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November 07, 2008


Richard S. Wheeler

This is superb. I have been arguing for some while that in these times the nature of popular and literary fiction has often been reversed. It is common in modern popular or genre fiction to examine the human condition, generate character, and depict relationships, in much greater depth and insight than one finds in modern literary fiction, which seems to have sunk into wearisome stories of dysfunctional families. In short, the best genre literature is frequenly superior to what has come to be known as the literary novel.

Up until the 1960s no distinction was made between literary and popular fiction; it was all simply literature, Pulitzer prizes were given to such works as Gone With the Wind, The Caine Mutiny, and Advise and Consent, all of which would be considered popular fiction now. I hope critics will abandon the distinction, which never worked well.

Laura Benedict

So glad to see you here, Kyle. Terrific lists! xo

Class of Nuke 'em High

I should gag right now at the thought of Anthony Neil Smith's excellent Plot With Guns being called "pleasingly tawdry". And what a boring list of books mentioned. A list only an academic could come up with and be proud of.


There is bad stuff everywhere. Neither the current literary books nor mysteries are an exception. As for the lists: they are not my lists and are very narrow for either type of novel. It is true that frequently the so-called "literary" novel is hugely overvalued, while extraordinary genre novels are dismissed as light reading.

Kyle Minor

It's good to meet you all, and thanks for reading my post and commenting. Richard, I'm with you: the distinction isn't very helpful. Nuke'em High, I meant "pleasingly tawdry" as a compliment to Plots with Guns, a place I love. I.J., I agree -- the lists are too narrow, as brief lists will be. I'd love some reading suggestions (please send some!), and I'm going to go order your book now.

Class of Nuke 'em High 2: Subhuminoid Meltdown

In light of kyle's gracious reply, I have come to regret the snarkiness of my comment. The burden of guilt as well as my chronic sinusitis and purring kitty in my lap has failed to keep me to my druthers (a corruption of "I'd rather" popularized by Al Capp in his comic strip Li'l Abner).


Indeed, Kyle gets my vote for the most gracious response to criticism I've ever encountered. All too often, we sound off, feeling secure that we're merely engaging in a conversation about someone else's views.

I really only meant that we all have our individual lists. It's largely a matter of taste. I read more British and European novels than American ones. That would make my list different. What is perhaps more interesting is why we put a book on the list.

No need to buy a book of mine. With the possible exception of the next one, I wouldn't necessarily put my own books on my list. But it was a very generous thought and I thank you for it.

Kevin Wignall

Kyle, interesting post and I'm broadly with you (although I think Ian McEwan is a prime example of one of those overrated literary writers and "Atonement" was a phoney - of course, many disagree with me).

But I wonder if we fret too much about this. Despite what Richard says, I think the distinction has always been made (maybe not on the lit/pop divide, but you had poets looking down at novelists, serious authors looking down at those writing penny dreadfuls, etc, etc). Graham Greene famously tried to divide his books between "serious" and "entertainments", and your argument is proved by the fact that some of the entertainments are now considered among his finest works. I wonder if the reason "genre" books so often survive as classics, is that we're less likely to forget that above all else, we must tell a story.

Good luck with "In the Devil's Territory".

Richard S. Wheeler

Mr. Wignall, if you will examine critical and review literature in the U.S. in the 30s, 40s, and 50s (when I was a youth), you will find minimal reference to "literary" or "popular" fiction, nor was "literary" fiction presumed to be superior to other types. Those distinctions arose around the time that academics began teaching creative writing at such places as the Iowa Workshop. Genres, such as westerns and mysteries, had of course been identified as branches of literature. In Europe, where Graham Greene did distinguish between what he considered serious literature and entertainments, critics took a different view and believed that stories that probed the human condition were innately superior to other types. By all means, go back to pre-60s critical literature and discover how reviewers treated the whole field of fiction. I think you would be delighted at what you will find. And do read the archival Pulitzer list for what it will teach you.

Kevin Wignall

Richard, many thanks for the clarification, which I find very interesting. Naturally, I speak from a British/European perspective, so it's intriguing to learn that snobbery in literature has developed much more recently in America.

I wonder, you say that the rot set in around the time academics started teaching creative writing - is there any evidence of a causal link (presumbaly based on some need for self-justification) or is it possible that both trends were symptomatic of some deeper cultural shift in American society? Any light you can shed, much appreciated.

Of course, I take your point that European critics have long rated as superior those works that probe the human condition, but to go back to the original point of Kyle's piece, crime and other genre books often do that far more effectively than those that wear their literary credentials on their sleeves.

Richard S. Wheeler

Mr. Wignall, thanks for your kind comments. A friend with an advanced degree in criticism from Columbia first steered me to all this many years ago. He believes the rise of the distinction between literary and popular fiction occurred largely in the 70s in the United States and was connected to a period when academics began to teach creative writing. Neither he nor I know the rationale, other than literature about the human condition seemed "serious" to critics and academics, and powerful drama was dismissed as entertainment for the hoi polloi. For whatever reason, novels with a strong storyline were deemed popular fiction, while stories that were largely plotless and dwelled on relationships were deemed literary.

My own view is that really good literature contains the best of both; there is a real, powerful, gripping story that will catch my heart, and there are real, well-wrought characters wrestling with their dilemmas, and the reader is rewarded with insights into life.

Kevin Wignall

Thanks - that's a really interesting insight, as much about American academia as about American literary life.

As an aside, people might want to visit www.crimeculture.com - it's a website that looks seriously at crime fiction from a critical perspective, and is run by an American (but tellingly, British-based) academic, Lee Horsley at the University of Lancaster.


Interesting. I always dated the Age of Great Littrachure with the New Critics (who are now, of course, so hopelessly old hat it must be about time for them to be all the rage again). English departments before their time existed primarily to teach writing. Not creative writing, but composition. How to express yourself clearly enough to study important things, but never to write anything much about contemporary fiction, which was all more or less mass entertainment and not a proper subject for study.

The New Critics were all about close reading that was almost scientifically precise. And about distinguishing valuable literature from dross, because if English departments couldn't claim to have a higher calling, Christ! they'd be stuck teaching more sections of composition, for which God made graduate students.

If you look at standard literary histories of the United States, the ones published in the first half of the twentieth century include a lot of female and regional writers. After the new critics took over, they were evicted. Not high culture, not serious enough, too lowbrow. Too popular. They've sneaked back in under cover of feminist criticism and other theoretical umbrellas.

I wonder if the genre distinctions, though, were embedded when some popular entertainment of the past could be recognized by the critics, but you needed advanced degrees to be able to write proper books, as opposed to writing genre fiction that you didn't have to enroll in school for. So once the snobbish distinctions were no longer valid to the theorists, another branch of the academy had to justify the specialness of English departments.


Well, this is still very interesting. I go back a while to a time when my distinguished English Lit. professor (a well-known Shakespeare scholar) laid into the American New Criticism as inappropriate and flawed (much the way I was to feel later about Deconstructivism). As a student, I took from New Criticism what I could use and found it very helpful. There were other approaches to literature before New Criticism. We did not learn about teaching writing courses. The earlier forms included historical approaches or biographical ones, as well as analysis of language, especially imagery. A little later psychological (Freudian) approaches and archetypal studies were added.

The quality of any work of art lies in what it gives to mankind. It is more important for the author to struggle for meaning than for sales. Too often genre aims only at the latter, when it could contribute much more.

Richard S. Wheeler

When I was a boy in the 40s and 50s I read the New Yorker from cover to cover, and any other magazines or papers that had sections about literature. I have no recollection whatever that fiction was divided. Reviewers typically asked what the author was attempting. If an author wrote a comedy of manners, the reviewer would discuss whether the author succeeded. If the author wrote a novel about the dark life of soldiers, such as James Jones's From Here to Eternity, reviewers would gauge whether he or she succeeded. The idea that there was a superior literary branch of fiction, and an inferior popular branch, simply wasn't present. For years, I've sought out old reviews, and when I occasionally find them they usually verify my understanding. The distinction between literary and popular fiction is quite recent.


I can't speak to the 40's and 50', but in Europe in the 60's and 70's romance novels were referred to as maids' novels. Clearly that implies that two kinds of books existed, those for the educated and those for the not-so-educated. Apart from the elitist flavor, this may also have been sexist.

Whatever one's attitude toward the distinction, it is clear to me that different books address different audiences.

David Thayer

Kyle, I agree with your premise that crime fiction can be literature of the highest order and applaud your courage for offering a list of examples. I tend to agree with Mr. Wheeler that the distinction between literary and popular is recent; I think the distinction comes in handy when a big novel from a famous author flops. Some one can find the literary kernel in a sandstorm of unpopularity.
Unfortunately I think the publishers are as mystified as the audience when it comes to a book's popularity. Is it popular because it's good? Or because it's bad? Is it popular in spite of being good? Can we get that Lehane guy back in the game?

Jon Jermey

The only thing a novel 'ought' to do is entertain. If it entertains then it has earnt its right to be read. If it doesn't then nothing else can or should save it, character, material or language notwithstanding.

Chad Weise

I read Minor's book. It was good. The best story in it was Goodbye Hills, Hello Night about the murder. The last story about the teacher and the racist father was as weird as anything I ever read. It was also good. I did not like the domestic stories as much. Also I did not like that there was only six stories in it. Okay some were long but we need more!

Phil Hamlin

Is a story a mystery because it has crime in it? I wonder why these terms are interchangeable now. At least in this guys' story in Best American there was a twist! Sorry to be cranky. This was a good article.

Rohan Maitzen

I agree that the difference between "literary" and "genre" fiction is often, and unnecessarily, exaggerated. I teach a course on 'mystery and detective fiction' at my university and that is one of the questions we return to regularly. Often the biggest difference is in how we read books we take to belong to one category or the other (James Thurber's little story "The MacBeth Murder Mystery" is great for opening up discussions about this issue). I think it's right that the concept of 'genre fiction' (and the idea that it is in some way 'lesser') firms up around the later part of the 19th century, though mystery fiction as a distinct form has its origins in earlier kinds like gothic, Newgate, and sensation fiction (like Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret or of course Collins's The Moonstone, one of the first--maybe the first real mystery novel). The lists above wouldn't quite be mine either (Bleak House is a great example for the first list, and there's not much in the second list from the more British tradition--and also, where are the major women crime novelists, like P. D. James?), but I really agree with your general point.

Ian Rankin also said he had no intention of being a mystery novelist; I heard him give a reading once and he was pretty funny about his initial resistance to being categorized in that way. He's another good example of a writer who uses the structure of the mystery novel to explore timely themes and problems in a complex and literarily interesting way.

Peter Ricci

Dear Kyle,

this is a great entry on crime fiction! My name is Peter Ricci, and I am a college student and writer who currently contributes to Too Shy to Stop, an upstart online magazine focused on culture and the arts.

I found you entry, as it would turn out, while doing research for my own essay on Chandler. I focus on some of the more remarkable characteristics of Chandler's work, especially his dialogue and use of symbolism. Funny how you should mention 'The Wire,' because I also love that show, and it inspired me to pursue more crime fiction.

If you have the time, check it out! I'd love for you to read it and comment.



Peter Ricci

Rafe McGregor

Well said. I've always thought that the divide between literary and popular fiction is contrived.

Tony Peters

Hi. I can't say that I am a mystery reader, but I do enjoy writng mystery books. Now and then I will sit down and read a mystery, but not very often. I find that they are more enjoyable to write then to read.

Tony Peters
Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

Sarah Collins Honenberger

So eloquently said, so well thought out, and the lists include some of my favorite writers. Of course anytime you can categorize a book as a particular genre, you are making a generalization that seems to hint at less original. But literary fiction has always been more about the resonance and less about the action, thus the distinction. Character-driven or plot-weighted, this is the true distinction. So those authors who can mix it up and do both are hard to peg, but usually worth reading as adding to human understanding. At my book events, when I'm asked about what I recommend reading, I often say that Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is the solution to world peace. So go ahead and write your mystery stories, but you, Kyle, are a literary fiction writer who spends his words to delve into the human condition, and not to solve Ms. Marple's latest murder. There is a difference, and it's not Jon's idea that all novels are supposed to be entertainment. Some are painful, but worthwhile.

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