Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?

September 2, 2011 | 8 books mentioned 95 7 min read

“I’m looking for a mystery,” my agent said.

That was the last thing I expected to hear. When I met David a little over two years ago, I was so struck with his Oxford-educated, sweater-vest-wearing persona that I’d wondered if my literary novel would be literary enough. But now he was not only looking for a mystery, but was also—I’ll spare you the precise language involved—highly dissatisfied with the ones coming across his desk.

“I could write a mystery,” I said.

coverIt’s not just David and I. The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage. Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.

What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a minuscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?

Here’s my take on what’s happening—which, granted, is worth exactly as much as you’re currently paying for it.

Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observation of upper class angst.

But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout.

And as one part of the industry rises, another falls. Magazines and newspapers are dying faster than fruit flies, to the dismay of many writers who counted on nonfiction to supplement their incomes. Advances are lower than they used to be, multi-book deals are becoming as quaint as hoop skirts, and, thanks partially to the rise of ebooks, the author payout per book sale is shrinking. A lot of writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. But those of us who write full-time are scrambling to find additional streams of income just to survive.

Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed—“a horror novel that has no real place among the ten that have come before it”—under the name Chase Novak. He’s taken it to a new mystery imprint, Mulholland Books at Little Brown, and says the genre jump was entirely his idea. “In fact,” he says, “my agent was surprised when I sent her the first forty pages.”

“Creative people switch genres all the time,” says Miriam Parker, Spencer’s publicist at Mulholland, who started at Grand Central and has worked with a broad spectrum of writers. Her fellow publicist Crystal Patriarche agrees. “Writers just want to write,” she says, noting that quite a few members of her primarily female client list have shifted genres during the time she’s worked with them, often combining mainstream with romance or mystery. “They evolve through stages throughout their careers.”

Still, it’s hard to think of very many writers—save possibly Stephen King—who have moved from genre to literary. The floor seems to slope the other way, and Patriarche concedes that sometimes the difference isn’t so much in what the author has written as in how the publisher opts to describe it. “I’ve seen literary books blurbed as something like ‘the thinking woman’s beach read,’” she says. “And that’s a sign that the publisher is trying to appeal to consumers who are more mainstream. In this aspect the change is more industry-driven than author-driven.”

cover Ergo, the case of Dawn Tripp who clicked onto her Amazon page shortly after the publication of her novel Game of Secrets (Random House) only to learn that she’d written a thriller. “One reviewer called it ‘a page turning thriller,’ and another called it ‘a literary thriller told through a poet’s eye,’” says Tripp. “The tag ‘thriller’ surprised me. Although Game of Secrets has a mystery at the heart of it – an unsolved murder played out through a Scrabble game – it does not unfold in a linear way.”

Caroline Leavitt, whose Pictures of You has also been described as a literary thriller, started her career with a different publisher years ago. “My first two literary books were reviewed great but didn’t sell,” she recalls, “and then my publisher called me in and said ‘It’s time to go commercial with your third, so let’s all sit down and hammer out a plot.’” Leavitt followed the outline, “but with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach” and, predictably, the resultant book flopped on both the critical and commercial level. When her publisher didn’t think Pictures of You was commercial enough, she went to Algonquin, a place she describes as an Edenic paradise for writers, and now, after eight books, she has a New York Times best seller.

Even though Leavitt claims she isn’t entirely sure what a literary thriller is, she’ll take it. “A good book is a good book,” she says. “I’ve decided that genre is strictly a marketing tool.” Tripp is equally sanguine. “I don’t balk at the term ‘thriller,’” she says. “I don’t think in terms of genre. I write what moves me.”

While some writers find the genre shift has been almost sprung upon them, others are happy to produce books which are consciously designed to be commercial. Once they get the hang of genre – which can be a steep learning curve as they give themselves a crash course in learning how to plot – they end up having fun with the idea.

“There’s something about writing as Chase Novak that allows me to tell this story in a style that is leaner and more in service to propulsive story,” says Spencer. He took care to choose a style that innately appealed to him as a reader; although he’d never liked fantasy or adventure, “the possibility of horror rearing its head at any moment is something that I give a great deal of thought to while driving my car, taking a walk, or trying to fall asleep. My mother recently said to me ‘When you were little, you were always convinced that Dad and I wanted to kill you.’”

The key to a successful transition is that the writer chooses a genre they enjoy reading, with which he instinctively clicks. I’ve had a blast writing my historical mystery. Not only did the extensive research into Victorian England bring me back to my happy days in journalism, but I bought a bunch of mysteries and read them like a student, breaking apart the plots, analyzing movements through geographic space and time, using note cards to track multiple characters across a layered and detailed literary landscape. Only someone who’s never tried to do this would declare it easier than literary writing, or the books which result less worthy of respect. There’s a big difference between selling and selling out.

Of course, there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.”

So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre.

“You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller’ but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller? The problem is we don’t have names for these books, so we call them by the old names, even when the terms don’t fit.” But like any good publicist, she’s prepared to find the opportunity in the midst of the crisis. “It’s hard to get publicity for any book these days, especially one that’s hard to label, but a book that straddles genres can actually be an opportunity for a publicist to open it up to the readership of both genres.”

cover “More than ever the market requires publicists to approach all books on an individual basis,” says Parker. “I always ask myself ‘Who is the audience for this book and what’s the most effective way to target that audience?’ It can be fun, like when I was at Grand Central and we were bringing out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We created a great video trailer, which was widely viewed and shared, and built an active Facebook community around book.”

It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing.

In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”

Image Credit: Pexels/Dominika Roseclay.

is the author of the novel Love in Mid Air (Grand Central) and a nonfiction guide for writers, Your Path to Publication (Press 53). She and her agent are currently editing her mystery, which she describes as a Victorian CSI and plans to develop into a series.


  1. great essay. i feel like the whole “fantasy for adults” trend is the new “comic books aren’t just for kids”. i’m definitely seeing an uptick in genre being both published and consumed.

  2. I think that more and more literary writers are turning to genre because they’ve been shown that they can, without poisoning their careers. Why should only Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood be allowed to slum it? (Some of those authors are more willing to admit to it than others, mind.)

    In his essay essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”, Chabon points out that it was not always the case that genre works existed in formal ghettos–that is a comparatively recent construct. Although he is specifically addressing the modern short story in that essay, I think the argument is quite as applicable to longform works as well.

    “The genres” and “literature” are not and need not be exclusive sets, and never have been. It’s ridiculous that different sides will try to claim a book like 1984 (or, for that matter, The Road) for themselves. “It’s literature!” “No, it’s science fiction!” “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!”

  3. I agree with Jason – it’s a false dichotomy that dates to perhaps a hundred years ago. Even the idea of the “literary novel” is comparatively recent; the novel only became self-consciously high brow around the time of Flaubert or later. The idea of entertainment as separate from literature and somehow suspect is also quite puritanical. Such segregation of forms is doomed in our post-everything world.

  4. Thanks, Kim! How marvelous! And its great to hear Tripp say – she writes what moves her.. I think that has to be at the heart of a writer’s work, just as the research for Jack was exciting for you! And then call the work what we will for marketing. I know I spent years working out a novel that would not leave me, and now that its complete its freed me up to do something else now. Its nice to know I don’t have to do the same thing again. Because hopefully, we are all changing, and growing and learning.

  5. This is encouraging news. I think bringing ‘literary’ and ‘thriller’ together is a great win for readers and writers.

  6. But I can still understand the literary fiction writer’s desire to keep the work pure, as Art, not commercial fare.

  7. @elle–genre and Art are not mutually exclusive, and neither are ‘literature’ and commerce.
    I think you have to take every work on its own basis.

    “This book is set in the future, therefore it is a genre work, therefore it is commercial fiction, therefore it has no artistic merit,” is not a valid argument.

    “This book is about a literature professor struggling to come to terms with human nature, therefore it is capital L Literature, therefore it is Art,” is not a valid argument, either.

  8. Jonathan Lethem (who crosses & mixes the genres quite effortlessly) wrote a provocative article for the Voice some years ago about the divide–his background history of where and how “genre” and “literary” split fills in the gaps around what you’ve speculated here. The full text has gone missing online but can be found in an at least one anthology (The Best Science Fiction Writing, can’t remember which year) and is nicely excerpted at the Rumpus. http://therumpus.net/2009/08/29007/

  9. Good points, but I don’t love the connotation that writing for genre is “slumming it.” In fact, I hate it.

  10. The Lethem article also makes the good point, which this essay glosses over, that the genre side of the “divide” is JUST as responsible for said divide. Genre fans and writers often act angrily at “outside incursions” from writers who don’t write purely in said genre.

    In fact, you are probably much more likely to see literary magazines publish genre authors (McSweeney’s and Conjunctions and others have done it) than to see genre magazines publish literary writers. Similarly, you are more likely to see major literary awards nominate books with a genre bent than to see the major genre awards nominate literary works.

  11. Brilliant and eye-opening, Kim. The line between genre and literary fiction is an arbitrary one, and fairly new. Gary is being tongue in cheek saying Dickens and Dostoevsky were mystery writers, but the fact is, they were popular fiction writers. They set out to entertain, not impress MFA professors. I think what you’re doing is fantastic. Great piece. Will RT!

  12. I loved this piece. I think the blurring of boundaries between genres that’s happened over the past few years is a wonderful thing for writers and readers alike. It gives writers the freedom to write the book we want to write, without worrying too much about where it’s going to be shelved, and it gives readers more books that are both meticulously plotted and beautifully written (as a reader, I want both gorgeous prose and a strong plot.)

  13. Kurt Vonnegut moved from genre to “literary” writing. Ursula LeGuin is a genre writer who is accepted in the “literary” world. Octavia Butler, another MacArthur-certified genius, was also.

    They’re just a small sample, and of course what they have in common is writing in that genre you didn’t deign to mention: science fiction, the genre that is supposed to dare not speak its name.

    Too often, when “literary” writers decide to write science fiction, they think they’re slumming, and they make that clear. They don’t think they need to know anything about the genre, they don’t know when their “original, ground-breaking” story has been done to death by others, and that things don’t have to make sense because “it’s just science fiction.” (e.g. Kazuo Ishiguro’s _Never Let Me Go)

    The one thing that all the genres have in common, that “literary” fiction often lose track of, is that the writers have not forgotten the basic job of a writer of fiction: Tell me a story.

  14. Great piece. Like Emily, I also want beautiful writing and a strong plot. But–not to be Debbie Downer here–this confuses some readers, as I have learned the hard way. I’m also one of those people who wrote a novel not realizing it was a “thinking woman’s beach book” or a thriller, until Amazon told me it was…I’ve learned that if there is a murder in your book, even if it’s in the past and the book is about its aftereffects, you’ve written a murder mystery, and murder mystery readers have very specific expectations.

    In my case, some readers think I use too many big words and that the fluid time structure is weird and confusing. And if they get to the end and don’t know whodunit, they are not happy. At the other end, readers cry too much plot.

    Luckily, there are many in the middle who want the same combination I do. Being a Southerner who was raised on the Old Testament, Greek tragedy and Faulkner, I never thought plot–murder, suicide, incest, etc.–was weird; I thought it was a requirement. Dawn Tripp is absolutely right–we have to write what moves us. Hopefully the publicity department can keep up.

    Lev Grossman had a good piece on plot in the WSJ a while back: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574377163804387216.html

    And there’s an article in this week’s New Yorker about Dwight Macdonald and the midcentury fight against middlebrow. It seems that in the literary world, the fight, or at least the confusion, continues.

  15. Great essay. I really liked the market oriented analysis you bring to the table in the last few paragraphs. I don’t know very much about the economics of the book publishing industry, but I’d imagine it’s a lot like the world of film: here’s the money we’ll put into it, you better make it back for us. if you do, one way or the other, here’s another shot at it…the difference being, of course, that a director needs much more time, money, space, and manpower to get the vision across and a writer essentially needs a pen and paper.

    I recently did a bit of research on Raymond Chandler and it was interesting to see that the letters are full of griping about how he isn’t taken seriously because he’s really just a genre guy- hats, gats, dames, and plots in the seedy underbelly blah blah blah. Sure, he cranked out his share of potboilers for magazines but when he sat down to write it wasn’t just about dollar signs.

    It’s really heartening to me that we are now more apt to see artistry in genres of all kinds (be it sci-fi, noir, erotica, whatever) and consider “literature” to signify: good writing! Lots of great writers sold well, were maybe a little sensationalistic (and getting paid by the word), but are still comfortably designated as “literary”- I mean, who’s cutting Dickens out of the club because people clamored for the latest on the death of little Nell?

    Anyway, great article, thanks for posting!

  16. I agree with some of the commenters above that we make a huge mistake when we assume genre writing is “designed to be commercial,” or even when we refer to writing as “genre” because it is well researched, or has an element of mystery to it, or is smutty or suspenseful. The classics that have held on through the emergence of modernism were all of these things, and we don’t call them genre — we call them the canon. Not that I’m indicting modernism or post-modernism, but it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t responding to a previous tradition.

    The literary community is always eager to issue the complaint that “no one reads anymore,” as if the fault lies solely with the reader for being so lazy. But reading is a form of entertainment like anything else, and the same rules of natural selection apply to it. If so-called genre novels are “commercial,” well, I’d respond that too many soi-disant literary novels smack of the novelist trying to define our times, to make him- or herself immortal by encapsulating the present moment, when the real key to literary immortality is pretty simple: just write something people actually want to read!

    Like Matt (above) says: no matter what the subject, or tone, or structure of the book in question, good writing is good writing.

  17. Robert Boswell has an essay called “Private Eye Point of View”, part of which argues that hard-boiled detective fiction can be thought of as literary fiction because the genre is inherently character-driven. I wouldn’t do it justice to summarize it here but it’s in his great book The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction.

  18. “The one thing that all the genres have in common, that “literary” fiction often lose track of, is that the writers have not forgotten the basic job of a writer of fiction: Tell me a story.”

    I actually think the reverse is equally true. Or rather, too often literary writers forget to tell a STORY but too often genre writers forget to TELL a story. Which is to say, genre writers forget that the story needs to be told well. The writing is a part of the story and you need much more than just an idea to make it come alive. Most genre fiction is written pretty poorly. Even most of the sci-fi greats are honestly mediocre writers on a sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter level. There are exceptions, such as Gene Wolfe, but they are few and far between.

  19. I agree with Lis Carey above, and would like to add another point that a lot of people are in serious denial about: “literary” is a genre too, with its own set of accepted tics and tropes.

    Also, a lot of my favorite books are crossovers between different genres, so the idea of a “literary thriller” (or a “literary mystery” or “literary romance”) doesn’t sound at all strange to me. Cross-pollination is one of the things that produces hybrid vigor, and this is as true in writing as it is in biology.

  20. ” “literary” is a genre too, with its own set of accepted tics and tropes.”

    This is a really meaningless statement that gets thrown around a lot. There is no “genre” definition that would encompass everyone in ‘literary” writing from Franzen to Ben Marcus to Flannery O’Connor to Coover to a million others.

    What might be more accurate is to say that literary fiction has a bunch of genres–magical realism, domestic realism, etc.–inside of it, but as a whole it isn’t a genre.

  21. One can say the same of science fiction though, #53. Does Philip K. Dick have much in common with David Drake? Does Lovecraft have much in common with Asimov?

    I do agree that literary fiction is an ur-genre, but so too is SF.

  22. Nick: I agree that sci-fi is a very large genre/ur-genre, larger than most, but it isn’t the same as the term “literary.” There are at least some minimum standards for what can be called sci-fi, wouldn’t you think? Some kind of fictional technology perhaps? But there quite literally aren’t any elements, themes or anything else that has to be present for something to be literary.

    Work in the “Literary” section runs the gamut from absurdest to serious, funny to horrific, realist to surrealist, olden times to futuristic times, etc. The term is less a genre, in any sense, than it is a qualitative judgment. It really means “of high artistic merit” This is why plenty of genre authors have been absorbed into the literary canon, including sci-fi ones.

    This makes “literary” a problematic term (as all these terms are), but it simply isn’t the case that “literary” means a genre in the sense that “western” or “romance” do. It really means something else, something qualitative. We can feel free to complain about who makes the judgement or what judgments are made, etc. But the term is not used in the same way genre terms are.

  23. 53—well, one subgenre of SF is the alternative history, and alt. hist doesn’t necessarily contain some sort of fictional technology. What makes something literary fiction? It’s a good question—I’m tempted to answer that the subject of literary fiction is the individual personality, the bourgeois subject. I’m sure there are many exceptions, but there are also many exceptions to any definition of SF anyone has managed to come up with.

    Another possible view is taxonomical: what makes The Road literary fiction and not some kind of post-apocalyptic SF? The books that the book McCarthy wrote is made out of. This might also explain the late blending of literary and genre fiction–writers today grew up reading genre fiction and literary fiction, thanks to mass culture.

    I look askance at a view of “literary fiction” as “the good stuff”, as there is plenty of bad literary fiction (by which I mean realist fiction, or postmodern fiction, or any of the subgenres in the ur-category.) I suppose I’d prefer to use the term “literature” for “the good stuff” but that’s just a preference.

  24. Nick: I fully disagree with the idea of alternative history as a sub-genre of science fiction. I know that this is debated a lot, but I don’t buy it.

    For The Road question, the book is both literary and science fiction as far as I’m concerned. However, if I was forced to look at things from a “separate camp” angle I’d prefer to look at it int he same way that one thinks about musical genres, which is to say you think about lineage, influences, style, and what “scene” a band arises from. In music you don’t say “anything with loud guitars is a punk song” in the way that literary people try to say “anything with a murder is a mystery, anything that takes place in the future is sci-fi, etc.” You look more at the influences and overall style and lineage. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that McCarthy’s influences are more likely to be “literary writers” like Faulkner than science fiction novels.

    My contention is not that “literary” equals “the good stuff” but rather that this is how the term is most often used. As I say, it is problematic (although what isn’t in art?), but it is still the case. For example, when critics sit around debating if this sci-fi author or that fantasy author is “literary” they aren’t saying those authors AREN’T sci-fi or fantasy. They are saying they are sci-fi/fantasy, yet represent “the good stuff” of that genre and so can also be called literary.

  25. Another way to look at a book like The Road is that it does not seem to concern itself with the possibilities of future technology, the evolution of man, or any other particularly sci-fi themes. Indeed, the sci-fi elements are completely washed out of the book. We don’t know why the world is an apocalyptic state and the book is concerned with the style, setting the mood, and the horrors and struggles of the characters. And there are perhaps even better examples of works with even fewer interest in the science fiction elements or sci-fi themes (people have argued to me that The Plot Against America is a science fiction book, based on the bizarre idea that all alternative history is sci-fi).

    Which leads me to ask: At what point does a work become science fiction (or any other genre)? Does merely the presence of one trope turn it into a book in that trope’s genre? For example, if I were to rewrite The Great Gatsby but make one minor character a robot, does the entire book suddenly become a sci-fi book? What if it is a major character, but nothing else about the book changes? If I make a minor character a wizard, is the book a fantasy? (What if one minor character is a wizard and one a robot?)

    At what point do the tropes and themes congeal to turn the work over to that genre?

  26. Good points. One interesting answer to your question about the point of which a story becomes SF might be when there is a substantial “novum”


    Great Gatsby with a robot might be SF—one supposes it would depend on whether the the implications of a robot running around influenced the setting, plot, etc. If it was just a minor character with no other effect, that might be an example of failed science fiction, or bad science fiction.

    At what point does it really happen? Probably no point in particular, except via intersubjective verification—SF, like literary fiction, is what we point to when we say “SF” or “literary fiction”, provided that “we” are clever readers and are also aware of the economic and cultural milieu in which we’re doing the pointing. So when Jonathan Lethem’s early SF novels were reissued by another publisher, with different covers, and with rejigged BISAC numbers to encourage shelving under Fic/Lit rather than Sci-Fi/Fant….we can still point accurately without simply being confused by the relocation to a tonier neighborhood.

  27. M. write: “Genre fans and writers often act angrily at “outside incursions” from writers who don’t write purely in said genre,” and this article is a very fine demonstration of why that antipathy exists. It snobbishly assumes that the only conceivable reasons for literary writers to move into genre are a) money, and b) that there’s no such thing as genre anyway, just a marketing label (i.e. money again). The possibility that genre, and particularly science fiction, might offer writers the tools with which to approach their world in a way that mimetic fiction doesn’t is never even raised, despite the examples of authors like Chabon, Lethem, Vonnegut, Atwood, McCarthy, and many others. So long as this unthinking condescension exists on the literary side of the divide, genre readers have every right to be suspicious of authors (and readers) who assume that writing in genre is nothing more than jobbing for a quick buck.

  28. Abigail: I’m sorry if it seemed I was being condescending toward genre. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of my intent. As I mentioned above, writing my mystery gave me renewed respect for how intellectually challenging it can be to plot and move multiple characters through a complex story line. Writing is hard, publishing’s harder, and finding an audience for your book once it’s out is such a complex and nebulous process that it feels like a crapshoot. I can’t imagine a sane person, no matter what their literary heritage, thinking of any sort of writing as “jobbing for a quick buck.”
    My main point in the article is that despite the unpredictabilites of the writing life, many of us love it and a quite a few of us are trying to make a living at it. This requires us to be aware of the commerical possibilites, or lack thereof, of the projects we’re working on, which has led to some writers blending the themes/techniques we think of as genre with the themes/techniques we thnk of as literary. And while there has been some wailing about this – “Poaching!” “Disrepsect for tradition!” “Selling out!” – I suspect that genre-blending often results in better books.
    The writers are leading the way and it remains to be seen how long it will take for the industry – whether publicists, agents, editors, publishers, or the people shelving the books at the local B&N – to catch up with the trend and figure out how to present these books to the reading public.

  29. The concept of literature is fairly nebulous in the first place. Literature not a genre – despite “literary fiction” being used as one as a sort of marketing tag like “Tesco’s Finest” – and it’s not even really a binary condition that you can apply to works in my opinion. The best you can really do is say that aspects of a work, its devices and so on, are “literary”. What is the threshold that must be passed for a work to be deemed literature? How is it measured? This is coming from someone with a first class BA in Eng Lit who’s had three years of study in which to figure out exactly what literature is and what separates it from the rest and still came away with the overwhelming notion that it’s a term academia likes to use for “the stuff we like”.

    @Abigail: “The possibility that genre, and particularly science fiction, might offer writers the tools with which to approach their world in a way that mimetic fiction doesn’t is never even raised,” < Anyone claiming to be a "literary" author should really understand that SF's mode of cognitive estrangement (also seen in Fantasy and Magic Realism but in slightly different forms) is actually an extremely literary concept in itself. Darko Suvin's writings on this hit me like a comet to the forehead and have forever changed my ideas of what SF&F are.

    Perhaps there may be a sense that genre authors can't be trusted to use it properly, unlike the stars of "literary fiction" who can supposedly just jump in and use the tools to create masterpieces? I have a massive amount of suspicion of feted "lit fic" authors writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy because their supposed eminence is meant to mean they can excel at whatever they turn their hands to, as if good and 'literary' works of SF&F haven't existed previously.

    This technique of estrangement, seeing things differently or more clearly in the new light of technology/"magic", is actually a very old trick in my opinion. Renaissance writers, for instance, used to set works in distant lands that were really thinly-veiled versions of their own cultures, so that they could examine their own societies from an artificial distance. Sci-Fi writers took it into the industrial age and into the postmodern era. I reckon some may have a view of SF&F existing in isolation in some kind of literary ghetto, trashy works informed by trashy works, when in fact like everything else they stand on the shoulders of thousands of years of literary history and have evolved and continue to evolve in response to countless influences.

  30. “Literary fiction” is just another genre. It’s a genre that has ALL the cliches other genres do, but also is snotty enough to believe it’s “better” than other genres. It’s just not. It’s merely pretentious.

    Calling a novel a “literary” horror novel is ridiculous. The same goes for “literary” science fiction, romance, adventure or any other genre. When I see “literary” tagged in front of another genre, I read it to mean that the author believes himself to be better than the ordinary hardworking “regular” genre writers. It’s laughable. I think it also means that the author hasn’t even been bothered to actually read any “genre” beyond Neil Gaiman.

    “Literary” fantasy writer Lev Grossmen is “better” than old mainstay fantasy genre writer George RR Martin? LOL. It’s all so stupid. Books are either great or not. The term “literary” is just plain old marketing.

  31. Exactly! And leave us not forget a classy writer of arguably some of the best English language around, your own William Shakespeare, who wrote some dandy murder stories.

  32. Even the comments on the article make me happy — apart from the odd raised hackle from the SF corner, which I think is quite unwarranted here.

    “The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon.”

    Nuff said. And I’m totally with you on the “mongrels are healthier” argument. Kudos.

  33. What a fantastic article! Being an avid reader and writer, I continue to be confused as to what is and what is not literary fiction. I also cannot understand why a writer is challenged if he/she decides to move into “genre” writing. It’s the story that ‘s important. And ultimately, the public decides whether it’s worth reading. The same struggle exists for artists, who choose to deviate from what their galleries expect from them. The same goes for actors who get typecast. When are we going to accept the fact that we are all multidimensional as people and capable of so much more?

  34. Nick:

    To me, Great Gatsby with a minor character as a robot wouldn’t be bad or failed sci-fi. It wouldn’t be enough to change the genre, to me at least. If Donald Barthelme or some post-modern writer includes a sentence about aliens or robots, I see no reason why that one sentence overrides the rest of the story to shift it into sci-fi.

    To me, at least, that seems like an overly literal reading of the genre’s name akin to saying that any song that has lyrics about emotion is an “emo song.”

  35. Abigail:

    “So long as this unthinking condescension exists on the literary side of the divide, genre readers have every right to be suspicious of authors (and readers) who assume that writing in genre is nothing more than jobbing for a quick buck.”

    In my experience, as someone who reads widely in both “literary” and “genre” and interacts with hardcore fans of both, the readers and writers on the “genre” side are just as likely, and perhaps more likely, to offer unthinking condescension. I have certainly heard hardcore Sci-Fi fans talk down about Fantasy, Romance and other genres* in far harsher ways than I’ve heard “literary” fans talk about genre and I’ve heard plenty of bile spit at the literary “side” from them.

    Which is to say, we should all stop viewing this as a war between rival sides and also look at what everyone has done wrong. Yes, it is very much true that literary critics and awards have snubbed their noses at great works of genre over time. But it is equally true that genre critics and awards have snubbed their nose at great works by so-called literary authors, even ones that fall into those genres.

    Magazines, awards, critics, and readers on BOTH sides could do much more to bridge whatever caps and walls are left between genre and literary.

    *even in this thread you can see several comments that posit that science fiction is superior to other genres. Hell, I might even agree, but just noting that the genre condensation is hardly restricted to literary writers.

  36. Kim: I’m glad to know that it wasn’t it your intention to come across as condescending, but the issue you raised wasn’t whether or not it’s difficult to write genre, but why writers from the mainstream side of the divide choose to cross it. The answer you’ve given both in the article and in your reply to me is rooted purely in financial considerations, not artistic ones. My point, as elaborated on by Alex, is that genre, and particularly science fiction, is inherently different to mimetic writing, that its effect and the tools it uses to achieve that effect are also different, and that writers who choose to use those tools may be doing so because they want to do something they couldn’t do in mimetic fiction.

    On the other hand, maybe you’re right – maybe mainstream writers are only crossing into genre because it’s lucrative. But in that case, isn’t that a bad thing, and something for genre readers to watch out for?

  37. Abigail – so glad you posted again. When I wrote this article I thought the most controversial part might be the idea of writers switching genre on the basis of potential profitability and I’ve been surprised that most of the posts have been about what constitutes genre. I think for writers who are struggling to make a living in the current publishing environment that yeah, finances are part of their decision making process. But I don’t think that automatically means they’re all writing inferior books.
    When I wrote my literary novel, Love in Mid Air, one of the key themes is that when the heroine divorces, it affects her circle of close female friends, who don’t want to examine their own choices and who don’t want to see Elyse upseting their comfortable suburban applecart. One of the primary themes of my mystery, which revolves around the hunt for Jack the Ripper and the establishment of the first forensics lab at Scotland Yard, is that my protagonist Trevor is both the emblem of the science-driven forward-thinking modern man and someone who deeply yearns for stability and tradition. What both themes have in common is a protagonist who is simultanously pushed forward and pulled back, who has mixed feelings about the steps he/she must take.
    Obviously, this is a very general theme and could be explored via almost any structural vehicle we could think of, from haiku to epic.
    Some writers claim that the idea and the form the idea must take arrives already linked in their minds. But for me, and I suspect some others, the idea arrives and then the writer steps back and makes a series of decisions on how best to explore that particular theme within a story. And yes, just as you say, finances might be part of that decision. It’s a very tough time to be selling literary fiction and I literally couldn’t afford to present my agent with something he couldn’t sell. Especially not if I knew I could recast the idea as a mystery and therefore have an easier time finding a publisher and an audience.
    Does that automatically mean I’ve sold out or that my second novel is inferior to my first? Does it mean longtime mystery writers have any reason to resent or fear me? I don’t think so.
    The real struggle isn’t between writers of different genres fretting about where they are on some imaginary pecking order. The real struggle is to convince more people to read and then to read more, If we can collectively do that, the rising tide will lift all boats.

  38. Great read, Kim. I’m a writer who keeps crossing back and forth – first novel was an SF paperback, second was a literary/blue collar novel, and my newly released third (Blood Clay) is a crime novel/literary/Southern. “Writers like to write,” as one of your sources said, and I enjoy the variety of storytelling across forms and genres. I always take heart in Sturgeon’s Law – 90 percent of SF may be crap, but so is 90 percent of everything.

  39. Who is tying the hands of writers and classifying them as belonging solely to one genre or another? Set the writers free, and let them do what they do best, tell a great story!

  40. Dennis Lehane is another example of a writer who moved from genre to literary (with THE GIVEN DAY). In a recent interview he said: “The social novel went into crime fiction” and I agree. Many talented writers are writing crime to discuss complex social and moral issues. Genre is something that just keeps going stronger and stronger because they aim at a very precise crowd. People know before buying, where they are headed, it’s reassuring, you know?

    That said, the logical progression is to go from genre, into literary. So there are many possible ways to read this trend. Maybe it’s just that more people are reading. In that case, it’s a question of time before literary fiction gains ground again.

  41. I agree with you fully, Benoit. When you look at writers like PD James, Elizabeth George, Kate Atkinson, and, as you mentioned, Dennis Lehane there’s a definite tradition of writers using the crime/mystery genre to explore social issues. You could even argue that Anne Perry does the same thing in the historical mystery camp. It might go back to the basic arc of the mystery which is 1) a crime disrupts the social order or illustrates the degree to which the social order has been slowly unraveling for years 2) our hero works to solve the crime and 3) there is resolution of some sort, even if that resolution is not the complete reestablishment of social order. For example, the detective might find the killer and solve the case, but not necessarily solve the underlying social problem that lead to the crime. Mystery/crime seems especially well suited to the task of showing societal decay.

  42. Good article. As a reader who reads quite a lot of genre fiction, I have to say that I look for writers who are storytellers. Sometimes, “literary fiction” forgets to tell a compelling story. Then we are left with the literary equivalent of watching paint dry. Sometimes the use of language, instead of being in service of the story, interferes with it.

    Of course, a lot of genre fiction has a story to tell but doesn’t tell it well. That doesn’t work, either.

    Many of the comments by “literary” writers and readers about science fiction reveal ignorance of the genre. So, The Road or Never Let Me Go (both of which I enjoyed) are not science fiction because they don’t focus on imagined technology, but on how the characters are affected? A lot of science fiction is like that.

  43. As the literary marketplace axis shifts to e-books and smaller, independent publishers, several changes become immediately apparent. First, gone are the gate-keepers of old, the editors and publishers that push back against a tsunami of marginal manuscripts. They’re being replaced by reader reviews, the first place people look before taking a chance on an unknown writer. Second, genre as a concept doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Cyber-bookshelves don’t have to be neat or organized in old-fashioned ways. Rules are being broken. Sure, a few too many vampires are finding love as they solve crimes, but we’re coming to the end of genre as an organizing concept.

  44. “Many of the comments by “literary” writers and readers about science fiction reveal ignorance of the genre. So, The Road or Never Let Me Go (both of which I enjoyed) are not science fiction because they don’t focus on imagined technology, but on how the characters are affected? A lot of science fiction is like that.”

    Is this really what anyone is arguing here? I debated The Road, so I assume you are addressing this to me. My contention would certainly not be about “how characters are affected.” For The Road, I said I think it should be considered both sci-fi and literary. I don’t see these as separate. However, if one did believe they were separate camps, I think an interesting question would be about true influences and lineage.

    So much of genre is about the conversation within the genre. Different writers playing off tropes and responding to each other. Is The Road in conversation more with these books, or with books normally thought of as literary? Is McCarthy’s influence more Faulkner or Harlan Ellison?

    My suspicion is the former. (And on a technical level, I’m not sure I agree that any apocalyptic/dystopian fiction is science fiction. There is no explanation, much less a science one, for the apocalypse in The Road. He just presents a fictional world of darkness, something which has a LONG lineage in southern gothic, the “genre” that McCarthy seems to be most in conversation with.

    I would again posit that the idea that one or two elements of a genre are hardly enough to turn a work into a part of that genre. As I stated early, does The Great Gatsby turn into a science fiction tale if a minor character is rewritten as a robot but the rest of the book stays the exact same? Does it turn into a horror story if a minor character is possessed by a demon? Does it turn into a high fantasy story if a minor character is made a wizard?

    I think these are the central questions of genre. At what point to the tropes converge into genre? How embedded int he conversation of the genre does an author have to be?

    The idea of merely reading the genre title–“horror” “science fiction” “detective fiction”–overly literally and declaring that if one sentence out of a thousand has some fictional science then the work is sci-fi seems quite silly to me.

  45. To clarify, I mean that I don’t think a fictional apocalyptic/dystopian/unreal world is automatically science fiction. There is obviously a strong history of works in that vein within science fiction. But there is also a strain of it in “literary fiction” or other genres as well.

  46. Best literary thriller I’ve read lately, bar none: “Deep Creek” by Dana Hand, which was a Best Novels pick by the Washington Post last year. A historical-thriller-mystery-race-relations-police procedural-supernatural. Really well done, and “Dana Hand” is actually the pen name for a pair of writers from Princeton, one female, one male.

  47. Except for a few SF devotees with an ironic narrow-mindedness given their interest in SPECULATIVE fiction, I’ve really enjoyed reading this comment thread. Often, I’ve noticed, the true reactionaries are on the SF “side”: a likely byproduct of the mild autism that propels some people into an exclusive devotion to SF.

    That said, I do happen to write literary fiction–but I also write comics–and if I introduce myself as someone who writes comics first, I am greeted with a genial condescension that gets pretty tiresome.

    I really do see where the SF devotees are coming from–if indirectly–but they should remember to chin up and compartmentalize that bitterness. Nobody likes a whiner, especially when they are coming from the pop culture/big bucks side.

  48. All writing falls within particular genres, so literary fiction is a genre of writing. It’s ridiculous to assert that literary fiction isn’t a genre, but it’s not uncommon. Those types of assertions seem to permeate an established class of writers who are generally pretentious.

    What a ludicrous essay, which is devoid of evidence.

  49. 53, you say that when critics debate whether this or that work of sf is “literary” they aren’t saying it’s not science fiction–but very often they do say that, explicitly. “Literary” writers also, often are at some pains to explain why their ventures in to science fiction really aren’t science fiction. Ishiguro says “Never Let Me Go:” is not science fiction because it’s not about the technology of cloning; it’s about how cloning would affect society. He’s wrong on two points: 1.Good science fiction, the kind of science fiction that wins the awards you and others think sf fans are just too snobby to give to “literary” writers, _are_ about how the technology affects people and society. 2.He hasn’t actually bothered to think seriously about how cloning would affect real people and real society. His “literary, not science fiction” cloning novel is filed with “has this person met any actual human beings?” groaners.

    That’s why “literary” writers doing what they clearly telegraph as “slumming” in sf rarely win Hugos or Nebulas–because they don’t think they need to know anything about the genre or what’s been written before (they have no idea how often their spiffy new idea has been used or what’s been done with it), and they think that because it’s “sci-fi” it doesn’t need to make any sense.

    Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is clearly science fiction, written by someone who clearly IS familiar with what’s been done before in that vein within the genre. It’s an excellent, thoughtful, intelligent addition to that conversation.

    She also insists that it’s not science fiction because “there are no talking squids.” She’s written more science fiction since, and maintains the same stance, because her literary readers would be scared off by being told these books are science fiction, but the sf readers who like her stuff aren’t scared off by the literary label.

    Audrey Niffenegger’s _The Time Traveler’s Wife_ is another excellent work of science fiction marketed as “literary fiction.” It got a lot of positive notice in the sf world, but just a bit too late for it to reach enough readers to make the Hugo nomination list. If it had been her second novel rather than her first, there might have been a bigger base of people already aware of her, and it might have gotten enough notice sooner.

  50. Great article, Litopia. Always wondered who is served most by these distinctions. Feel quite confident it is shelf-stackers in book shops/supermarkets as it keeps their lives simple. So that made me feel a bit better about the great divide as anything that helps shop assistants is a good thing, isn’t it?

  51. Pingback: Love in Mid Air
  52. There’s not enough time and space here to discuss the concept of genre and its history, but a couple of points.

    1. No, selling power has historically not coincided with who gets in the canon. Moby Dick was almost entirely forgotten.

    2. It’s unbelievable to me how many people want to be writers, but think reading complex literary fiction is boring.

    3. Someone said Dostoevsky wrote to entertain . Really? Entertainment and art do not have to be mutually exclusive, but that is a statement about Dostoevsky that is wildly inaccurate and reflects an idea about what literature should be that is incredibly reductive of the potential and power of great literature.

    4. Being entertained is not bad, but “literary” fiction is generally fiction that puts a premium on the quality of the language itself at the level of the individual word and the sentence. Do any of the people on here cheering so greatly for “a good story” ever read poetry? Also, the best of literary fiction (which can include work which incorporates elements of fiction that is categorized in other genres) is fiction which contributes to the development of our very selves and our understanding of our world. If you are becoming a more complex person for having read Twilight or whatever, then, well, it seems that you might be a fairly simple person.

    5. I’m not anti-genre, anti-reading “for fun”, or anti-“low brow” readers. Literary writers have always largely been sustained by a small crowd of “elite readers”. All kinds of books and readers make the world go round. What is disheartening to me, though, is how despite increasing numbers of people attending college, attending MFA programs, etc, there seems to be a diminishing number of readers and writers who would not only never bother to read Dostoevsky or whoever, but much worse, couldn’t articulate the difference between Dostoevsky and say, Harry Potter, except that the former is “boring” and the latter is “fun”.

    I don’t mean to be negative and snooty, but you may not like Pynchon, fine, there’s plenty of reasons to be critical or not like him, but if our writers and English majors and MFA students can’t appreciate the qualitative difference between Gravity’s Rainbow and 50 Shades of Grey then indeed, literary fiction is going the way of the buffalo.

  53. I think a writer really ought to know that “It’s not just David and I” is not grammatically correct.

  54. “I think a writer really ought to know that “It’s not just David and I” is not grammatically correct.” Sure it is, just as “it is I” is correct.

  55. I pray that an outbreak of grammatical pettifogging is not about to break out at The Millions! :)

    Moe Murph
    Veteran of The War of “You Musts” vs. “You Shalls”

  56. The entire notion that one group of writers is “literary” is a construct. Genres were created by marketing departments, and in some odd fashion they were then escalated into boundaries where “real” writers were on one side and the rest on the other – while the simple fact of the matter is all fiction is fantasy – most mainstream novels have one or another flavor of “genre” to them – and many of the best of the “genre” authors are addressing big themes, emotions, relationships and the world as well as (and often better than) the “literary” authors can manage. Snobbish awards, academia, etc. are not qualities that give a writer more ability – they just serve to create a false “class” system. There will always be a difference between a great novel, and a pulp-style tossed together adventure, but that difference has nothing at all to do with genre, and everything to do with vision and talent. So close to the passing of Urusla K. Leguin, whose literary prowess stands against the greats quite well, I find this a more important statement to make than ever. She was correct in her introduction to “The Left Hand of Darkness” when she said that novelists, are in fact, liars.

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