Saturday, August 08, 2009

Genre Wars

What does one say to people who imply that the mystery form isn’t as elevated as literary fiction?

“Come over here so I can give you a dope-slap, you insufferable snob.”

Are you like me? I was an English major extraordinaire.  I was into serious literature.  I thought that if it wasn’t “literary”, it couldn’t impart depth of meaning.  That it didn’t have gravitas.

Shame on me.

I blame big chain bookstores for really furthering the concept of genre. If they can label an author as a mystery writer, or a romance writer, or a book as Science Fiction or Horror, it makes it easier for them to categorize, even though one mystery novel may resemble another like a fish resembles a hat.

I discovered the mystery form only about five years before I decided to write one.  I always loved historical fiction, and quite by accident I got hold of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael historical mystery series set in 12th Century England.  These books are so charming and philosophical, the language so poetic, that I read all twenty, then went on to read every historical mystery I could get my hands on, then every mystery, and thriller, and I was off to the genre races.  What I discovered, oh, so late, was that good is good, no matter what the genre.  It’s like music.  You may not particularly like most pop music, but adore Gwen Stefani, or Greenday, or somebody else at the top of their game.  A master artist defies category.

Genre is a false construct, in my humble opinion.  As John pointed out, most fiction books don’t fit totally into one category or another.  Most literary novels have elements of mystery or thriller, sci fi or romance, and sometimes all of them at once.

Look at Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  What the heck is that?  Gabaldon has said that before the first book came out, she was told that the publisher wanted to put the book in the Romance category.  She objected.  She pointed out quite correctly that the book is a historical, with elements of thriller, and a big dollop of science fiction, as well as a romance.

The publisher then pointed out that a best selling Science Fiction novel sells about 50,000 copies, whereas a best selling Romance does around 800,000, to which she replied, “Well, make it a Romance, by all means.”  Faced with such a conundrum, I wonder if Bronte would have chosen to market Wuthering Heights as literary fiction or a romance?

The big question for any book is, is it good?  Well written is well written, and there are as many badly written literary novels as there are spectacularly crafted crime novels.  No matter how cleverly your mystery is constructed, it ought to be as thoughtful and well written as any other kind of novel.

I’ll say one thing for a crime novel, whether it’s traditional, noir, procedural, or thriller - it’s usually chock-full of psychology.  A mystery is a fabulous way for an author to explore the human psyche while giving the reader an exciting and intriguing experience. I rather like Tony Hillerman’s take on the idea that literary is superior to genre. He said, “literary fiction is where nothing much happens to people you don’t much care about.”


John Corrigan said...

Great points. What literary snobs seem to forget (perhaps selectively) is that Shakespeare was very popular in his day.

Sharon E. Dreyer said...

This is an article dear to my heart. What about my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal? This exciting story is a romantic action adventure in space. Okay, so is it a romance story? Or a science fiction novel? Or an action adventure?

Personally, I thinks it is all three. So I'm not certain where this story belongs.

Thanks for sharing.

Susan D said...

A panellist at Bloody Words this year (sorry, I forget who; I think Melanie Fogel) said, Literary is just another genre.