Is ‘Literary’ Just Another Genre? / Richard Helms

Richard Helms

Richard Helms

I recently posted a comment on Facebook about the book I’m writing this summer, in which I said: “Broke through 43,000 words on the new book today. Still at the scene of the murder, which was introduced around the 36,000 word mark. Can’t decide if I’m writing a literary murder mystery or a mystery with literary pretenses.”

One of my long-time friends in the writing and publishing business, Jack Bludis, responded with: “Stop using the “L” word, damn it. (Literary to many means, I’m better than most of you yahoos.)”

This reminded me of an article by Arthur Krystal in the May 28th issue of The New Yorker, entitled “Easy Writers”. It opens with a recounting of how Walt Whitman spoke derisively of Matthew Arnold on the occasion of the latter’s death in 1888, claiming that Arnold “…would not be missed.” Whitman decried Arnold’s work as, “…rich, hefted, lousy, reeking with delicacy, refinement, elegance, prettiness, propriety, criticism, analysis…” and ended by condemning Arnold as, “…one of the dudes of literature.”

Of course, anyone who has slogged through Song Of Myself would immediately conjure images of pots, kettles, and blackness.

Arthur Krystal states that, in our modern tradition of separating literally everything into taxons of inequivalency—this category is good for you, this one is trash—we tend to look at genre literature as somehow inferior to works of perceived greater cultural value. The strictures of genre formulas, he seems to argue, have led us to regard murder mysteries as entertainment first and literature second.

This is not to say that he rejects crime fiction as insignificant. Rather, he refers to them as ‘guilty pleasures’, inferring that he—like most readers—derives enjoyment from reading genre fiction. The question is, are we duty bound to feel guilty about that enjoyment?

A larger question, and one which Krystal also addresses in his article, is why genre fiction has acquired a reputation as second-class literature, when in fact numerous ‘serious’ critics over the last century (people such as W.H. Auden, Martin Amis, R.W.B. Lewis, and even Anthony Trollope) have all recognized crime and mystery fiction as being important contributors to the development of modern letters.

Krystal writes that Anthony Trollope, in fact, reportedly stated that the genre author who routinely deal with issues of brutality, homicide, and other “tragic elements”, is “… a greater artist and reaches a higher aim than the writer whose efforts never carry him above the mild walks of everyday life.”

One of the undeniable perks of teaching college courses is the ten-month contract. For one thing, it affords relatively unstructured time each summer during which an author might devote him/herself entirely to writing. I usually do the largest bulk of my writing during May, June, and July, since my obligations to my college are minimal, and I can concentrate on creating rather than committee meetings and grading papers.

Besides writing, I also try to use my summer months to explore new horizons. This summer, I’ve committed myself to exploring some of the more “serious” fiction of the last several years—the type of works which garner Pulitzer and Man Booker prizes, presumably because of their quality and, as Whitman noted of Matthew Arnold’s works, their richness, heft, refinement, and elegance.

Among the authors I’m sampling this year are Joseph O’Neill, whose Netherland won the PEN/Faulkner Award; Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which won the 2010 Pulitzer; and works by Paul Auster, who has a whole shelf of awards for his achievement in letters.

As an analytical reader, I have noted significant differences between these so-called “literary” works and the typical formula crime fiction I’m used to scarfing book after book. The most obvious feature is a lack of reliance on standard story structure (you know, the stuff they taught us in school: exposition-rising action-conflict-climax-denouement). Instead, they tend to build their stories more on a deeper examination of inner conflict, and a stream-of-consciousness that focuses on a personal search for meaning.

James Woods in The New Yorker referred to O’Neill’s Netherland (which uses the game of cricket in New York City in the wake of 9/11 as an allegory for the search for meaning in a time of unthinkable horror) as “…a post-colonial rewriting of The Great Gatsby.” While there is a putative murder in the book, involving the solitary person with whom the protagonist forms a bond, it isn’t the focus. Rather, it is the catalyst which, like the madeleine cake in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, forces the protagonist to examine his desolate life.

Freed from the constraints of formula or even a need for resolution, so-called “literary” works offer the writer the opportunity to explore all aspects of the narrator’s sensory experience in greater (and, some would say, obsessive) detail, with entire pages passing in a single paragraph, an existential sense of futility, and ultimately—in many cases—little or no satisfactory conclusion. Many of these stories do not end as much as they run out of steam, like a tea kettle depleted of water, and we realize as we turn the last page that we have witnessed a single, well-portrayed segment of the protagonist’s life that is connected to a before and an after to which we are not privy.

In that sense, many “literary works” are both immediately exhilarating but ultimately unsatisfying. Like ending a scale with the seventh note, we feel as if we have been led to the brink and left without a conclusion. In one sense, this makes a work memorable, in that things which are left unfinished weigh on our minds and make us think about the thousands of possible outcomes that were denied to us.

Genre fiction, especially crime fiction, on the other hand, has a goal—to tell a story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. While some aspects of the protagonist’s life may not be resolved at the end of the book, especially in series works which include a multi-title story arc, the primary issue of the individual book must be settled. The crime must be solved and the miscreant punished. To do otherwise is considering cheating the reader, and books that dare to violate this rule are roundly condemned on the various online discussion groups that carefully dissect each eagerly-awaited title.

There are wonderful examples of crime fiction that attempt to blur the lines between genre and literature. James Lee Burke, for instance, writes staggeringly opaque prose in his novels. He happily puts aside one of the presumptive cardinal rules of genre writing, that the words should not get in the way of the story. Reading a Burke novel is like watching Al Pacino act. You know he’s acting, rather than losing himself in his character, and watching him chew the scenery becomes an exercise not unlike trying to digest Burke’s endless existential and transcendental similes and imagery. You can’t plow through a Dave Robicheaux novel in an afternoon any more than you can gobble up an entire buffet in a single sitting. The writing is simply too rich, too complex, too “literary” to digest rapidly.

Several years ago, my friend S. J. Rozan temporarily put aside her hugely successful Bill Smith/Lydia Chin series to write a couple of mainstream fiction works. Like Netherland, her novel Absent Friends launched from the aftermath of 9/11, examining the relationships among a group of friends whose lives are impacted by the death of one of their own in the collapse of the twin towers. In This Rain opens with the death of young street tough, and Rozan does eventually determine who killed him, but the actual story explores the manipulations of (and abuses of) power in New York City. Both books employ literary conventions, and use death as the stimulus to explore complex relationships between characters, and ultimately comprise apparent love letters to her home town rather than attempts to mete out literary justice.

"The Unresolved Seventh" by Richard Helms

“The Unresolved Seventh” by Richard Helms

Reed Farrel Coleman, the multiple award-winning crime writer whom NPR’s Maureen Corrigan has referred to as “the hardboiled poet”, is well-known for his lyrical prose. He writes about family secrets left festering for decades in a way that would have made Ross Macdonald proud. Written in first person, his Moe Prager novels devote pages to its protagonist’s internal existential fears, personal relationships, ghosts from the past, and self-deprecating observations of a life perceived as misdirected into a boring profession by a simple fateful event. His entire adult life appears to stem from three fundamental crises—an errant piece of carbon paper, a merciful lie, and a momentary flash of inspiration that led to the rescue of a kidnapped girl. These events arise in book after book, as Prager ruminates over the impact of seemingly unimportant events in our lives that permanently throw us off trajectory onto a completely new path we never thought we’d tread.

How is this different from the ‘conventions’, such as they are, in so-called “literary” fiction? If Moe Prager reaches the end of a novel having solved the central murder but still mired in the quicksand of his serendipitous life, is his story any better resolved than Hans van den Broek’s in O’Neill’s Netherland?

The examples I’ve cited above are far from exhaustive, and they suggest that the boundaries between genre and literary fiction are considerably more flimsy than purists might suggest.

In his New Yorker article, Krystal quotes Jack Reacher author Lee Child, who says, “The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling thousands of years ago…”.  He implies that all fiction is, at its heart, genre fiction. Some authors write more elegantly than others, more opaquely, and demand greater effort and attention on the part of the reader. Others serve up the literary equivalent of an amuse bouche, which can be ingested and enjoyed in a single bite, and then conveniently forgotten. A ripping yarn is a ripping yarn, whether it intends to excavate the deepest regions of a person’s psychic trauma, or simply to determine whodunit.

Writing is a big tent enterprise. My friend Jack Bludis implies that some people use the term “literary” writing as a cudgel or perhaps as some kind of retaining wall to separate worthy from unworthy works, and I suspect that his sentiment is widely held in writing circles. I’d like to suggest that, as demonstrated by authors such as Burke, Rozan, and Coleman (among many others), there is room within the boundaries of genre formulae to employ all the trappings of literary writing. The goal is to tell a story, and all stories are told from the perspective of the human experience, whether they deal with sudden, messy death, or with the quest for life’s meaning (or both at the same time).  As writers, we should try to extend ourselves with each new work, to experiment with new ways of delivering our message, and to learn by reading the works of other authors—even those outside our ‘genre’, whatever that term means anymore—in order that we might reach our own ultimate potential as literary creators.

Richard Helms, the author of fifteen novels, retired from practice as a forensic psychologist in 2002. He now teaches psychology at a college in Charlotte, North Carolina. Helms has been nominated three times for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award, four times for the Short Mystery Society Derringer Award, and once each for the International Thriller Writers Award and the Macavity Award. He is the only author ever to win the Derringer Award in two different categories in the same year, in 2008, and he is a 2011 winner of the ITW Thriller Award. Visit his website at

(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (  To be a part of this series, contact Beth at


About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker ( and founder of Killer Nashville ( As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” ( and the music CD “XO” ( A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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2 Responses to Is ‘Literary’ Just Another Genre? / Richard Helms

  1. Nice post. I’ve just finished Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, so Richard had me at pots, kettles and blackness.

  2. Jacqueline Seewald says:


    As far as I’m concerned “literary” fiction whether short story or novel is just another form of genre with its own structure. I’ve written both literary and so-called genre works. I don’t consider one superior to the other, simply different. But so-called literary intellectuals do take a snobbish view toward genre fiction in general. Many times their prejudice is based on ignorance.

    Congrats on the fine reviews for your new novel,

    Fellow Five Star/Gale author Jacqueline Seewald

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