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November 23, 2009


Adam McFarlane

I look forward to reading the PW piece--thanks for pointing it out!

What motivates the 'genre wars' anyway? Do mainstream/literary folks fear their pool is tainted by inclusion of crime novels? Or do mystery fans feel the lack of a respect they seek? Or is it something else?

Maybe I'll understand more when I read PW tonight.

Does sf struggle with the same issue(s)? Or the romance genre?


As one who reads both "kinds" of fiction, I agree with your quotes in the article, Sarah. I'm looking for stories that grab and keep my attention, regardless of whether they're housed in the fiction or crime section of my local bookstore. I find it disingenuous on the part of the article's author, though, to interview so many contemporary crime-ish writers but refer almost exclusively to a 65 year old Edmund Wilson piece when summarizing the opposition, with the exception of the silly John Banville contretemps from Harrowgate. If there aren't any other curent voices on the Literature-only side of the debate, maybe the issue isn't newsworthy any more, which would be a victory for readers everywhere.


Actually, some writers do consider beforehand whether they are writing a literary mystery or an ordinary one (or for that matter, ordinary genre fiction or literary genre fiction.) It's not an easy decision. The author would like to have the freedom to experiment, to wax poetic, to break some of confining rules of the genre, but if he does, the book may not sell to a publisher, because it won't fit their notion of what a mystery should be. And even if the editor is brave (or has enough seniority), the readers may not accept the book. Years may be sacrificed to no purpose whatsoever.

Richard S. Wheeler

Bear in mind that the distinctions between literary and other forms of fiction are quite recent, gaining traction only in the 60s and 70s with the advent of academic writers workshops such as the famed one in Iowa. No such distinctions were made when I was young, although genres were identified. But "literary" had not yet become a defined category of fiction.

David Gordon

Thanks for leading me to this. As a writer dealing with just these issues, I found the article interesting. I myself am a self-confessed book-snob, but I fell in love with both genre fiction (mysteries, horror, sci-fi) and serious fiction and modern poetry all at once and only realized later that one was somehow higher up the scale than the other. Still it's hard to think of an American prose style purer than Hammett's or a figure more influential among recent writers than PK Dick. Currently, crime masters like Elmore Leonard get plenty of respect from top-shelf liteary authors like Martin Amis.
Still, I must say the article revealed a continued sense of defensiveness and recyled debate among writers: "literary" authors guarding their status while eyeing the popularity of crime fiction, mystery writers insisting on they're being the same as any other writer. More useful, I believe, would be a real investigation of the role of genre in fiction. To me it is our modern mythology, a great storehouse of shared images and tales; every reader today knows what a man with a turned up collar and a gun signals, a bat flying over the town means. Also, in an age of declining literacy, genre still inspires the kind of passion that got most of us hooked on books in the first place.

For me it not just a matter of inserting high literary "quality" into a genre, it is also the potential for genre writing to enrgize and complicate literary fiction. The interting question is, how can mysteries and vampire books help change literature?

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