as set forth by most literary agents and editors (such as Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass) is nebulous at best and seems to set forth elements that editors and agents would expect from any good piece of fiction. Writers, published and unpublished, are advised to find a larger-than-life plot, one that is inspiring in ways that other novels are not. Furthermore, writers are told to develop unusual characters, create many sub-plots, and explore universal themes. But isn't this what all good novels aspire to do?
Maass himself admits that the breakout novel does not always explode onto the scene. Indeed, it sometimes results from a very low tech word-of-mouth campaign, a topic that is covered in some depth on this website. This is where the breakout novel begins to intersect with the cult novel. Either type may break out immediately on its release date or swim more slowly into public consciousness. Regardless, breakout fiction initially does exactly what cult fiction does: it captures the reader's imagination with elements that seem to stay firmly rooted in short-term memory longer than usual so that the reader cannot stop talking or thinking about the novel. It contains passion and excitement and is the buzz at the water cooler.
There are some differences, however. Breakout fiction, once it gains prominence, may be like a supernova, shining brightly in literary skies and grossing millions of dollars. It's the title that everyone on Match.com will cop to reading. By the same token, breakout fiction may be meteoric in nature and flame out quickly, the title forgotten after author and publisher have reaped well deserved royalties for their labors. And there's nothing wrong with that at all.
Many breakout fiction titles do indeed become cult fiction, but if they do, it's because they do more than follow a few sage pieces of advice in plotting and characterization in order to placate the literary marketplace. It happens because a novel has something that appeals to the mythos of a society. It touches a nerve that cannot be defined, nor can its appeal be anticipated. Yes, it deals with universal themes, but it changes the axis of the earth, reverses its rotation. It discovers new themes altogether or exposes the lies of old ones. In short, it has staying power that far exceeds most breakout titles that produce commercial success. It transcends the balance sheet.
Breakout fiction may certainly become cult fiction, but cult fiction has frequently been regarded as anything but breakout. It sometimes takes months, years, or decades for a great novel to achieve cult status. Moby-Dick is the perfect example. The novel quite simply flopped, and it was almost ninety years before its genius was discovered. Cult fiction and breakout fiction, therefore, may be very closely related or they may have little in common. It all depends on the title, the reader, and a moment in history that changes with each tick of the clock.
About This Website
Index of Articles on This Website
What Is Cult Fiction?
Is Cult Fiction the Same as Underground Fiction?
Cult Fiction and Genre
Cult Fiction and ON THE ROAD
Cult Fiction and A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe: Cult Fiction in the Making?
The Next Wave of Cult Fiction
List of Cult Fiction Classics
Cult Fiction Websites
Current Trends in Fiction
Understanding the Literary Marketplace
Emerging Writers in the Literary Marketplace
Resources for Writers
About Cat Spaulding