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Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?

By posted at 6:01 am on September 2, 2011 94

“I’m looking for a mystery,” my agent said.

That was the last thing I expected to hear. When I met David a little over two years ago, I was so struck with his Oxford-educated, sweater-vest-wearing persona that I’d wondered if my literary novel would be literary enough. But now he was not only looking for a mystery, but was also – I’ll spare you the precise language involved – highly dissatisfied with the ones coming across his desk.

“I could write a mystery,” I said.

covercoverIt’s not just David and I. The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage. Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.

What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a miniscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?

Here’s my take on what’s happening – which, granted, is worth exactly as much as you’re currently paying for it.

Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observation of upper class angst.

But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout.

And as one part of the industry rises, another falls. Magazines and newspapers are dying faster than fruit flies, to the dismay of many writers who counted on nonfiction to supplement their incomes. Advances are lower than they used to be, multi-book deals are becoming as quaint as hoop skirts, and, thanks partially to the rise of ebooks, the author payout per book sale is shrinking. A lot of writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. But those of us who write full-time are scrambling to find additional streams of income just to survive.

Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed – “a horror novel that has no real place among the ten that have come before it” – under the name Chase Novak. He’s taken it to a new mystery imprint, Mulholland Books at Little Brown, and says the genre jump was entirely his idea. “In fact,” he says, “my agent was surprised when I sent her the first forty pages.”

“Creative people switch genres all the time,” says Miriam Parker, Spencer’s publicist at Mulholland, who started at Grand Central and has worked with a broad spectrum of writers. Her fellow publicist Crystal Patriarche agrees. “Writers just want to write,” she says, noting that quite a few members of her primarily female client list have shifted genres during the time she’s worked with them, often combining mainstream with romance or mystery. “They evolve through stages throughout their careers.”

Still, it’s hard to think of very many writers – save possibly Stephen King – who have moved from genre to literary. The floor seems to slope the other way, and Patriarche concedes that sometimes the difference isn’t so much in what the author has written as in how the publisher opts to describe it. “I’ve seen literary books blurbed as something like ‘the thinking woman’s beach read,’” she says. “And that’s a sign that the publisher is trying to appeal to consumers who are more mainstream. In this aspect the change is more industry-driven than author-driven.”

coverErgo, the case of Dawn Tripp who clicked onto her Amazon page shortly after the publication of her novel Game of Secrets (Random House) only to learn that she’d written a thriller. “One reviewer called it ‘a page turning thriller,’ and another called it ‘a literary thriller told through a poet’s eye,’” says Tripp. “The tag ‘thriller’ surprised me. Although Game of Secrets has a mystery at the heart of it – an unsolved murder played out through a Scrabble game – it does not unfold in a linear way.”

Caroline Leavitt, whose Pictures of You has also been described as a literary thriller, started her career with a different publisher years ago. “My first two literary books were reviewed great but didn’t sell,” she recalls, “and then my publisher called me in and said ‘It’s time to go commercial with your third, so let’s all sit down and hammer out a plot.’” Leavitt followed the outline, “but with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach” and, predictably, the resultant book flopped on both the critical and commercial level. When her publisher didn’t think Pictures of You was commercial enough, she went to Algonquin, a place she describes as an Edenic paradise for writers, and now, after eight books, she has a New York Times best seller.

Even though Leavitt claims she isn’t entirely sure what a literary thriller is, she’ll take it. “A good book is a good book,” she says. “I’ve decided that genre is strictly a marketing tool.” Tripp is equally sanguine. “I don’t balk at the term ‘thriller,’” she says. “I don’t think in terms of genre. I write what moves me.”

While some writers find the genre shift has been almost sprung upon them, others are happy to produce books which are consciously designed to be commercial. Once they get the hang of genre – which can be a steep learning curve as they give themselves a crash course in learning how to plot – they end up having fun with the idea.

“There’s something about writing as Chase Novak that allows me to tell this story in a style that is leaner and more in service to propulsive story,” says Spencer. He took care to choose a style that innately appealed to him as a reader; although he’d never liked fantasy or adventure, “the possibility of horror rearing its head at any moment is something that I give a great deal of thought to while driving my car, taking a walk, or trying to fall asleep. My mother recently said to me ‘When you were little, you were always convinced that Dad and I wanted to kill you.’”

The key to a successful transition is that the writer chooses a genre they enjoy reading, with which he instinctively clicks. I’ve had a blast writing my historical mystery. Not only did the extensive research into Victorian England bring me back to my happy days in journalism, but I bought a bunch of mysteries and read them like a student, breaking apart the plots, analyzing movements through geographic space and time, using note cards to track multiple characters across a layered and detailed literary landscape. Only someone who’s never tried to do this would declare it easier than literary writing, or the books which result less worthy of respect. There’s a big difference between selling and selling out.

Of course, there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.”

So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre.

“You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller’ but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller? The problem is we don’t have names for these books, so we call them by the old names, even when the terms don’t fit.” But like any good publicist, she’s prepared to find the opportunity in the midst of the crisis. “It’s hard to get publicity for any book these days, especially one that’s hard to label, but a book that straddles genres can actually be an opportunity for a publicist to open it up to the readership of both genres.”

cover“More than ever the market requires publicists to approach all books on an individual basis,” says Parker. “I always ask myself ‘Who is the audience for this book and what’s the most effective way to target that audience?’ It can be fun, like when I was at Grand Central and we were bringing out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We created a great video trailer, which was widely viewed and shared, and built an active Facebook community around book.”

It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing.

In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”


Image credit: Fotomatom/Flickr

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94 Responses to “Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?”

  1. Ellis Shuman
    at 5:56 am on September 6, 2011

    Who is tying the hands of writers and classifying them as belonging solely to one genre or another? Set the writers free, and let them do what they do best, tell a great story!

  2. Literary vs genre writers | Elle Amberley Author
    at 6:08 am on September 6, 2011
  3. The Wild Hunt » Musings on the Fantasy Boom
    at 8:00 am on September 6, 2011

    […] boom is simply a bubble, but I think there’s a far larger shift at play here, as evidenced by the growing number of literary authors dipping their toe into genre work. This isn’t surprising since fantasy and science fiction, as a genre, now eclipses literary […]

  4. Benoit Lelievre
    at 10:08 am on September 6, 2011

    Dennis Lehane is another example of a writer who moved from genre to literary (with THE GIVEN DAY). In a recent interview he said: “The social novel went into crime fiction” and I agree. Many talented writers are writing crime to discuss complex social and moral issues. Genre is something that just keeps going stronger and stronger because they aim at a very precise crowd. People know before buying, where they are headed, it’s reassuring, you know?

    That said, the logical progression is to go from genre, into literary. So there are many possible ways to read this trend. Maybe it’s just that more people are reading. In that case, it’s a question of time before literary fiction gains ground again.

  5. Kim Wright
    at 10:42 am on September 6, 2011

    I agree with you fully, Benoit. When you look at writers like PD James, Elizabeth George, Kate Atkinson, and, as you mentioned, Dennis Lehane there’s a definite tradition of writers using the crime/mystery genre to explore social issues. You could even argue that Anne Perry does the same thing in the historical mystery camp. It might go back to the basic arc of the mystery which is 1) a crime disrupts the social order or illustrates the degree to which the social order has been slowly unraveling for years 2) our hero works to solve the crime and 3) there is resolution of some sort, even if that resolution is not the complete reestablishment of social order. For example, the detective might find the killer and solve the case, but not necessarily solve the underlying social problem that lead to the crime. Mystery/crime seems especially well suited to the task of showing societal decay.

  6. We Are Broke And We Like Monsters |
    at 1:41 pm on September 6, 2011

    […] last week, the excellent lit website The Millions published a trend piece by Kim Wright, mostly about writers who used to write “literary” fiction transition into writing genre […]

  7. Daniel
    at 3:30 pm on September 6, 2011

    Good article. As a reader who reads quite a lot of genre fiction, I have to say that I look for writers who are storytellers. Sometimes, “literary fiction” forgets to tell a compelling story. Then we are left with the literary equivalent of watching paint dry. Sometimes the use of language, instead of being in service of the story, interferes with it.

    Of course, a lot of genre fiction has a story to tell but doesn’t tell it well. That doesn’t work, either.

    Many of the comments by “literary” writers and readers about science fiction reveal ignorance of the genre. So, The Road or Never Let Me Go (both of which I enjoyed) are not science fiction because they don’t focus on imagined technology, but on how the characters are affected? A lot of science fiction is like that.

  8. lancelot
    at 5:15 pm on September 6, 2011


    Question: When does a classic genre piece qualify as literary? Is Tolkien or Austin or Wells or O’Doyle (etc.) literary?

  9. Wednesday Midday Links: The Amazon Tablet Is Real - Dear Author
    at 12:00 pm on September 7, 2011

    […] see what titles are being sold there. **** According to The Millions, a number of literary authors are shifting to writing genre fiction. Is it because of the money (yes, my cynical side says) or because of the creative freedom? […]

  10. William Doonan
    at 12:19 pm on September 7, 2011

    As the literary marketplace axis shifts to e-books and smaller, independent publishers, several changes become immediately apparent. First, gone are the gate-keepers of old, the editors and publishers that push back against a tsunami of marginal manuscripts. They’re being replaced by reader reviews, the first place people look before taking a chance on an unknown writer. Second, genre as a concept doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Cyber-bookshelves don’t have to be neat or organized in old-fashioned ways. Rules are being broken. Sure, a few too many vampires are finding love as they solve crimes, but we’re coming to the end of genre as an organizing concept.

  11. Kim Wright
    at 12:51 pm on September 7, 2011

    Excellent point. Genre may be a concept that the industry is evolving out of.

  12. 53
    at 3:32 pm on September 7, 2011

    “Many of the comments by “literary” writers and readers about science fiction reveal ignorance of the genre. So, The Road or Never Let Me Go (both of which I enjoyed) are not science fiction because they don’t focus on imagined technology, but on how the characters are affected? A lot of science fiction is like that.”

    Is this really what anyone is arguing here? I debated The Road, so I assume you are addressing this to me. My contention would certainly not be about “how characters are affected.” For The Road, I said I think it should be considered both sci-fi and literary. I don’t see these as separate. However, if one did believe they were separate camps, I think an interesting question would be about true influences and lineage.

    So much of genre is about the conversation within the genre. Different writers playing off tropes and responding to each other. Is The Road in conversation more with these books, or with books normally thought of as literary? Is McCarthy’s influence more Faulkner or Harlan Ellison?

    My suspicion is the former. (And on a technical level, I’m not sure I agree that any apocalyptic/dystopian fiction is science fiction. There is no explanation, much less a science one, for the apocalypse in The Road. He just presents a fictional world of darkness, something which has a LONG lineage in southern gothic, the “genre” that McCarthy seems to be most in conversation with.

    I would again posit that the idea that one or two elements of a genre are hardly enough to turn a work into a part of that genre. As I stated early, does The Great Gatsby turn into a science fiction tale if a minor character is rewritten as a robot but the rest of the book stays the exact same? Does it turn into a horror story if a minor character is possessed by a demon? Does it turn into a high fantasy story if a minor character is made a wizard?

    I think these are the central questions of genre. At what point to the tropes converge into genre? How embedded int he conversation of the genre does an author have to be?

    The idea of merely reading the genre title–“horror” “science fiction” “detective fiction”–overly literally and declaring that if one sentence out of a thousand has some fictional science then the work is sci-fi seems quite silly to me.

  13. 53
    at 3:33 pm on September 7, 2011

    To clarify, I mean that I don’t think a fictional apocalyptic/dystopian/unreal world is automatically science fiction. There is obviously a strong history of works in that vein within science fiction. But there is also a strain of it in “literary fiction” or other genres as well.

  14. In praise of literary hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds. – Leah Raeder
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  15. Switching Genres « Meg Benjamin’s Weblog
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  17. Per Hallstrom
    at 12:52 pm on September 9, 2011

    Best literary thriller I’ve read lately, bar none: “Deep Creek” by Dana Hand, which was a Best Novels pick by the Washington Post last year. A historical-thriller-mystery-race-relations-police procedural-supernatural. Really well done, and “Dana Hand” is actually the pen name for a pair of writers from Princeton, one female, one male.

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  19. Alistair
    at 6:32 pm on September 9, 2011

    Except for a few SF devotees with an ironic narrow-mindedness given their interest in SPECULATIVE fiction, I’ve really enjoyed reading this comment thread. Often, I’ve noticed, the true reactionaries are on the SF “side”: a likely byproduct of the mild autism that propels some people into an exclusive devotion to SF.

    That said, I do happen to write literary fiction–but I also write comics–and if I introduce myself as someone who writes comics first, I am greeted with a genial condescension that gets pretty tiresome.

    I really do see where the SF devotees are coming from–if indirectly–but they should remember to chin up and compartmentalize that bitterness. Nobody likes a whiner, especially when they are coming from the pop culture/big bucks side.

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  22. Trent M Kays
    at 5:23 pm on September 10, 2011

    All writing falls within particular genres, so literary fiction is a genre of writing. It’s ridiculous to assert that literary fiction isn’t a genre, but it’s not uncommon. Those types of assertions seem to permeate an established class of writers who are generally pretentious.

    What a ludicrous essay, which is devoid of evidence.

  23. Invasion of the Genre Snatchers
    at 6:55 am on September 13, 2011

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  24. Lis Carey
    at 9:39 am on September 14, 2011

    53, you say that when critics debate whether this or that work of sf is “literary” they aren’t saying it’s not science fiction–but very often they do say that, explicitly. “Literary” writers also, often are at some pains to explain why their ventures in to science fiction really aren’t science fiction. Ishiguro says “Never Let Me Go:” is not science fiction because it’s not about the technology of cloning; it’s about how cloning would affect society. He’s wrong on two points: 1.Good science fiction, the kind of science fiction that wins the awards you and others think sf fans are just too snobby to give to “literary” writers, _are_ about how the technology affects people and society. 2.He hasn’t actually bothered to think seriously about how cloning would affect real people and real society. His “literary, not science fiction” cloning novel is filed with “has this person met any actual human beings?” groaners.

    That’s why “literary” writers doing what they clearly telegraph as “slumming” in sf rarely win Hugos or Nebulas–because they don’t think they need to know anything about the genre or what’s been written before (they have no idea how often their spiffy new idea has been used or what’s been done with it), and they think that because it’s “sci-fi” it doesn’t need to make any sense.

    Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is clearly science fiction, written by someone who clearly IS familiar with what’s been done before in that vein within the genre. It’s an excellent, thoughtful, intelligent addition to that conversation.

    She also insists that it’s not science fiction because “there are no talking squids.” She’s written more science fiction since, and maintains the same stance, because her literary readers would be scared off by being told these books are science fiction, but the sf readers who like her stuff aren’t scared off by the literary label.

    Audrey Niffenegger’s _The Time Traveler’s Wife_ is another excellent work of science fiction marketed as “literary fiction.” It got a lot of positive notice in the sf world, but just a bit too late for it to reach enough readers to make the Hugo nomination list. If it had been her second novel rather than her first, there might have been a bigger base of people already aware of her, and it might have gotten enough notice sooner.

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  28. Cathy
    at 9:08 am on October 11, 2011

    Great article, Litopia. Always wondered who is served most by these distinctions. Feel quite confident it is shelf-stackers in book shops/supermarkets as it keeps their lives simple. So that made me feel a bit better about the great divide as anything that helps shop assistants is a good thing, isn’t it?

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  40. It is the Sentence
    at 1:03 am on April 11, 2013

    There’s not enough time and space here to discuss the concept of genre and its history, but a couple of points.

    1. No, selling power has historically not coincided with who gets in the canon. Moby Dick was almost entirely forgotten.

    2. It’s unbelievable to me how many people want to be writers, but think reading complex literary fiction is boring.

    3. Someone said Dostoevsky wrote to entertain . Really? Entertainment and art do not have to be mutually exclusive, but that is a statement about Dostoevsky that is wildly inaccurate and reflects an idea about what literature should be that is incredibly reductive of the potential and power of great literature.

    4. Being entertained is not bad, but “literary” fiction is generally fiction that puts a premium on the quality of the language itself at the level of the individual word and the sentence. Do any of the people on here cheering so greatly for “a good story” ever read poetry? Also, the best of literary fiction (which can include work which incorporates elements of fiction that is categorized in other genres) is fiction which contributes to the development of our very selves and our understanding of our world. If you are becoming a more complex person for having read Twilight or whatever, then, well, it seems that you might be a fairly simple person.

    5. I’m not anti-genre, anti-reading “for fun”, or anti-“low brow” readers. Literary writers have always largely been sustained by a small crowd of “elite readers”. All kinds of books and readers make the world go round. What is disheartening to me, though, is how despite increasing numbers of people attending college, attending MFA programs, etc, there seems to be a diminishing number of readers and writers who would not only never bother to read Dostoevsky or whoever, but much worse, couldn’t articulate the difference between Dostoevsky and say, Harry Potter, except that the former is “boring” and the latter is “fun”.

    I don’t mean to be negative and snooty, but you may not like Pynchon, fine, there’s plenty of reasons to be critical or not like him, but if our writers and English majors and MFA students can’t appreciate the qualitative difference between Gravity’s Rainbow and 50 Shades of Grey then indeed, literary fiction is going the way of the buffalo.

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  42. humbow
    at 5:07 pm on December 12, 2013

    I think a writer really ought to know that “It’s not just David and I” is not grammatically correct.

  43. johnshade
    at 10:05 am on December 13, 2013

    “I think a writer really ought to know that “It’s not just David and I” is not grammatically correct.” Sure it is, just as “it is I” is correct.

  44. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 11:41 am on December 13, 2013

    I pray that an outbreak of grammatical pettifogging is not about to break out at The Millions! :)

    Moe Murph
    Veteran of The War of “You Musts” vs. “You Shalls”

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