Recently, my friend the talented author and teacher Christopher Coake started a discussion on Facebook about that mushy gray area where genre fiction and literary fiction meet. Chris teaches Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and he wanted to do a writing class on the subject and was looking for suggested texts.
It got me thinking about some great books, and I spent a good while pouring over my shelves and thinking about what makes a genre book “literary” and what makes literary fiction “genre.” They’re labels we use for simplicity, but they’re not entirely without meaning. The purpose of this post isn’t to get into a discussion about what’s genre versus what’s literary (I think of traditional “literary” fiction as its own sort of genre), but rather to look at those books that draw the best techniques and styles from across the lines to make a better book.
For my money, no one does this better than Ursula K. LeGuin. Books like The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness use literary elements such as deep character development, exploration of gender, family, and identity, and toss aside standard genre plot structures in favor of theme-driven narrative.
There are some fabulous short story writers like Steven Millhauser and T.C. Boyle who are not afraid to dip there toes in the genre waters. Millhauser’s short story collection The Knife Thrower and Other Stories is a great example. The author ventures into magical realism and pulls out wild, crazy ideas for the purpose of exploring his characters’ psyches. I’d put Jonathan Lethem into a similar camp. His extraordinary book Motherless Brooklyn takes the classic crime novel format and pulls an interesting literary twist. The protagonist is a wannabe-gangster with Tourettes. The book is rife with fascinating glossolalia, and if you get the opportunity, listen to the audio book, which is read by Steve Buscemi.
I don’t read tons of mystery and crime novels, but no one can tell me that Raymond Chandler isn’t a master of language. The plots of his books hardly matter. It’s the crackling dialogue, the sparkling characters, and the moody, thematic locales that bring his books to life.
Any reader of this blog knows that right now I’m pretty crazy about Gene Wolfe, who was not afraid to employ literary devices such as an unreliable narrator, narratives within narratives, and a multilayered thematic tale in his Book of the New Sun.
With Margaret Atwood, I never know whether to classify her as “literary” or “sci-fi”. Some books fall on one side, some on the other, but she’s never afraid of using the best techniques from any style.
I love how Michael Swanwick values the quality of his language as much as the content of his ideas, both equally rich. Stations of the Tide is a winner.
I’ve recently become a huge fan of Octavia Butler, whose books are filled with deep character development and who delves in to explore themes of race, power, and gender in books such as Lillith’s Brood and Fledgling.
Italo Calvino, in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler seems to do it all – experimental literary second person with historical, mystery, fantasy, thriller, romance, and other genres drawn into the mix.
Tolkien, the master of fantasy himself, was using techniques we think of in historical fiction. Jorge Luis Borges seems to me one of the greats in drawing fantasy and literature into the same territory. And Umberto Eco fearlessly draws mystery novels, thrillers, historicals, and fantasy together to weave his masterworks such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.
What are some of your favorite genre books that fall on the “literary” side of the fence or your favorite literary novels that take elements of genre?