Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Crossing the lines

Reading: Despite literary fiction genre bias, elements of crime fiction make it into literary fiction all the time. Write a mystery/crime-style synopsis of a novel that was crime fiction in all but name. (Bonus points for cheekiness.)

by Dietrich Kalteis

I’m going to stray off this question a bit and instead share some thoughts on genre. 

A novel’s prime focus determines it’s genre, which is a way to classify and to give readers the broad strokes of what to expect. The danger is a reader might dismiss a really good book based on preconceived ideas of its genre. While I’ve been guilty of that at times, I do believe any writing should be judged individually and on its own merits. Shouldn’t it be about the writing itself and the strength of the author’s voice and not the label or the shelf the book’s on?

Some might say the use of violence and twist-endings in mysteries and crime fiction are like crutches to good writing. While genre bias exists, one form of writing outshining another, consider a hardboiled crime-fiction classic like The Big Sleep, written by Raymond Chandler who brought us Philip Marlowe, one of the most memorable characters in any novel. There are classic mysteries like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and thrillers like Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, and Stephen King’s Misery. How about sci-fi classics like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Westerns like Charles Portis’s True Grit, and military fiction like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Any of these and so many more make strong arguments about the quality of the writing found in their respective genres.

Take a modern crime novel like Don Winslow’s The Force. If that’s not a masterpiece of urban realism, I don’t know what is. And there are many other modern-day masters writing across the genres. Speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood, fantasy by Salman Rushdie, literary fiction by John Irving.

Take a look at the quality of the writing in Cormac McCathy’s crime fiction novel No Country for Old Men. His words are rich and lyrical, yet the story is dark and violent. Then there’s his post-apocalyptic The Road, in which his prose becomes spare across a colorless landscape. Different styles, different genres, but both from the same author, and like all his writing, simply genius.

Sometimes the lines between genres get pretty thin, and they may even cross. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca could wear several labels, and at the same time it stands the test of time. And that’s also saying something about the quality of the writing. The aforementioned Catch 22 edges into historical fiction, war drama, satire and dark humor. While William Golding’s Lord of the Flies could be considered equal parts allegory, YA and literary fiction. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is both historical fiction and romantic drama, and JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter books could also fit onto several genre shelves.

So high brow versus blue collar. A quick read or something deep. Just give me a writer with a great voice and a well-told story, and I won’t worry about the novel’s genre label.


RJ Harlick said...

Totally agree, Dietrich. But tell that to the Can LIt decision makers, the publishers, the reviewers and those who give out the big money awards and of course Canada Council, where genre fiction is a dirty word. I'd much rather read a crime novel that totally engages me than one of those obscure literary gems that leaves me wondering what in the world I had just read

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Yeah, it does seem like genre fiction's a dirty word in some circles. I don't get that, Robin, when there are so many good books that fall under that label.

Loreth Anne White said...

I'm of the school that thinks of 'literary' as a genre in itself. Not something over and above genre. Whereby ... some crime fiction uses elements of the literary genre, or the romance genre, for example. Or vise versa. Depending on the main Story Question which sets reader expectation. I like to think also, that in this digital age where books are not restricted to certain physical shelf spaces in a brick and mortar store ... genre lines are blurring even further. A cross-genre book can be cyber stocked on several different genre shelves simultaneously.