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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Doing both is the whole idea.
... the difference is generally in seriousness of purpose. Literary fiction always tries to be art, popular (commercial) fiction is primarily intended to entertain.

I think you're right about this.

Unfortunately, too often some fiction is given too much credit for its intent and some not enough.

We often have to wait a long time after a book is published to know which of these categories it actually fits into.
Ultimately the categories don't matter. A book will be remembered or not for its artfulness, its insight, the degree to which it entertains, the quality of the writing, and so on. The kinds of people who care about the external stuff are usually incredibly boring at cocktail parties.

I still like G.K. Chesterton's formulation. He thought there were four kinds of books: good good books, bad good books, good bad books and bad bad books. A good good book is a successful literary novel; a bad bad book is a failed genre novel, etc. The only two kinds you want to write are good good books and good bad books, although God knows there are plenty of the other two around. A lot of my favorite books are good bad books, including (I like to think) my own.
The changing trends and attitudes have something to do with this too. Moby-Dick, one of my favorites, was not a classic in Melville's time. In fact, Melville died in obscurity. It wasn't until much later that Moby-Dick and Melville himself were looked at more favorably.
True. Also, if Melville were alive today and brought his ms to a publisher or agent, they would reject it because it was "not commercial."
I sometimes read really boring and predictable crime fiction (I get thirty pages in and quit usually) that seems to be consciously written to push certain buttons: titillation, stock characters and situations, confirmation of a particular set of beliefs.

I kind of like a comedian who TRIES to be funny and falls on his face.

I think you've really got to love what you're doing to make it work.
We get on this, frequently painful, discussion from time to time. I have gathered that most of us here have very different aims with our writing, and that crime fiction allows that kind of stretch without relinquishing quality.

I, for example, never set out to write "art" but rather something closer to "truth." That takes me occasionally into the realm of the "literary." I'm aware of it and also know that doing this may mean giving up something else many mystery readers prefer. Occasionally I must put an idea aside because the book needs some action and high drama, or a new conflict. Genre writing is a bit like tightrope-walking: you have to remember the requirements and limitations or you fall on your face.
True. It's worth thinking about why crime fiction is so popular. It's addictive, but the substance is humanly necessary. I think the world is such that people don't often get a chance to do the right thing, deliver justice, or even know what justice to deliver. There is a part of being human that speaks to these issues that demands nourishment. The very best of crime fiction does this. People grow when they are engaged in moral necessity (I use the word "moral" sparingly and with great trepidation).
In many cases what makes crime fiction so popular is also what limits it artistically. This predetermination for "justice," is something that literary fiction doesn't have.

This isn't good or bad, it's just the way it is and something the writer should consider from the beginning.
I would add that the best crime fiction often doesn't deliver justice, really--or does so imperfectly, or even not at all. Moral complication isn't solely the province of lit-fic--but a lot of crime writers evidently think it is.
I suspect the truly literary greats first wrote a complex, well-plotted story. They weren't worried about writing a 'literary' tome. Melvin heard of a whale story, a true one, about a whale who actually hunted the hunter and then mysteriously disappears into the deep. So he wrote a tale about basic Good and Evil.

I suspect a writer of genre, if they write a complex, well-plotted story, is going to be considered 'literary' by many. Which brings me to this conclusion; 'literary' and 'genre' labels are artificial constructs. They are, for all practical purpose, meaningless.

A damn good book is a damn good book. What else matters?
That nails it. My academic friends have some catching up to do.

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