Can Genre Fiction Be Literature?

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I recently finished reading Raymond Chandler’s crime novel The Big Sleep, a murky murder mystery investigated by private eye Philip Marlowe.  The version of the book I had is in a collection entitled Four Complete Philip Marlowe Novels, which contains a foreword by Lawrence Clark Powell of UCLA.  In the foreword, Powell asserts that, although the mystery genre is generally not considered literature, the novels of Raymond Chandler rise to this level thanks to Chandler’s style.

What I think Chandler accomplishes very well in The Big Sleep is creating a complicated, unpredictable story and maintaining a grim tone with his distinctively dark and realist writing style and his inventive literary devices.  Marlowe as the narrator provides ironic and straightforward commentary on his journey to unwind this complicated tale.  And look to the end of the novel for a darkly beautiful rumination on death as the great equalizer.

Then, I guess, Chandler’s work can be seen as literature.  But what about the rest of crime and other genre fiction?  The question has been covered more extensively – and in more depth than I can possibly get to here – elsewhere so I’ll just give my brief thoughts on some works with which I am familiar.

For crime fiction, the most famous author is undoubtedly Agatha Christie, whose name is synonymous with murder mysteries.  I’ve read a handful of her novels, and each contains several twists and turns.  In her review of Christie’s autobiography, critic Mary McNamara goes as far as to call Christie one of the masters of writing.  I agree that Christie is a wonderfully adept writer.  And Then There Were None in particular, I think, is a superb work of literature.  It poses fascinating moral questions and immerses the reader into the psyche of the characters.  And the ending?  You’d have to be a genius to guess it.

Crime novels, at the very least, are grounded in reality, which makes them easier to see as literature.  The road for great science fiction and fantasy novels is often more difficult.  Of the vast canon of science fiction and fantasy novels, I argue that Frank Herbert’s Dune and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings each rise to the level of literature.  Both works succeed in creating fully functional, realistic, and awe-inspiring worlds with an intriguing cast of characters.  Dune focuses on a central protagonist to tell an engrossing coming-of-age story, while The Lord of the Rings tells a sprawling tale of good vs. evil.  In both books, the writing of the dialogue is lyrical, and the descriptions of the worlds are vivid.  They are both phenomenal, beautifully written stories.

Exceptionally good genre fiction can, indeed, be considered literature.  I know I haven’t discussed many genres here, but to be honest, I’m not too familiar with genres outside of the ones I’ve discussed.  I at least know that crime, science fiction, and fantasty can indeed join the ranks of literature.

What are your thoughts on genre fiction as literature?  Are there any other genre novels you would consider literature?

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5 thoughts on “Can Genre Fiction Be Literature?

  1. What most people don’t think about in this discussion is that most of the “classic” books that are considered great literature were the genre fiction of their day. The reason that we still read classics (i.e. Jane Austen, Mark Twain, etc.) is because we’ve had enough time as a culture to read through all the books that were written during that time and pick out the best books to pass on.

    Lord of the Rings is arguably the modern day cause of all genre fiction, yet it is considered great literature. We’re still living too close to most of the genre fiction that we all read to really consider it great literature that will stand the test of time. Dune also works as a great example, it was written far enough in the past that we can look at it and say that the writing has held up, so it will probably still hold up in the future.

    When people criticize genre fiction as being poorly written drivel they are quick to point out examples such as Twilight (which I’ve never read, but I’ve heard quite a few people say that the writing is not at a very high level). Whey they aren’t pointing out are the books that are genre fiction that are beautifully written that people will still be reading decades and centuries from now. Have you ever seen anyone describe Ender’s Game as poorly written drivel? No, because it’s a very well written book with great characters and a solid plot. The fact that it has spaceships will never take away from that.

    The split between literary fiction (or literature) and genre fiction largely caused by the “educated elite” (people with Masters or PhDs who teach literature at colleges) reacting against genre fiction because it isn’t what they were used to. Whether a book is literary fiction or genre fiction doesn’t factor into the quality of writing. There is a lot of very well written genre fiction out there, but there is also some very poorly written genre fiction. There is also a lot of well written literary fiction, and there is a lot of poorly written literary fiction out there.

    To say that something can’t be literature because it is genre fiction is an ignorant statement. It is entirely dependent upon the skill of the author.

    • Rereading this, I just found about 7 commas I left out and at least one really bad misspelling (Whey should be What in the 3rd paragraph).

      That’s what happens when I try to write a sensible response at 2:30 am.

    • No worries about the typos – it happens to the best of us. And thank you for your insightful comment. I agree that it truly is a matter of time, and hopefully, the good genre fiction of today will be given its due in the future. It does sadden me that there are people who will dismiss a book because it has spaceships or elves.

  2. I don’t see why genre fiction shouldn’t be classed as literature. I think it’s the quality of the work which determines it’s place, though copright laws would have any written work (including telephone directories) classed as literary work.

    At uni we had modules on crime fiction and sci-fi cyberpunk alongside what might have been considered “typical” literature.

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