The Better Book Battle: Mystery Fiction vs. Literary Fiction.

There’s been renewed debate, recently, about the relative value of mystery fiction vs. its “literary” counterpart thanks to a self-described “passing remark” by Notre Dame English professor William O’Rourke that disparaged the mystery writing community as suffering from a “fatal lack of talent.” In a subsequent article in the Irish Times, O’Rourke clarified that he did not intend for his remark to insult mystery writers in particular but, instead, to denigrate the entire literary culture in America.  After reading both articles, it’s clear that O’Rourke believes our nation subsists on the literary equivalent of McDonald’s, formulaic, processed writing intended to keep readers turning pages thanks to contrived cliff hangers. Other cultures, he argues, consume the good stuff–books that make folks stop and think.  I don’t believe O’Rourke is entirely wrong in his assessment of the average American’s fiction diet. Our busy culture values easily digested entertainment. And, in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that. I like having a cheeseburger now and again. Sometimes, I want something fun to read on a plane, or at the beach, or to listen to in the car. However, I certainly disagree that mystery writing as a whole is formulaic fast food. Good writing–and there is plenty of it in the mystery realm–transcends genre and turns formulas upside down. A recent example (which guessing from Mr. O’Rourke’s criticism he’d probably dislike) is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. It’s a fantasy. It’s a mystery. It’s a family drama. Above all, it’s a story that forces readers to contemplate grief. What does losing a child do to a family? How do gender expectations limit an individual’s ability to properly mourn? Do people really survive the murder of a loved one with their former self intact or is violent loss so transformative that there is forever a person before and a person after?   Last night, I saw GET OUT, a movie by comedian, writer and actor Jordan Peele which manages to be a fantastic commentary on race and related micro-aggressions wrapped in a horror film. It certainly made me think about how the construct of race divides Americans, even when people are trying for it not to. At one point, for example, a character tries to prove he is not racist by saying how many times he voted for former President Obama, as though supporting a black political candidate was proof of post-racial colorblindness. Of course, the character brought up his vote precisely because he was seeing the color of the person he was talking to and assuming his support would create a bond.  Personally, I think the best writing is not the sort that purports to be literary from the get go. Sure, authors may applaud themselves for writing a “difficult book” filled with words intended to elevate the Flesch-Kincaid reading level. But those writers certainly don’t win many fans among readers.  The best authors aim to tell an engaging story that also makes their audience contemplate some larger issue. There are plenty of mystery books that do this. Emma Cline’s The Girls, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are examples. Each made me consider the nature of crime and punishment as much as I did when reading Dostoyevsky’s novel named for the very subject. These books, each in their own way, made me ponder what constitutes real justice. Can living with the knowledge of an immoral act and evading legal retribution prove worse than serving time?  Perhaps more importantly, these stories stayed with me long after I finished reading them, and I suspect they did for most readers. They were popular and they were smart. As I tell my daughters all the time, it’s quite possible to be both. 

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