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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Well, there are differences in style, technique, etc. Genre fiction has a more clearly defined and rigidly adhered to set of expectations than literary fiction does, though literary fiction is not free of expectations either. If you were given two manuscripts, one genre, one literary, without any author names or anything, most likely you'd be able to pick out pretty quickly which was which. Whether one or the other is "bad" depends on the prejudices and sensibilities of the reader.

I don't think all it takes to be considered "literary" is a complex, well-plotted story. There's lots of literary fiction that is not well-plotted at all, and lots that aren't complex (of course that depends on just how one defines "complex").

The one thing that does get me though, about "genre" fiction, though perhaps I'm alone with this opinion, is that too often amongst genre writers (or in the discussion of genre writing at least), the craft of fiction is taken for granted. There are countless discussions about publication, about the publishing industry and how it works, how to get ahead, questioning whether such and such will sell, etc., but there is not a lot of talk of craft, not much analysis of technique. To me this is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, because it seems that too often the discussion jumps ahead to how to sell the work and leaves out the part about how to go about writing it.

Honestly, it sometimes gives me the impression that genre writers don't take the craft seriously, which is not to say they don't care about what they're doing, but that maybe they're underestimating just how complex the craft is. Just reading a lot of novels can be good enough, if one is reading with analysis in mind, but just reading for fun is like practicing your golf swing without having the proper form first; just because you do it a lot doesn't mean you're going to get better.

When there is talk of craft, the advice tends to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive. So we get shallow phrases like "show, don't tell" which doesn't really tell you much at all, and ignores the many instances when telling is better than showing, or discussions of POV that are little more than first person vs third person, and which "person" the story is told in is only the beginning of POV.

I don't know how many people are familiar with Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction, but I'm reading it right now and I highly recommend it. The book goes into great detail about how narrative techniques are used, without condemning one view over another. The beginning talks about "show, don't tell" and how incredibly limiting such a view is, and Booth also acknowledges that changing trends and attitudes about fiction over the years change what is and is not "acceptable" in fiction.

I'm getting off topic so I'll stop now, but it's the craft of fiction that gets overlooked too much, perhaps even among the literary crowd (I haven't been around such crowds since graduating college, so I don't know). But I do believe the literary crowd is more likely to talk about how to write and the genre crowd is more likely to talk about how to get published. I think that is a real difference between the two camps, at least that has been my experience.
I find that "show don't tell" is good for beginning writers who have problems with specificity, but it is, as you say, shallow when taken as a precept.

Speaking of craft -- and I'm glad you shifted the discussion to it -- I'm concerned about climaxes. I've been reading a LOT of crime fiction and I find myself often speed-reading or even skipping over material that leads up to a climactic moment. This happens particularly in save the woman and save the child endings. I just finished a Bill Pronzini novel where I did this, and I respect this writer immensely.

In the novel I'm working out there is a big, cinematic climax with lots of violence that involves rescue. What I'm aiming for is something so surprising that the usual tension building devices are unnecessary.
I think the key is to stay away from the save the woman/child ending unless you can turn it inside out somehow.

I think surprise is good, but there's a question of setting up the reader, creating suspense, etc. Hitchcock talked about the difference betwee shock and suspense this way: in a shock movie, a young, unsuspecting woman climbs a flight of stairs and, at the top, a knife-wielding maniac jumps out and attacks her! In suspense, a young, unsuspecting woman climbs a flight of stairs and the audience knows a knife-wielding maniac is waiting for her. It all depends what you're going for, I guess.
Excellent point, Doug. A climactic scene needs to be the culmination of everything that's happened to that point, not simply the end of a forty page finale (like an action movie). It doesn't even have to be surprising, so much as it has to be "right".
Hmm, I guess I disagree (though I could perhaps be convinced otherwise). I think "show don't tell" says a hell of a lot. It is high level as opposed to in the weeds, and obviously one can get more detailed, but it was the single most helpful thing to me when I first started. And quite frankly I don't agree that there are "many" instances where telling is better than showing. There are a few situations, and some crime/thriller novels have more of those situations than other genres, but it's always good to look at every situation where you are "telling" and see if it can be changed to more "showing".

as for POV, I guess I must be reading different discussions than you. I never have read an examination of POV that spent any kind of time on first person versus third. As you say, that really has very little to do with POV.

I guess I should note that the vast majority of \writing craft stuff I read is on blogs, and I think that tends to be very detailed and based on personal experiences from writers who have some writing under their belt. That doesn't mean I agree with every suggestion, but the context of much of it tends to make it more valuable.
Yes, B.R. And still they label some mysteries literary. I fail to see what this is based on, except perhaps the excessive length of some books.

And John, I think it is possible to transcend a simple movement from crime to justice (or catching the killer), if the idea of justice is replaced by one of a personal sense of duty. Many police procedurals that are character-driven include a choice, challenge, or test for the protagonist that expands the narrative from the mere puzzle-solving to something greater and more meaningful about human beings and society. (Though I tend to go very easy on social issues -- too close to an agenda.)
Usually the subtext is that legal justice is flawed (too harsh or too lenient) and that TRUE justice can and should be meted out by the protagonist. That's another pretty standard genre convention, although certainly better than the straight-up morality plays that a lot of writers seem content to produce.
I think in the best cases the characters discover what is just or unjust and it often a surprise. Morality plays don't interest me except when they're done by somebody like Cormac McCarthy. In two of his more recent novels, No Country for Old Men and The Road, the situations are extreme enough that the characters and reader long for something that seems to have been missing for a long time. The necessity of it is made apparent by the almost total lack of it in nearly everybody in the books but the central characters. In The Road, it's called "carrying the fire." He doesn't say what the fire is, but we know it is some kind of sine qua non. To have it is to be human.

C.S. Lewis would have brought in Christianity here, but not McCarthy. We have to figure out what "the fire" is.

The condition of the world at present makes me long for it.
Well, The Road isn't a straight morality play because evil has clearly triumphed: it's a post-apocalyptic world straight out of Revelation. I think McCarthy brings on the Biblical references hot and heavy, but it certainly isn't the standard feel-good Christianity of C.S. Lewis: it's of a much darker and more interesting variety. I think "the fire" is humanity; you're not fully human unless you have some kind of minimal moral code, at least according to McCarthy.
I read both "literary" and crime fiction, and I agree the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Some crime and mystery writers are wonderful from a literary standpoint - I agree about John Harvey, for example - and others are more pedestrian.

Many of the "literary" books I read are chosen by my Unitarian Universalist book club. They tend to be by authors who've been published by The New Yorker or reviewed favorably either there or in the NY Times Book Review. For example, right now I'm reading and enjoying Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. To me, a major difference is that these books are character-driven rather than plot-driven. Most of the characters are seriously troubled, and there are usually no satisfying resolutions to their travails.

Last winter I was selected to take part in a short story workshop series at the NYS Writers Institute conducted by James Lasdun, whose recent collection, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is titled It's Beginning to Hurt.. There again, characters afflicted by severe weltschmertz were overwhelmingly favored.

Whatever the genre, beautiful writing stands out and keeps me reading.

Julie Lomoe
Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso
Thanks for the recommendation of Elizabeth Strout.


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