What the hell is it? Mystery fiction? Literary Fiction? (And Does It Matter?)

A genre war has been going on inside me for some time.

I love the structure of the mystery story, how it attempts to rectify the past and the present of its fictional world, a gesture that, to varying degrees, we are all asked to make in our lives.  Some of my favorite literary books—Atwood’s Blind Assassin, Byatt’s Possession, and Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea—address this theme in rich and compelling ways, and blatantly steal structural techniques from the mystery or thriller genre.  Also, well-written detective stories tend to ride a fine line between romanticism and realism.  Some of the greats of American hard-boiled detective fiction come to mind: Chandler and Cain.  The tension between the beauty of a dream and the sting of reality is a deeply American concern, one that dominates one of the most famous of texts of American literature, The Great Gatsby (which by some has been classified as crime fiction).  It’s also a theme which is alive and well in our culture.  Think: Reality TV, celebrity culture, and political spin doctoring—or even more insidious, the 2008 banking collapse and recession.

If taken at face value, my novel Dodging and Burning, as well as my newest project, are mystery novels.  However, my principle concern is character, not plot, so they don’t fit neatly into the mystery genre, although if the blessed day arrives, I don’t have a problem with them being marketed as such.  My fantastic agent, Annie Bomke, will certainly guide me in this.

For now, I’m comfortable walking the line between mystery and literary fiction.  (Maybe that makes me more marketable, I don’t know.  Tana French, Benjamin Black, among others are doing it and doing it well.)  Wilkie Collins, in his 1868 preface to The Moonstone, the granddaddy of detective novels, stated his objective in the novel was to trace the influence of character on circumstances.  It seems to me, even in detective fiction, plot should be a result of character, especially a character who is trying to resolve discrepancies between his past and present, between his romantic ideals and the hard truth.  For that reason, I do embrace the notion that, although we may have different categories for types of fiction, the basic foundations should be the same.

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1 Comment

Filed under Classic Novels/Mysteries, Contemporary Novels/Thrillers, Getting Published, Marketing You and Your Work, Murder Mysteries, Politics

One response to “What the hell is it? Mystery fiction? Literary Fiction? (And Does It Matter?)

  1. I really appreciate this post John. I have similar thoughts when weighing Children’s literature against adult literature. It seems like many adults can find worth in a children’s story and many children deal with “adult” problems. And many questions remain with us from the time we are children until we grow old. What you say here really resonates for me. Thank you!

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