“What Does the Word Genre Mean Anyway?” (by Chris Knopf)

A winner of the Benjamin Franklin and Nero awards and a nominee for a Derringer Award, Chris Knopf is the author of seventeen mystery and thriller novels. His work has been widely reviewed, in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe and in journals such as PW and Booklist, where he’s received starred reviews. His first story for EQMM, “The Best Is Yet to Come,” appears in our March/April 2021 issue. In this post, he takes up a topic I think may claim the interest of many of our writers. Readers too. —Janet Hutchings

Reed Farrel Coleman, a friend of mine in the mystery-writing business, once answered a question from a conference attendee, “How would you define literary fiction?”  He said, “Books without plots.”

He’s a very funny man, but also very literate, so I took his point.  Mystery writers have a sacred obligation above all else to write books and stories that have plots.  This is not an easy task, as most literary writers know, even though they, and their editors, often hide behind virtuosic prose, eccentric characters and angst-ridden descriptions of consuming a latte in a Brooklyn coffee shop to justify the absence of a satisfying narrative arc.

My goal here isn’t to belittle literary works, being a devoted English student, but rather to address the artificiality of genre classifications.  I once wrote a fictionalized memoir that leaned dangerously into the realm of general fiction, but being known as a mystery/thriller writer, my publishers didn’t know how to market it.  So I asked a mystery/thriller reviewer if she’d take a look.  

“Does it have a gun?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Does somebody get shot?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s a thriller.”

By this definition, The Great Gatsby is a thriller, and I’m fine with that.  

I also think Presumed Innocent, Mystic River, and Gone Girl are brilliant works of literature.  They just happen to have crimes at the center of the story, and are infused with teeth-grinding suspense, but also some of the most beautiful, lyrical and trenchant prose you’ll find anywhere in the literary canon. 

It’s been explained to me that genre classifications are very important to the marketing and sales of books, and I get that.  Physical bookstores have to label their shelves, and cater to shoppers’ particular enthusiasms. What’s unfortunate to me are readers who will only read books, or magazines, that fit within their genre preferences.  I think that’s a shame, because they’re missing out on works they’d surely enjoy if they only gave them a chance.  

The mystery genre is my neighborhood, and I’d never want to live anywhere else.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t like taking a spin into other locales.  The best mystery writers I know feel the same way. And if you ever sit down with any of them to talk about writing, you won’t know you aren’t in a postgraduate English lit discussion group. Sometimes French, Spanish, Russian and Asian lit thrown in as a bargain.  

I’ve read at least as much science fiction as mystery, and I can assure you there are many dazzling works of art contained within those genre walls.  Although the novella that inspired the movie Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, bears little resemblance to the film, it demonstrated the potential of mashing up sci-fi with hard-boiled/noir. 

I think Edgar Allan Poe would be interested to learn that some of his greatest stories would today be slotted into the mystery genre.  Or more precisely, detective fiction.  He might concede that his stories made good use of suspense to propel the narrative. But so did those of Charles Dickens. Acceding to the demands of serializations, he knew his readers would buy the next edition of the periodical only if they had to know what happens next.   Did he see this as being trapped by commercial exigencies, or was it simply good storytelling that any respectable author should aspire to?

Jazz began life in the African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.  In no way would any music connoisseur of the time have considered it a respectable form.  The accomplishments of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis tells us where that ended up.  By the same token, the earliest pulp magazines were unabashedly meant to be popular entertainments, with no pretense toward literary achievement, except perhaps by the writers themselves, mostly in secret.  

Of these, the exemplar was Dashiell Hammett. As with Dickens, his stock in trade were periodicals, in particular the pulp magazine Black Mask, where he published dozens of stories, some as serialized novels.  As Raymond Chandler pointed out in “The Simple Art of Murder,” Hammett was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway.  Though I also agree with Chandler that Hemingway was fully aware of Hammett’s contributions to twentieth-century literature, from which he took his own inspiration.  Hemingway might have explored the revolutionary concept, at the time, of the American antihero, though the sensibilities of a character like Jake Barnes, manly and cynical for sure, was also drenched in existential confusion of the sort you can only acquire through an exhaustive and eclectic reading list and lots of time in stuffy parlors with people like Gertrude Stein.  

What Hammett wrought was the pure form.  Sam Spade was a man of seemingly moral ambivalence, coldly pessimistic about human nature, yet at the end of the book, clear-eyed about the distinctions between right and wrong, villainy and virtue.

Jake Barnes and Sam Spade endure inside nearly every subsequent American hero spawned by genre and literary fiction alike, but I feel that Spade ultimately had the upper hand.  With this sort of influence on letters as a whole, what makes the distinctions of genre important?

Since genres are inevitable, maybe we should celebrate the mystery thriller world for being positively bursting with subgenres. Private eye, hardboiled, noir, police procedural, amateur sleuth (where the amateur could be anything from a chef to an antiques dealer to a bipolar circus clown with a drinking problem), cozy (with cats/without cats), historic, erotic, espionage, occult, cyberspace, young adult, etc., etc.  With such a proliferation of forms,  do we need to define the overall phylum as being merely different from some other major genres, say Romance? (Oh yeah, I forgot about romantic mysteries.)

Despite the seeming polemics, I’m not advocating for the abolition of genre classifications.  In fact, there are manifold reasons to have guideposts for book buyers trying to navigate all the possibilities.  I’d hate to crack open what I thought was a beach-read thriller only to find an anthology of fourteenth-century epic poetry.  What I resist are all the biases that accompanying people’s devotion to particular types of reading.  

What I say is to read everything.  To delight in how each reinforces the other and builds a larger universe of creativity and craft.  

There is no hierarchy.  Thriller snobs are no better than literary snobs, and vice versa. They both have closed their minds to the dazzling wealth of the written word, and the endlessly involving paths to satisfying storytelling.  To say nothing of the sheer joy of well-crafted prose, in any form.

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