This week's question—"Have you noticed that the jacket blurb for a lot of literary novels has been saying 'a great mystery' or 'a nail-biting thriller' recently? As a mystery writer, what do you think is going on?"—touches on so many other issues about literary vs. genre that it's hard to know where to start in answering it.
Two stories pop to mind any time this question of literary and genre and boundaries and blurring comes up. The first comes from a panel at the 2010 AWP Conference in Denver, one devoted to the teaching of genre writing in the MFA classroom. At one point, one of the panelists (I wish I could remember which now! Anthony Neil Smith? Brian Evenson? Stephen Graham Jones? Tod Goldberg?) made a comment about the difference between literary writing and genre writing: In the latter, he said, the action is at the level of the plot—what happens next?—while in the former, the action is at the level of the sentence, in the prose itself. (The obvious question: Why can't you have both? And the answer: Clearly you can... and about half the time some critic will praise such an effort for "transcending the genre," right?)
More recently, at the 2012 Fall for the Book Festival, the National Book Critics Circle hosted the panel "On Literary and Genre Fiction" with writers including Julianna Baggott, Louis Bayard, and Alma Katsu, and at one point Baggott said that literary and genre (several genres) were indeed distinct parts of the larger geographical landscape, but she argued that the most interesting writing was increasingly being done in the border areas where these various terrains met—whether that was the sci-fi mystery or the literary mystery or the whatever whatever. (I'm paraphrasing at best, obviously.)
Good company, if you ask me.
As for the second part of this week's question—"what non-genre novel do you think is a great mystery?"—I want to add that almost every time I've taught a lit class at George Mason University focused on crime fiction (whether detective stories or noir or whatever), I always throw in at least one title on the syllabus that would likely not have been categorized in the genre on most bookstore shelves. Here's a sample of the ones I've included:
- Walker Percy's Lancelot in a course on detective stories
- Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle as true crime
- Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men in the course "Crime Stories from Page to Screen"
- Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts in an American noir class
- and both Borges' "Death and the Compass" and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in a survey of short mystery fiction