Is it the writing? Do literary novels do it better than genre novels? You’d certainly expect them to, and it’s true that some writers of genre have a tin ear. Equally, many genre writers are terrific wordsmiths – Ian Fleming, Thomas Harris. Anyway the best writing suits the job – whatever that job is.
Is it insight? You definitely can’t have literary fiction without it. Although some genre writers get close. Is John Le Carre a spy novelist or a literary writer?
Is it that literary fiction doesn’t follow rules?
With a genre novel, tropes must be respected because they are what the reader enjoys. A family saga must run a well defined gamut of black sheep, poor relations, blissful marriages and disastrous elopements because otherwise the reader feels that the writer missed the obvious opportunities. The entertainment is in how these obligations are met in a fresh way, the individual writer’s ingenuity within this formal structure.
If genre authors bust out of their boxes, they risk disappointing their readers. Ruth Rendell, who you’d think has a reliably adoring fan base, was careful to adopt a different name to explore beyond conventional crime fiction. When Iain Banks wrote sci-fi as well as lit fic, he stuck an M between his names. But then some writers jump categories and face their public with no disguise – Robert Harris with his modern thrillers and historical fiction. Perhaps it all comes down to how hard he can argue with his publisher.
If rules, or the lack of them, are the crucial difference, does that make genre benders literary? Maybe, if the blend creates a provocative and resonating tension. But sometimes fusing genres is no more than a simple exercise of this-meets-that (or adding freshly boiled zombies).
If a literary novelist writes about a murder, they certainly don’t have to meet the expectations that a crime novelist or detective writer would – think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If genre is about the reader’s expectations, perhaps literary is an anti-genre.
Let’s take Woody Allen as an example. Yes, his medium is celluloid, but it all starts with words and pages. His body of work includes character pieces (Annie Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona), madcap sci-fi comedies (Sleeper), cosy mystery spoofs (Manhattan Murder Mystery) bleak examinations of morality (Crimes And Misdemeanours). Sometimes, but not all the time, he breaks the bounds of reality by adding time travel (Midnight in Paris), fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Or singing, flying and ghosts in Everyone Says I Love You. In his latest, To Rome With Love, a character turns invisible.
With Allen, you never know what rules will be followed – and yet you do. They are Allen’s rules, created by his own themes, obsessions and humanity. They’re what we come back for.
So perhaps each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in. Like with genre fiction, it makes its own expectations. Perhaps the two are not so very different.
What do you think? Is ‘literary’ a genre? What makes a writer literary? What makes them not? Are there any writers you’d say were both genre and literary?