There is a very good reason why some public libraries have separate shelves for literary and genre fiction: The average reader—along with many librarians, booksellers, publishers, critics, scholars, and fiction writers—tends to think of these categories as binary opposites, separated by a gulf of taste and ambition. One is high culture, the other low. One is respectable and serious (or, depending on your point of view, elitist and pompous), the other disreputable and shallow (or democratic and entertaining). The general—if somewhat unexamined—feeling is that ne'er the twain shall meet.
But the twain are meeting, more and more, in the books of some of America's most celebrated novelists. Aspects of detective and crime novels, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, horror, westerns, comics, and other subgenres are increasingly showing up in variously transmogrified forms, with and without ironic quotation marks, in works of literary fiction. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, published by HarperCollins last year, is both an alternate history—a favorite trope of sci-fi/fantasy—and an homage to hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir. Jonathan Lethem's National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn (Doubleday, 1999) takes its tonal cues from Raymond Chandler, while his novel The Fortress of Solitude (Doubleday, 2003) features a pair of comic-book-loving boys who are granted superpowers. And after being categorized as a "literary" novelist early in his career, Richard Price has, beginning with Clockers (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), produced a series of richly imagined, highly regarded police procedurals that continues with Lush Life, published in March by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Even eminences such as Philip Roth (The Plot Against America, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2004, is an alternate history) and Cormac McCarthy (The Road, published by Knopf in 2006, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning postapocalyptic thriller complete with zombie-like cannibals) have joined the genre-raiding party, expanding on previous sorties by Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Powers, Alice Sebold, Jeanette Winterson, and others.
"I'm just embracing stuff—modes, styles, strategies, plot mechanics—that I admire, that give energy to my work," says Lethem, whose entire oeuvre is an exercise in genre bending. "Sure, people project these quarantines, or worse, a sort of literary caste system, on the genre materials I'm drawing on. But to the extent that I ever understood or perceived those limits, I was always flagrantly in defiance of them. There are lots of received hierarchies, absolutely, but aren't they constantly being exploded by writing that demands to be judged by its excellence or originality? They're in a state of permanent susceptibility to the boldness of writers taking up different modes and materials and forms."
Lethem insists that when he takes advantage of genre conventions for his own purposes—some of which are clearly subversive—he does so in a spirit of affection, not condescension. "I always loved ‘literary' fiction and genre fiction and comic books and movies and rock and roll, and I found it less than useless—distracting at best—to always be reminded that everything was supposed to divide into high and low, legitimate and illegitimate," he says. "I never felt I was making some kind of loaded or risky move, because I'm embracing materials that thrill me. Pretty much anyone who reads Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye thinks it is one of the great American novels, right up there with The Great Gatsby."
And anyway, Lethem says, the novel didn't always carry the weight of high seriousness that it acquired in the age of modernism. "It was originally a suspicious, popular, lowbrow entertainment, and it still happily bears within its compass the sense that it's supposed to be full of life and fun, something you can get absorbed in. Fiction is a polyglot, mongrel activity, and there's no limit to what it can contain."
Eileen Favorite, author of The Heroines, published by Simon & Schuster in January, agrees. "That whole high-art, low-art thing is being thrown out the window and replaced with the postmodern idea of incorporating lots of techniques into your work," says Favorite, in whose novel the female protagonists of Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, and other classics of women's literature make tumultuous real-life appearances at a rambling bed and breakfast. "Writing my book was an absolute loosening for me, a giving up of complete control of the text and just letting everything I'd ever read—whether it was ‘Rapunzel' or Flann O'Brien—go into it."
The increasing porosity of the boundary between genre and literary fiction can also be seen in the curricula of writing programs around the country. At Columbia College Chicago, for example, students are encouraged to read widely across various genres for inspiration. "We're trying to break down those barriers—not in the sense of teaching people to use genre conventions in literary fiction or vice versa, but to teach them the conventions of excellent writing, which doesn't privilege any one kind of voice," says Randall Albers, director of the school's creative writing program. "We emphasize story, theme, dramatic interaction, and forward movement in fiction, and our students use whatever works to boost their stories forward." As an example, he points to Columbia College graduate (and now faculty member) Joe Meno, whose The Boy Detective Fails (Akashic Books, 2006) is in some measure an homage to the Hardy Boys mysteries.
The pace of this literary eclecticism seems to be quickening, perhaps because it has reached the topmost rungs of the literary ladder. "There's been a burst, I think, with people like Roth and McCarthy, who are making use of the saturation of the popular culture by television, movies, science fiction, and other things," Lethem says. "Roth can use an alternate history idea because it's at hand. Twenty-five years ago, it's possible that he wouldn't seize on that idea, or wouldn't commit to it, because it wasn't familiar enough to be done casually." In turn, the examples of these literary giants may be inspiring young writers to take the genre plunge. "If you're asserting that some forms are less literary than others," Lethem says, "it's really gotten very difficult to put that forward when a McCarthy or a Roth is doing it."
Favorite identifies another factor driving increased experimentation: nostalgia. "Growing up, I loved the Nancy Drew books, which are part of what taught me to love reading, the way comic books did for other writers," she says. "And so you have warm feelings for these things. It's nostalgia for that era in your life when books took you away, let you imagine, dream, escape. They're a part of our consciousness, and a lot of writers are letting those things float up and settle. We're not worrying about categories. We're writing what we want to write."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and critic.