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…
22 thoughts on “Literary Genre Fiction – let’s discuss”
Interesting post, Annabel. There’s seems to be an unfortunate, slightly supercilious attitude to genre fiction in some quarters. I’m an ignoramus as far as SF is concerned but I’d like to suggest William Gibson’s extraordinarily prescient Virtual Light.
William Gibson is a genius – good choice! I read this one when it first came out, but would like to re-read and reappreciate his earlier novels again.
It would be fascinating to read it again in the light of technological advances since it was published.
What an interesting tag.
I’m a big fan of Cold Comfort Farm, which was popular, but I’m not sure has been sufficiently recognised for just how cleverly it parodies more than one genre of fiction. It’s an early hybrid. Although in my experience most readers fail to remember that as they read, probably because it seems so thoroughly a novel of the 1920s/30s. In fact, it’s set in the future, but the science fiction elements are almost buried by the wealth of characters and literary references.
I’d never have realised that! How interesting.
China Mieville and Iain M. Banks tick the box for me in the literary science fiction category, as well as Ursula LeGuin and Margaret Atwood. In crime fiction, I am intrigued and sometimes infuriated by David Peace and Jean-Claude Izzo. I think literary genre fiction is my favourite reading matter, to be honest.
Y’know, I’ve still not read any Mieville – I really should. I have The City and the City on the shelves. Banks – of course! His Culture universe is a wonderful creation, I didn’t get on with all of the culture books though – Feersum Endjinn and the one all in machine speak (Excession?) didn’t work for me, but The Player of Games and Use of Weapons are brilliant. I have a couple of late ones still to read too. I tried Peace and gave up, I’ve never gelled with Le Guin either. Not read Izzo – but I have one!
I’m a literary genre fiction lover too as you may have guessed!
I would say William Gibson for sure and also crime writers like Attica Locke, David Peace and Henning Mankell.
Attica Locke I’ve yet to read, but I hear good things about her.
This tag generated some interesting discussion on my blog as well, with Grab the Lapels commenting that calling something ‘literary SF’ (something I do a lot!) inadvertently implies that normal SF has no literary value. That’s not what I mean when I use the term, but I’ve thought more about my wording since then!
I think some of the backlash against literary authors writing SF comes from their own ignorance of the genre e.g. IIRC, Atwood originally said that Oryx and Crake was not SF, and McEwan more recently seemed to have never read a SF novel in his life with his comments on artificial intelligence. As SF is often belittled, I think people get upset if they see literary authors either trying to distance themselves from it or having no knowledge of the genre they are writing in.
It’s strange though, that the same sniffiness that happens in the SF world, doesn’t seem to occur in the world of crime fiction – where many literary authors write crime novels (usually under a pseudonym, lest it should annoy their usual readers I presume). I will read the McEwan eventually, I’m sure, but my own inherent sniffiness didn’t let me buy the hardback when I read he said he hadn’t read SF! Whereas at least Atwood has always said that her more SF-aligned fare is spec fiction – these days well established as an SF sub-genre.
I agree with you that tagging anything as ‘literary’ can appear to demean those works not so tagged. We know that’s not what we mean (well, most of the time). It’s that perceived bias that makes me think I should use it less.
I guess I don’t seem to have encountered SF authors who say literary writers shouldn’t write SF – only lit writers seeming to steer clear of the label. Obviously me not encountering it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened!
It’s not been SF authors decrying those ‘literary’ writers shouldn’t write SF, but the hardcore fans who demand they get all the science exactly right etc. McEwan didn’t help with his dismissive attitude. Similarly there have recently been literary authors dismissing crime fiction (Toibin and Ellman), which got some backs up.
Ah yes, saw the crime fiction stuff! Thanks for the explanation – silly attitude by SF fans, SF has always had a spectrum of attitudes to scientific fact.
It’s slightly tricky, isn’t it, because as you say someone like Sayers was technically writing in genre form, but her books are just so brilliantly written. I personally tend to try to avoid labels and judge a book on its own merits. But I generally draw the line at rubbish writing!
Perhaps I prefer ‘classic’ – whether classic, modern classic or future classic to indicate those well-written books that bear re-reading and which stay with you – and can apply across all types of writing? Genre should merely be a category rather than any indicator of quality of writing, so I agree with you totally.
Classic is fine, but it is only meaningful to you in the sense that you have defined it. BTW there are not well “written” (in some sense at least) books that I certainly re-read – what are they?
Your personal canon???
Exactly! Who cares about genre anyway? Is “Lord of the rings” “Fantasy, “SF” or “Classic”. Humph, total nonsense in my opinion. Good subject for a weblog post though!
Ha! LOTR is all three – plus ‘marmite’. I loved LOTR. (Couldn’t say the same about the Silmarillion though). 😉
Do you know, I hate that insistence of having rigid boundaries between genres and between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction, as though the latter is somehow more serious, more classy, more worthy of respect, even more edifying than fiction not pretending to be mainstream. As far as I’m concerned, fiction is either admirably well written for its intended purpose — to entertain, possibly educate, maybe edify — or it’s not.
It’s like that famous Louis Armstrong quote: “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” For me, all fiction is storytelling: least ways I ain’t never heard a horse tell a story.
As for what counts as ‘literary’, I’m inclining towards the view that anything recent is ‘contemporary’, whatever genre is claimed for it (and that includes children’s fiction, crime fiction, SF, romance, historical and the rest). Even ‘mainstream’ implies a value judgement. Anything that has stood the test of time is classic, a ‘modern classic’ if published, say, in the last fifty or a hundred years, otherwise ‘classic’ pure and simple. ‘Literary’ or ‘literature’ merely implies something written down using letters.
Sorry, I don’t seem to have answered your point! At least you know where I’m coming from. 🙂
I’m with you totally, in that there is good, indifferent and bad writing throughout the world of literature. However, in the contemporary world, there exists this dichotomy between ‘commercial’ and ‘genre’ fiction and that that aspires to be (or is marketed as) ‘literary’ in the sense of being written for a different type of demanding audience (I’m being coy there I know!!!).
It used to be that genre was merely a category, and not a quality judgement – I wish it were still – how did it become that way? In this post, I wanted to try to highlight that there is great superbly written fiction out there in contemporary crime and SF fields that will become future classics. I read a good few crime and SF novels in between my usual fare, which is mainly contemporary fiction (putting non-fiction aside for a mo), and get much enjoyment from them.