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?