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What is Cult Fiction?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 23, 2024

Cult fiction is fiction which has attracted a large following of loyal fans and supporters. In addition to cult fiction, it is also possible to see cult authors, authors who have attracted and held fans who eagerly await their new publications. This genre varies widely in terms of subject and even quality, with the literary value of some works being called into question by book critics who have managed to resist the fan mentality.

Often, cult fiction breaks new ground in some way. Perhaps the author uses an innovative narrative style, or brings up edgy issues which have not been widely discussed. The genre may include material which is considered explicit for the time in which it is published, attracting prurient interest from readers who like things a little racy. It may also be controversial: some of the most esteemed works of cult fiction have been banned at some point or another. Authors may explore the human condition, write terrifying visions of dystopian societies, or simply tell a good story.

Many people have strong memories about works of cult fiction. Books labeled as such are often described as books which fundamentally change the thinking of the reader, or challenge the reader in a refreshing way. In English, books like Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Lord of the Flies, Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Ulysses, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Wise Blood, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Brave New World, Fight Club, The Bell Jar, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are often cited as works of cult fiction. Some of these books became almost totemic for a generation, with people reading them on college campuses and widely discussing them, and while some were controversial for their time, many are included in reading lists for middle and high school students today.

Cult fiction is typically widely read, even if that was not always the case, and allusions to characters and events in the genre are usually widely understood among the general public. For example, not everyone has read Lord of the Flies, but many people understand what is meant when people refer to “holding the conch” when it is their turn to speak, referencing a pivotal element of this 1954 novel. Books also usually stay in print, making it easy for new readers to pick up a copy and explore it for themselves.

Some examples of cult authors who work in English include Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Henry Miller, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Hunter S. Thompson. Hermann Hesse, Albert Camus, and Gao Xingjian, among others, are cult authors in their own languages who have become famous in English-speaking nations through translations. These authors have ardent fan followings who have read all of their published works and picked them apart in detail, finding a range of meaning in every line.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By softener — On May 13, 2011

I got the book The Rough Guide To Cult Fiction as a gift for my birthday a few years back. It's a great little encyclopedia of cult authors, perfect for people looking to find good new books. The book gives you a quick biography of each author and then gives you a list of recommended books, people they influenced and people they were influenced by, etc.

By roser — On May 10, 2011

@hidingplace - I'm a big fan of William S. Burroughs who wrote Naked Lunch and pioneered the cut-up method of writing. His essays are great as well; he was very good at making perceptive remarks about America, art/creativity, magic, sexuality - a lot of stuff still relevant today.

By hidingplace — On May 09, 2011

I think some of the best books ever written could fall under the heading of cult fiction. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov definitely broke new ground by being transgressive and portraying extremely edgy issues. It's also written in a beautiful, lyrical fashion that gives real insight into the main character who nonetheless commits some extremely vile acts. Anyone else care to share their favorite works of cult fiction?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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