Earlier this week, Rebecca took part in a tag on the subject of literary fiction (see here), and after defining what literary fiction is for you and picking some examples, the tag asks, “Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.” Rebecca chose The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – which I read many years ago, and would love to revisit – it’s the story of a Jesuit mission to alien races on another planet, and the aftermath thereof. The Sparrow is a perfect example of modern literary science fiction – I would probably have picked it too.
All this got me thinking about those genre books that lurk on the margins of being classified as literary fiction. I’m NOT however, thinking about the other way around – as when an accepted literary author such as Margaret Atwood writes SF in Oryx and Crake and its sequels, or Julian Barnes’s forays into seedy crime with his Duffy novels (see here). There has been some sniffiness over the years about literary authors trying their hand at genre fiction – an attitude which annoys me intensely! Why shouldn’t anyone be free to write a genre novel – whether pulp or literary in style – and vice versa. Let the readers vote with their wallets and reviews!
I’d like to briefly detour into classic genre fiction. No one would deny that the big publishers’ classics lists are full of literary crime, SF and fantasy (and other genres, which I read less frequently). No-one would deny that Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books are not superb literary fiction. Just look at the start of The Big Sleep:
Stunning isn’t it? Shame about that 1939 US first edition cover (right) though!
There are numerous classic genre authors who are considered to have great literary chops: from Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margery Allingham, the doyennes of Golden Age crime, to John Wyndham’s wonderful SF (an example here) and J G Ballard’s early novels (see here and here). John Le Carre’s marvellous spy novels and thrillers get the classic treatment now too (see here and here) – but arguably, they were literary novels first and genre second perhaps?
The problem is thus – by comparison, recent and contemporary genre novels are very rarely considered ‘literary’ despite there being oodles of them. The oft-cited Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (reviewed here) is one of the obvious recent examples, (well 2014 – yes it was that long, but this book does stick with you).
But rather than regale you with a list of my favourite genre novels (not already mentioned) that push into the literary, I’d love your suggestions for those that I should read – literary crime and SF in particular…