There was a time when crime fiction was easily recognizable to the average reader. It had lurid titles with « Crime », « Murder » or « Corpse » in them, even more lurid covers with scantily clad young women in jeopardy, and to make sure even the dumbest ones got the memo publishers added « A Mystery » under the title.
Things have changed a lot since then. Nowadays crime novels go with titles as bloodless and unrevealing as « The Girl on the Train », « Bluebird Bluebird », « The Woman in the Window » or « Give Me Your Hand » and the cover art is depressingly respectable in its avoidance of anything that might tease the reader. It’s serious fiction folks, and publishers brand it accordingly – gone the « Mystery » label and in the « Novel of Suspense » or the even simpler « A Novel ». The idea behind all that is to proclaim that crime fiction has finally come of age and is no longer the province of the locked room fan or the blood and thunder enthusiast but an adult genre that sophisticated readers are allowed to enjoy.
This is where the label « Literary crime fiction » comes in.
This envied label is the polite equivalent of the condescending « transcend the genre » cliché. It is applied to crime fiction that is so well written, so richly characterized and so thought-provoking that it might almost be literary fiction – and that’s supposedly a good thing. Except that it isn’t.
Not that I have anything against crime fiction that displays good writing and characterization and tackles the big issues – I actually love it when it’s well done and have often championed it on this blog. My problem is with the idea that crime fiction needs to be « literary » to be good, which I think belies an antiquated belief in the hierarchy of the genres and a complete misunderstanding of what « genre » fiction is about.
That literary fiction is the most prestigious of all forms of fiction, a prestige that rests more on critical and academic enthusiasm than actual popularity, doesn’t make it inherently superior or the golden standard for everyone venturing into the art of writing. It is actually a genre in itself, with its own rules and standards – the difference being, as the late Noah Stewart pointed out, that for some reason they are thought to be universal, applying to all and everybody.
« Genre » fiction from mystery to horror to western to even porn was born of a rejection of literary codes. « Genre » is where you go when you don’t care at the moment or at all for the probing of human nature, the condemnation of social or political ills or the mere exercise of writing for its own sake. It is the place where you get your share of thrills, laughs and excitement. It is the place where you can enjoy a good story without checking your dictionary every two words and having to suffer through pages and pages of descriptions of the landscape or of the protagonist’s state of mind. It can and does more often than usually recognized display qualities of writing, characterization and social comment but it is not what it is primarily about, and it ultimately shouldn’t judged on the absence or presence of those alone.
A « literary crime novel » is thus an oxymoron or a marketing ploy, and the kind of books it covers is best described as literary novels dealing with crime. The fact that reviewers tend to focus on their « literary » virtues while barely discussing their strengths or weaknesses as proper crime fiction, tells one everything is needed.
Does it mean then that « genre fiction » can never be « literature »? No, and I disagree here with Julian Symons as I do on many other things. A book to me becomes « literature » not when it adheres to an arbitrary set of rules decided upon thousands years ago, but when it fulfills and then transcends the author’s original vision. So yes, The Moonstone is not on a par with Bleak House but it was never Collins’ intent; what he had in mind was writing a hell of a sensation novel, and he succeeded so well that you don’t even need to love this kind of books to appreciate it. It’s « literature » to me and if it isn’t – well, who cares. Pleasure is what reading is about first and foremost, and pastries will always be more seductive than vegetables, no matter how better for one’s health the latter are said to be.