Thursday, May 10, 2007

Genre Bias

There has been a lot of discussion on blogs and online magazines over the past few months about the questionable merits of genre labels such as "mystery" or "science fiction" or even "literary". Much of the debate has focused on the common bias among certain reviewers, publications and even publishers towards so-called literary fare, presumably based on an assumption that "popular" fiction is less accomplished or somehow less important.

I think most writers agree that broad genre labels such as "mystery" serve a distinct purpose to help booksellers organize their shelves and, even more importantly, help readers narrow their search for your book. If I want to trip over a dead body, I'll begin my search in the mystery section, but if I want to find an alien or the secret of our existence somewhere out in space, I just might start in the science fiction aisle. From a writer's and a reader's point of view, that seems to make sense.

But the one label that I find utterly useless is the term "literary". The phrase "this is a literary novel" doesn't really tell me anything about a book or whether or not I'd enjoy reading it – in fact, it just might be unreadable. But the label does suggest a certain amount of pretense, the feeling that this is a book I should read instead of a book I want to read. There is a snide implication that reading it will protect me from some politically correct form of social disdain towards anyone who ever enjoyed an action movie. Well, for the record, I never do anything that someone tells me I "should" be doing. Like most crime writers, I am a contrarian at heart.

And like most writers I try to read everything I can get my hands on, from other mystery writers to biographies, science fiction, historical novels, you name it. But I never forget that the "classics" we all read in school were the popular fiction of their time. I'm not sure if they were called literary novels or just damn good books back then, but if you look at the NY Times bestseller list today, I have no doubt Michael Connelly, Lee Child and Laura Lippman will be added to the curriculum by the next generation of English teachers.

I don't know about you, but I'm writing to be read, and I have no apologies for entertaining my readers along the way. Last time I checked, that's the only incentive they have for coming back and listening to what I have to say.

There's another level to genre taxonomy that involves pigeon-holing books into sub-genres such as "cozy", "hard-boiled", or "thriller", but I'll save that debate for another post. As someone who, according to reviewers, wrote an entertaining "hard-boiled noir pulp thriller travelogue adventure novel", I'm not sure I'm qualified to discuss the value of being in a sub-genre. I'm just glad they didn't say that I wrote a literary novel.


Mark Combes said...

We writers are just story tellers when you boil it all down. And as a reader, I can be entertained by head-busting action or by beautifully rendered internal conflict. But in the end, you better tell me a good story. That's what keeps me coming back to the campfire.

Mark Terry said...

This so-called "debate" rears its ugly head on a pretty regular basis. I don't think "literary" does much for readers. And historically almost every so-called classic falls into some type of genre. I just wrote something similar on my own blog, but here are a few examples of so-called literary works that fit inside a defined genre:

Hamlet--political thriller/murder mystery

The Tempest--science fiction/fantasy

The Metamorphosis--fantasy

The Iliad--fantasy/action thriller

Crime and Punishment--need I define its genre?

The Old Man and The Sea--thriller

The Great Gatsby--mystery/thriller

A Tale of Two Cities--historical thriller

My all-time most despised phrase is "surpasses the genre" or something similar, suggesting that if its good, it's better than the genre it is written in. Genre writers and readers know that the books inside the genre are often masterpieces and there's no need to "surpass" them, they're just fine where they are.

Back when Guterson wrote "Snow Falling On Cedars" his publishers kept insisting that this historical crime drama with a court drama embedded in it was not a mystery or crime thriller and refused to submit it for an Edgar because they didn't want this book--which really is quite terrific--be pigeonholed as a mere "mystery."

I've tended to happily accept Tom Clancy's definition of literature with a capital L: "Works of written language that high school students are forced to read 80 years after the death of the author."

Joe Moore said...

Mark C. Nice commentary on the ongoing debate.

Mark T. I heard a different spin on the definition of literary: Award-winning classics that no one buys. :-)

Tim Maleeny said...

Those alternate definitions are great...or should I say classic? And Mark, your list is fantastic – you should create a new sub-genre called "classic genre fiction".

John McFetridge said...

Whenever this comes up I always think that "literature" means books that are more about their theme than their plot.

The really good books, the ones that "transcend the genre" (and this is true of the genre "literary," too) have solid plots and themes.

Mark Combes said...


Very well said. Movies are much the same way. Think of the really great movies - theme and plot are equally great making for a truly "transcendent" experience. Geez, that sounds kinda "literary...."

jbstanley said...


I really appreciate this blog. Most folks dislike being pigeon-holed and writers are no different!I was at the VA Festival of the Book this March and the keynote speaker was Lee Child. Now, this gentleman has sold a lot of books and he was as humble and as kind a person as you could hope to be stuck in a grocery store line with.He dislikes the separation of our genre, claiming that no other genre is forced to endure this. In fact, he said, WE'RE the origin of fiction, for the first tales man ever told were stories of mystery and courage.

Bill Cameron said...

When my agent read an early draft of my second novel, she made the comment, "It's almost a literary novel." Then she hesitated and added, "I didn't mean that the way it sounded!"

But there is one thing being a so-called literary writer may give you: freedom. Once you've written a certain kind of book, it seems that people come to expect you to do that again. Some people get lucky and their efforts to transcend their pigeonhole succeed. Lehane and Connelly come immediately to mind in that regard.

Labels can be very helpful in helping us know what we're getting, but I worry they can be limiting too. So-called literary writers seem to have more freedom, assuming they can break through and make a go of it. No one tells Don DeLillo he has to keep rewriting Under World.