Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's a Fine Line*

What labels do we use when we talk and think about the books we read? Those labels can be useful for publishers, booksellers and others involved in the printing, marketing and selling of books. Those labels can also be helpful for authors, who can use them to figure out the kind of writing they want to do. But labels can also create all kinds of problems because there are so many books that don’t fit neatly into one or another category. For instance, many people make a distinction between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” There are even separate prizes and awards given out for what’s often called “literature” or “literary fiction” and the different genres. There are also people think that genre fiction can’t “count” as literary fiction, and people who refuse to read what’s called “literary fiction” because they only like one kind of genre fiction. The truth is, though, that the lines among different kinds of writing can often get quite blurred. What do we really mean, anyway, by labels such as, “literary fiction” and “genre fiction?” Since I read quite a lot of crime fiction, and that’s the fiction I write, I’m going to focus here on that genre.

Here’s a description of a novel: A man has reached a crossroads in his life. He has a very successful career and is actually quite well-regarded. He married exactly the sort of woman he’d envisioned marrying, he has two healthy children and everything seems to be going right for him. Yet, something is lacking in his life, and he’s not even sure what that is. Then, he chances to meet an old love. This experience forces him to re-examine his life and come to some conclusions about what really matters and what he wants from his life. His wife, meanwhile, has always hero-worshipped her husband. She sacrificed everything for him, and has always been willing to run the household the way he wants. In the course of the novel, she, too reaches an important “watershed.” This novel of family relationships explores the nature of attachment, love, and devotion.

Does that sound like a “literary” novel? It actually refers to Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). There’s a lot more that I could have said about this novel, in which Dr. John Christow (the man I refer to above) is murdered while he and his wife are on a week-end visit to friends in the country. When Hercule Poirot comes upon the murder scene, he thinks at first that it’s been staged, because it looks so artificial. He’s none too happy about it, either. Soon enough, though, he sees that it’s all too real, and it’s not long before he finds that more than one person had a reason to kill John Christow. Is this a crime fiction novel? A literary novel? Both? The line is rather blurred.

Here’s another description: A woman finds the strength to confront her own past and that of several members of her family when she’s asked to re-examine her family history. As she does so, the woman comes to terns with her relationships with her two aunts, re-unites with a nephew and is finally able to see what denial has done to her family through the years.

What do you think? Literary fiction? This one refers to A Dark-Adapted Eye, which was Ruth Rendell’s first novel under the name of Barbara Vine. In this novel, Faith Longley Severn narrates the story of her proud, middle class family, about whom there’s never been any gossip, let alone scandal. The Longley family, though, is hiding some ugly secrets which are brought to light years later when journalist Daniel Stewart decides to write a book about the hanging of Faith’s aunt Vera (Longley) Hillyard, for murder. As Faith tells the family’s story, we gradually learn more and more about the Longley family and what the driving force was behind the murder. Again, is this crime fiction? Is it literary? Is it both?

It works the other way, too. That is, books we often think of as “literary fiction” could also be considered crime fiction. Here’s an example. In Karen Osborn’s The River Road, brothers Michael and David Sanderson and their neighbor, Kay Richards, have grown up together. Now that they’re young adults, Kay and David are having a passionate love affair. One summer night during college, the three young people spend a night of partying together. At the end of the night, they find themselves on a bridge above a local river. Almost before anyone knows it, David Sanderson is standing on the rail of the bridge, saying he’s going to jump off and swim to the other side. He begs Kay to join him, and she does. At the last minute, though, David ends up in the water and Kay doesn’t. When David is found drowned, Kay is suspected of having killed him.

Does this seem like crime fiction to you? I think there’s a good argument for it. And yet, it’s a novel that also explores the young people’s growing up, their relationships with each other, and their families’ relationships. More than that, it explores what happens to the survivors in both families after David’s death. It was certainly marketed as “literary fiction,” and that’s how it’s shelved, etc., too. So is it literary fiction? I would say so, but I would also argue that it’s crime fiction.

One of the most famous examples of what most people call literary fiction, but which is also crime fiction, is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Told from the point of view of Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter’s second wife, it’s the story of her arrival at his home, Manderley, and her discovery of the secrets that lie hidden there. Maxim de Winter is a widower, whose first wife, Rebecca, was reportedly drowned at sea. However, it’s not long before we find out that Rebecca’s memory still has a haunting grip on everyone in the household, especially on Mrs. Danvers, de Winter’s housekeeper. Mrs. Danvers takes every opportunity to make the new Mrs. de Winter feel uncomfortable, uncouth, and unfit. Soon, the new Mrs. de Winter is sure that her husband can’t possibly love her, as he loves his former wife still. But as we find out, there’s more to Rebecca’s death than it seems. As the narrator learns the truth about Manderley and the people who live there, the reader finds out what really happened to Rebecca.

In one sense, Rebecca is most definitely what you’d call “literary fiction.” That’s how it’s marketed and sold and that’s also how it’s often taught. However, it’s also a fascinating crime fiction story, full of old secrets, betrayal, a possible murder, and more.

There are many other novels, too, of course, that straddle that very fine line between “literary fiction” and “crime fiction.” For example, Peter Temple’s Truth has recently won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin literary prize. I’m not going to go into detail about this, because it’s been beautifully discussed at these blogs:


Crime Watch

Mysteries in Paradise

Detectives Beyond Borders

The Game’s Afoot

This award is a better example than I could ever write that shows that sometimes, the line between genre fiction and literary fiction is very blurred indeed.

What do you think? Which novels have you enjoyed (no fair mentioning Truth; I just did ; ) ) that straddle that line?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steve Winwood’s Split Decision.


  1. At a Writer's Festival once I toddled along to hear Ian McEwan speak and he said he thought on one level virtually every book could be considered crime fiction because a crime is one of the few things that can provide the drama/conflict needed to get a story rolling. he used his own novel Atonement as an example because the entire thing would never have happened if it weren't for one relatively minor crime at the beginning (he argued it was a crime even though it went unpunished).

    I think Truth is closer to being what we understand by the term crime fiction than Atonement is but I think we collectively need to stop thinking about these things as absolutes.

    Either way though it is very pleasing to me that Truth was recognised this week - whatever else it is or isn't it is absolutely chock full of Australian character - the dialogue, the bushfires, the societal changes in our big cities...

  2. Bernadette - Thanks for sharing McEwan's view; I wish I could've haerd him speak. He's got a point in a way. Crime certainly does bring up the tension, add drama and conflict, and so on. I might beg to differ with him on some novels I've read, though...

    I, too, am absolutely delighted that Truth won. The whole point of the prize was a celebration of the Australian spirit; Truth qualifies. I also think too many people think of crime fiction as "pop fiction," when in fact, some of it is absolutely masterful and worthy of such commendation.

    Finally, I could not have said it better than you did: "..we collectively need to stop thinking about these things as absolutes." Very often, they aren't. A book can be in more than one category. Categories can include more than one book.

  3. There are so many good books that fall into this group. I realize books have to be labeled to an extent but it also keeps some people from trying a new book simply because it doesn't fall into the category they read. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thank you : ). And you really do make a well-taken point about the way that too-strict labeling can turn people away from a book they might otherwise have thoroughly enjoyed. On the other hand, as you say, labeling does help marketers, publishers and book reviewers : ). I think, too, that it's human nature to want to put things (including books) into categories.

  5. Oh, today you talked about one of most favorite novels - Rebecca. I try to read it every year. You're right that it falls between both qualities. Hitchcock created quite a suspense film from the "Literary Fiction" book.


  6. A very interesting post Margot. For me the distinction between genres is not clear also. It's used sometimes just to separate between great writers or genre writers. Big mistake, most great writers have also written crime fiction books and some very popular crime fiction writers are also great writers.

  7. Clarissa - Isn't Rebecca a fantastic book!? I'm not surprised you read it regularly. And I hadn't thought about the film, but yes, it's interesting how the film became a suspense classic.

    Jose Ignacio - Thank you : ). I think you have a point that the line between "literary fiction" and "genre fiction" is often used to divide writers who are considered "great" from writers who are "just genre writers." As you say, though, a crime fiction writer can be great. A "literary" writer can write crime fiction.

  8. I agree on Rebecca being fantastic and falling slightly between two stalls in terms of classification - maybe that is one of the reasons that it is so good?!

    Bon weekend

  9. Echoing Bernadette - think of Shakespeare, Jacobean tragedies, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment -- all great plots contain some cataclysmic event and the interest of the novel is often the effects of the fallout on the characters, and also some degree of "hidden truth", whether the "whodunnint" puzzle element or something more "psychological".

    Other more recent books that are hard to pigeonhole in any way are those by Kate Atkinson, Steph Penney, Catherine O'Flynn, Diane Setterfield - I have just started reading Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland and, like Peter Temple whom you mention here, it is like a prose poem. Beautiful language in every sentence. Marvellous stuff - maybe the winner of the next Miles Franklin ;-) (though I should not jump the gun as I've only read the first few chapters!).

  10. I think Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child do a terrific job of stradling the line between science and the supernatural. I'm a big fan and have read all of their books.

    Stephen Tremp

  11. Hannah - You could very well be right. Rebecca defies easy description, and that might be part of its greatness. It's more than just one kind of story; there are multiple layers, aren't there?

    Maxine - I thought of Shakespeare and Dickens myself when I was planning this post, so I'm glad you brought them up. There are so many others, too. You could call most of what we think of as "great literature" crime fiction in a way. That's why in many ways it would be quite nice not to have those arbitrary labels.

    I also agree with you 100% about Catherine O'Flynn; yes, it's crime fiction, but not just crime fiction. That, to me, adds to the richness of her work, actually. Same with Adrian Hyland. I haven't read his latest, so looking forward to your review, but what I have read? Well, your use of the word "poetic" is justified, I think.

    Stephen - You're absolutely right that the line between science and supernatural is quite blurred at times. I admit I haven't read Douglas Preston, but Lincoln Child? A great example of this blurring of distinctions.

  12. I have stopped caring whether people call the books I love literature or not. Some of them are fast-paced entertainment, others are brilliantly written and have plots I never forget, but what matters to me is choosing a book that suits the mood I am in. I love Shakespeare and Dickens, but *not* after a long day´s work.

    NB: I have not finished digesting your advice of yesterday, and today I am quite satisfied with the way I handled the no-time-to-write demon: I was too tired to write, but I have been plotting for hours. It is early days yet, but I am considering writing a cozy mystery novel in English (as there doesn´t seem to be a market for it in Denmark).

  13. Dorte - You have such a well-taken point! What really counts is not the label that we use for a book, but whether it is a well-written, lovable book. It is amazing, too, isn't it, how very much what we love depends on what mood we're in. I know that's true of me. Like you, when I've had a long, busy day, I don't always feel like reading what's often called a "deep" novel.

    And I am so excited that you're thinking of writing a cosy. I know it will be an excellent story, and I, for one, am very eager to read it. The fiction world is about to get better : ).