Breaking the Wall Between Literary and Mystery Fiction

In this week’s Publishers Weekly, Jordan Foster looks at what happens when mystery becomes literary fiction and vice versa – aka, we’ve got another round of the genre wars debate, but from the angle of dispensing with categorization altogether:

“Categories are like walls,” says bestselling author Michael
Connelly, “and walls keep people out.” What separates the genre of
crime fiction from literary fiction may be more membrane than wall, but
it's still a barrier that is often tricky to penetrate. The very act of
categorizing brings with it an implicit ranking and the idea that
anything shelved under “genre” is somehow lacking.

Banville, the Booker Prize–winning author who also writes crime fiction
under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, reignited this longstanding debate
at last summer's Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. When he writes under
his own name, Banville told the audience, he manages to put 100
hard-fought words down on paper each day; writing as Black, he manages
several thousand. In his post on the Guardian UK's Books Blog,
Stuart Evers summed it up well: “the intimation was quite clear,
Black's sentences simply weren't as important.” Evers goes on to say
that “at its best, crime writing offers unique insights into society,
psychology, and human behavior. It can be both engaging and literate;
compelling and well-written. It can be innovative and surprising, but
what it can't be, it seems, is feted in the same way as literary
fiction. The most a crime writer can hope for is to be told, as Ian
Rankin indeed was, that their novels 'almost transcend the genre.'
Faint praise indeed.”

But do these categories—crime
fiction, mystery, suspense, whodunit—actually come into play when an
author is staring at a blank computer screen, about to start a new
novel? Or is categorization, as Dennis Lehane claims, “a marketing
issue, not a writing issue”? Kate Atkinson—whose series featuring U.K.
detective Jackson Brodie usually falls under the umbrella of crime
fiction while her early work, such as 1995 Whitbread winner Behind the Scenes at the Museum,
is classified as fiction—says, “When I sit down to write, I simply feel
as if I'm writing a book. It doesn't mean I'm unaware of the tenets and
structures of 'the crime novel,' and the plotting certainly feels a lot
more complex, but really I'm still writing character-led novels.”

Lots of ace people – Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Tana French, Jess Walter, Cornelia Read, John Hart, Cara Black and Karin Slaughter – are quoted in the piece, which also includes a sidebar about how Poisoned Pen saved itself from the brink and six debut writers to watch for in 2010.