Awhile back, someone posted a question that comes up every now and then among beginning writers: what’s the difference between a “literary” novel and a “genre” novel?
Of course we could say that genre novels are easily categorized: horror, romance, mystery, western… Even cross-categories can be labeled: para-normal romance, for example. The category is the genre. If you write mysteries, you’re a genre writer. You can argue it if you want, but there it is.
But here’s the confusing thing: genre novels can also be literary novels. All good novels have a hint (at least) of mystery to them or contain enough drama to nudge it into thriller territory, otherwise nothing would compel the reader to finish the book. Will Ahab ever find Moby Dick? And if he does, what happens then? Is pursuing the great white whale worth putting his crew and ship at risk? We keep reading to find out.
Many of us like to say that literary novels are more concerned with the characters than the plot, but many of the best genre novels have characters as carefully drawn as the plot is planned, so well-drawn characters aren’t the only thing that distinguishes literary and genre fiction.
Then what makes a novel a literary novel, and why are others left squarely in the genre pile?
As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggled to finish reading the book (“Undertow” by Desmond Cory (a pseudonym for Shaun Lloyd McCarthy [1928-2001]), mostly because of how outdated it felt, both in style (long, long, long descriptions, for one thing) and content (sexist and ethnic stereotypes, among other things). In the end, I decided the book is best experienced as an example of a 1960s thriller novel. Readers who want and expect to read a forerunner of James Bond and other thriller novels, who appreciate the nuances of the genre and its origins, will probably enjoy the book. But anyone who wants a fast-paced plot with lots of cutting edge gadgets and strong women should be warned.
Do you see the distinction? “Undertow” helped me understand that what lands a book squarely in the “genre” category rather than the literary category is how “dated” it is.
Clearly, being “timeless” is a characteristic of a literary novel. Sure, “Moby Dick” is outdated in a thousand ways (okay, maybe just a few dozen). Long narrative sections, including textbook-like explanations of whaling, interrupt the already languid pace, for example. But it’s a thriller that touches on universal themes that transcend any one generation (or century, for that matter). Who hasn’t had a boss that pushed us harder than we thought we should be, all in pursuit of some personal agenda? Who hasn’t known someone who was consumed with getting revenge because of a long-ago violation? Someone who wanted revenge so badly they were willing to risk everything without thinking about possible effects on those around them?
It’s been years since I read “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley but I remember it as being more about a misfit trying to find his place in a world that didn’t understand him than about some mad scientist. I felt sorry for the “monster,” a being who became aware of how hideous he was to those around him. Who hasn’t struggled to fit in someplace — a new school, new neighborhood, new job? Who hasn’t been just a little bit self-conscious about how others perceive us, wondering if maybe that new haircut wasn’t such a good idea…. Don’t we spend all kinds of time picking out new sunglasses, asking our partners how we look in them before we buy them? Yes, a universal theme — how we appear to others and how it affects our sense of connection to the world around us — underlies this very old but still very good novel. [The story of how the book came about is a great one in and of itself -- the result of a friendly competition among writer friends; Wikipedia has a good description here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein%5D
Literary novels might follow the general conventions of a genre — mystery, horror, romance, etc. — but what sets them apart is that their themes are universal and timeless. “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” might at their hearts be romance novels, but they transcend the conventions of the genre by touching on themes that still resonate with readers today.
In “Undertow,” the bad guys and good guys (because the female character isn’t deemed capable… :() do battle, but the book is absent any universal theme. The plot unwinds, the characters engage in sometimes snappy dialogue, and every now and then something happens, but in the end, I’m left feeling unengaged: I feel closer to Ishmael and his crew in “Moby Dick” than I do to Johnny Fedora and his pal Trout, despite the many years that have passed since I read “Moby Dick” and despite my having just read “Undertow.” Nothing in “Undertow” suggests a larger theme, either.
That lands “Undertow” squarely in the genre, non-literary territory, if you ask me. Literary novels aren’t “better” than genre novels; they’re just different. Most people read genre novels for escape — and “Undertow” delivers that for those who want it (on 1960s thriller terms).
My guess is I won’t remember much about the specifics of “Undertow” — I’ll probably remember the experience of reading it, but only because I’ve given it such deep thought and have written about it a few times. But the plot? Characters? Theme? Nah. Gone when I finish the last page. And that’s okay. Sometimes we just want a quick read.
Sometimes, as writers, that’s what we want to leave our readers with — a fun escape. But if you want your novel to become the Great American Novel, a classic read in high school English or college lit classes, then you need to think beyond characters or plot and plumb your book’s thematic depths. It’s that simple — and that hard.
What do you think? What makes a literary novel for you? Why do some transcend their genre to become literary classics?