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Some Thoughts on Genre and Literary Fiction

*This post first appeared on shearersbooks.blogspot.com

This week I had the very happy experience of admiring the brand new Spanish edition of my first novel, The Legacy. In Spanish, it’s El Legado  – sounds so sinister and impressive. And the publishers have added a subtitle, just under the title: “una novela de misterio.” My Spanish is virtually non-existent, but I think that what they are doing is telling readers what kind of book it is, which is to say what genre: “a mystery.”

It’s not wrong to call my book a mystery, but I’m not sure whether it’s a good idea for the publishers to brand it like that. Without giving it all away, The Legacy plays with conventions of the mystery novel but doesn’t entirely embrace them; at key points, it swerves away and refuses some of the narrative expectations that come with the genre, and deliberately takes another direction.

I’ve noticed in some reviews of the book that readers care a lot about these narrative expectations, which amount to an implicit promise or compact between the writer and the reader, and not all readers are happy when the rules are broken, even when they’re broken with a purpose. I hope there aren’t too many disappointed readers in Spain and the rest of the Spanish speaking world who pick up my book expecting one thing and getting something else. Maybe they’ll be pleased and surprised rather than disappointed; maybe Spanish readers are very open minded.

I describe my book as a “literary mystery” because while it engages with the conventions of the mystery novel, it does so in a critical way. This to me is what makes it literary: literary fiction, I think, is interested not only in telling a story, but in encouraging readers to reflect in some way on how the story is told. These issues are at the heart of The Legacy, which is interested in the shaping power stories have in our lives and our understanding of ourselves. In The Legacy I transform the plot of a Henry James novel, The Portrait of a Lady, and adapt it to a contemporary setting, before turning it into a mystery about a disappearance on September 11.

It can be hard for any book that engages with genre conventions to be taken seriously as literature. Why is this the case? Why is it that when Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin in 2010 for Truth, the judges felt compelled to insist that the book transcended its genre, as if to justify the incredible idea that a genre novel could have literary merit? And why does a former Booker Judge, John Sutherland, believe that submitting a crime novel to the prize would be “like putting a donkey into the Grand National”?

Anyone who reads sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, or crime can tell you that there are plenty of writers working in and on the margins of those genres who are deeply concerned with the craft of writing, with questions of aesthetics and interpretation and other hallmarks of “the literary.” But a deep prejudice against convention dominates some people’s sense of what literature can be: the idea that any convention is a form of constraint, and thus an obstacle to originality and art.

Edward Doxc rehashed some of these ideas in a recent piece in The Guardian, an argument about why literary fiction is distinct from and better than genre fiction: “even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material.”

Any author writing before the period of the Romantic poets would find this a very bizarre idea indeed: it’s a relatively recent, modern idea to believe that all formal constraints are an impediment to art. True, we’re not all in the habit of writing sonnets any more, and a hierarchy of genres has existed for a long time. But I don’t see any reason why creativity and art can’t inhere in the way conventions are utilised – the way they can be extended, played with, broken and put back together, or simply mastered with authority and a powerful command of language.

Like many people who want to oppose literary fiction to genre fiction, Edward Doxc is very troubled by the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson, whose books he regards as typical instances of bad genre writing. I can only imagine that he doesn’t read very widely in any genre apart from literary fiction. If he did, he would recognise the deep investment Larsson has in deliberately questioning and manipulating conventions and typical features of the crime/thriller genre. Sometimes, reading Larsson, I’m not sure whether he’s deliberately screwing with my expectations, or whether his plotting is just clumsy (or both?) – his writing is intelligent enough for me to suspend that question, and tend towards the idea that he was genuinely trying to reinvent the genres he works with, on both a formal and political level.

Doxc is surprised that so many people read Larsson because Larsson is so bad (and he does have one valid point: the opening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is boring. I personally thought it was satire) but I find myself surprised that so many people read Larsson because his books are so unconventional. The fact that so many readers stick with the strange narrative journey of the Millennium trilogy is testament to the strength of Larsson’s central character, Lisbeth Salander: by half-way through the first book, we care enough about what happens to her that we’ll follow her anywhere. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starts out as a thriller about corruption in the world of corporate finance. It then becomes a murder mystery in the style of a classic “locked room” story; later, it morphs into hunt for a serial killer obsessed with Leviticus. Within each book and from one book to the next the precise generic contours twist and reshape themselves around this indomitable, brilliant, sociopathic woman. What is this if not formal innovation, a sustained reflection on and reinvention of the way stories are told – what is this if not literature?

Written by Kirsten Tranter

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