Staff Chat: Literature’s Dirty Word

Article by annalia

In the July episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, Yiyun Li discusses Patricia Highsmith (author of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, among many other books). Of the great thriller writer, Li says—in more or less good humor—“Sometimes I read her as a guilty pleasure, but really not feeling so much guilt. In a way, you read her as a crime writer, but you can also read her as a literary writer, and that excuses me.”

This notion pervades discussions of genre fiction in many literary circles: that it is lesser than the serious literature real writers ought to read. Yes, we can agree there’s plenty of bad genre writing—but can’t we also agree that the works of Patricia Highsmith or Agatha Christie or Dennis Lehane are better than some of the tepid literary fiction that shows up on occasion in journals with the word Review in their titles?

This summer at Brazos, we’re highlighting crime fiction. As Buyer Keaton Patterson puts it, “Everyone likes to explore the darker side of the psyche, and crime fiction allows for a safe exploration of that territory. Plus, crime fiction is usually filled with sex and violence, and that’s fun to read.”

In this week’s staff chat, Annalia asks Keaton and Mark, “Is genre a dirty word?” Below, you’ll see that there’s consensus: no, it isn’t. But maybe I can, however briefly, play devil’s advocate: yes, genre is a dirty word.

What the hell’s wrong with that?

There are numerous examples of sci-fi authors proving more visionary than many of their literary counterparts, but think of other artistic media as well—film, for instance. In the 1940s, when the Hollywood mainstream was producing polite but mostly forgettable fare, the B-movie directors, barely paid attention to by censors and studio executives, were able to use genres like horror and crime to sneak in some truly revolutionary content; I’m talking about films like Cat People and Detour and countless others. Yes, those films were crass, dirty, clumsy—and more important and vital than the safe products of the mainstream. And in the golden era of 1970s American film? Chinatown, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Godfather—all genre pictures at their core, and all masterpieces.

So genre? A dirty word? Absolutely. And couldn’t literary fiction sometimes stand to get a little dirtier?

--Ben, Marketing Director


Annalia: So we are contemplating the question, “Is genre a dirty word?”

Keaton: Short answer: no, it’s not a dirty word. Were it not for genre fiction, I never would’ve started reading. My mom had a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with Stephen King books, and he intrigued me.

Mark: I think it depends on how you look at it. I know some people who are a little more elitist and don’t want to think that they like things that follow a certain format—they’d say it’s a dirty word. But I think there’s something to be said for all types of writing.

Annalia: For people who don’t necessarily know what it means, what makes a book “genre?”

Keaton: If a book falls into a genre, there’s a certain formula it’s working with. If it’s a mystery, there needs to be a crime, a detective, clues, an unmasking of the perpetrator, all that stuff. The author has a framework—and within that, you can play around—as opposed to literary fiction, which aspires to be art, wants to be freer, more aesthetically rich, so on. Sometimes genre writers just want to tell a good story, and that impulse can get derided in the upper echelon of literary thought.

I think a good way to think about it is, in poetry, you have blank verse poetry, and then you have forms—sonnets, villanelles, even limericks. [Laughs] There’s a set form that the words have to fit into. Genre is a formula that you follow, and you play with the form, but there are conventions that you need to pay attention to.

But literary fiction has its own kinds of genres too—types of stories with their own sets of conventions. The Pulitzer winner this past year, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE: it’s a war novel. The previous year’s winner, THE GOLDFINCH: it’s a coming-of-age novel. Those are genres—they’re just considered more “literary” ones. But even literary novelists are starting to play with conventional genre more and more.

Mark: Yeah. Like STATION ELEVEN.

Keaton: Yep. Post-apocalyptic novel.

Mark: Or Chang-Rae Lee’s latest.

Keaton: Yeah, ON SUCH A FULL SEA was his own dystopian novel. Colson Whitehead, a few years back, went full on zombie apocalypse with ZONE ONE.

Mark: All of that reminds me that we don’t write in a vacuum—that we’re influenced, whether it’s indirect or direct. And writers take all sorts of things and do something different and weird, and literary writers love saying, “Oh, I see DON QUIXOTE in that,” or, “I see David Foster Wallace in that.” So everything is in response to your influences, whether you like it or not. And increasingly, great writers seem influenced by genre fiction in some way.

Annalia: Couldn’t you argue that writing genre fiction demands more originality because your audience is expecting those conventions and wants those conventions, but also wants something new?

Keaton: I think that’s where the artistry of genre fiction comes in: figuring out how to tell a particular story—or a particular style of story—in a completely fresh way.

Mark: And even the Ouilipo, you know, was a writing movement where the authors gave themselves formal constraints that made writing harder. One guy wrote a novel without the letter “e.” So that, in a way, resembles genre, because you’re saying, “Here’s the rule, be creative—but within the constructs.”

Annalia: And sometimes something is genre in ways you don’t even know. Something Jeremy [Ellis, General Manager] likes to say is that Breaking Bad is actually a western at its core, and lots of people watch that who may not consider themselves consumers of genre.

Mark: Yeah. And as a matter of fact, during that Summer of Shakespeare talk we had the other day, Breaking Bad came up as a point of comparison. The interesting thing about that show, said one professor, isn’t watching Walt but watching Skylar and thinking, How will she be corrupted?

Keaton: It’s also another kind of literary type—the midlife crisis story, which has its own set of conventions.

Mark: You can have plenty of different genres in one work.

Keaton: Yeah, and there are lots of authors who have written books about getting to a certain point in your life, where you want to go down a different path, whether that takes you to ruin or to something happy. Genres can be layered.

Mark: And when I think about crime stories, I always think about a book from Europa Editions, Benjamin Tammuz’s MINOTAUR. That’s a mid-life crisis, it’s espionage, it’s a love story.

Keaton: It’s an origin myth, almost.

Mark: Many genres in one.

Keaton: They can nest, those genres.

Here are a few of our favorite literary crime novels. Come browse the full display this summer!

Duplicate Keys By Jane Smiley Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400076024
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Anchor - November 9th, 2004

Focusing on a murder that takes place in a shared band practice space. There are a lot of different keys to this room, and the investigation centers around trying to figure out which musician committed the murder. A straightforward mystery book with a rock and roll twist…not what a lot of people expect from Jane Smiley!

French Concession: A Novel By Xiao Bai Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062313454
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Harper - July 7th, 2015

Set during the French occupation of Shanghai, a tumultuous period in politics and culture. In the midst of this political chaos, an ambassador is murdered. This starts a complicated spy/detective story, as a low-level bureaucrat tries to find out what happened.

Hold the Dark: A Novel By William Giraldi Cover Image
ISBN: 9781631490422
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Liveright - August 10th, 2015

A completely unique take on the crime and action genres. Giraldi sets his novel far north of Alaska, and in the atmosphere that he evokes, he resembles Cormac McCarthy. Dark and reminiscent of Greek tragedy, this is a future cult classic.

The Joy of Killing: A Novel By Harry MacLean Cover Image
ISBN: 9781619025363
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Counterpoint - July 14th, 2015

A psychological look at a murderer’s train of thought. It has been done before, but this one is very tense, somber, subtle. The creepiness of the work almost feels more violent than the actual physical brutality.

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