Crime Fiction vs. Literary Fiction: a vanishing binary?

John Banville is writing crime fiction. Graham Greene wrote crime fiction and thrillers of a high literary quality. Alan Furst's spy fiction is second to none in any genre. John Harvey's crime novels are some of the best novels of any kind I've read. Further, crime fiction frequently has social, political and psychological insights that so-called mainstream fiction does not. I think the walls between genres are dissolving and it's about time. Some of my academic colleagues may take a contract out on me for saying this. But I don't say "I'm writing crime fiction to make money." I've published a lot of serious poetry, but I no longer consider one superior to another. I'm interested in the opinions of others on what may very well be a vanishing binary.

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There have always been terrific writers working in crime--good writing is good writing regardless of genre. I think the distinction is really between art and mass culture. Most crime fiction isn't art and isn't trying to be. Some sets out self-consciously to bridge the divide, some does mass culture so well that it rises to the level of art. I prefer the last kind to the other two, generally. Literary fiction is always trying to be art, and because of that tends to succeed with a greater frequency than genres that aren't. But literary fiction doesn't always succeed, obviously, and even when literary writers do make art, it isn't always "good" art. Good art vs bad art is another argument entirely.
The walls were put there in the first place by publishers, as I understand it. It started out as marketing, and I think Harold Robbins' work was the start of it. Certainly Robbins' attitude about it persists as a stereotype of genre fiction: Robbins did not hesitate to state that he wrote solely to make money.
Yeah, the marketing folks again. I wish they'd all quit.
I'm not sure that having this seperation hurts much. When my first novel came out the publisher put "a mystery" on the cover even though books has none of the standard thngs that go into a mystery novel - there are lots of crimes in the book but no single one that joins everything together, there are cops but noneof hem are the main character and they don't follow clues and solve a crime. Someone called it a "perp procedural" because it's really the story of how some criminals come together and use an opportunity. I thought I was just writing a book that tried to capture the tone of Toronto at the moment - a very opportunistic city, I think.

But because of the words, "a mystery" on the cover there was a large, built-in infrastructure to get it reviewed and talked about. And no one in that infrastructure was bothered at all that the book doesn't have any of those standard mystery elements.

I really feel that if the book had been marketed as general fiction the amount of crimes in it would have turned off reviewers (especially in Canada where the lines are pretty strictly drawn).

If these are walls, they aren't very high or difficult to get around - going in one direction, at least.
Well, you touch on a couple of things here. First is the divide. It's really a continuum and has been for a while. People separate "literary" and "commercial" fiction as if there is no overlap, which is at best inaccurate. I do not, however, think that the artificially constructed binary is really vanishing - the real blows to it happened in the 1970's and 1980's, and it has remained relatively stable for a decade or so.

Which leads to the second point - the reason for the divide. I have no doubt that some practical reasons exist - John M. touched on one. But quite often the sense is that literary writing is "better" than crime, thriller, mystery or other commercial fiction. By extension, the idea of writing something for money is selling out or not being true to the craft.

That attitude of course is pure, unadulterated effluent. I spent my youth reading many of the classics of literature. And I did enjoy many of them. Towards the end of college, I started reading mainstream stuff. And I realized that the writing in some of them was as good as anything out there. Obviously some of it rests on how one defines "good writing." I am still partial to clever and dare I say beautiful use of the language. I enjoy basic poetry, but in a work of fiction over a handful of pages long, I need more than that.

This topic will ultimately involve subjective definitions, and I certainly understand how people can appreciate language for its own sake. "Literary" fiction generally deals with the human condition in a more graceful and subtle manner than commercial fiction, and many people prefer that. On the other hand, the implication that literary fiction is superior writing always smacks of insecurity to me. It is often accompanied by bemoaning the lack of modern taste for such work. The cold hard fact is that not only do times change, but individual variations in preference (beyond just writing) are one of the defining elements of human existence. Belittling those differences is at best petty. And it serves no one.
I'm thinking that if Dickens were alive today he would be writing crime fiction.
He did write crime fiction: Bleak House

And he was a popular writer in his time, one of the first to go on tour.
I guess you could call Oliver Twist and Great Expectations crime fiction too.
I daresay you're right. I doubt he'd be the only one, either. It sort of reminds me of an interview I saw with Anthony Hopkins a few years ago. They asked him how an actor as good as he could justify continuing to play a character like Hannibal Lector. In a tone oozing with contempt, he replied that he enjoyed it.
Good. That says it.
I think he'd be writing teen vampire romances. He was a sentimentalist at heart.
I think the difference is generally in seriousness of purpose. Literary fiction always tries to be art, popular (commercial) fiction is primarily intended to entertain. Literary fiction generally requires a different kind or degree of attention from the reader, but the rewards are potentially more profound. My favorite books do both: they entertain while offering some insight into the human condition. I admit to not having much patience for the drearier, more earnest types of lit-fic these days, but then I have terrible ADD.


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