Recently, I’ve noticed a genre label being used, and I don’t understand what it means. I’m hoping CE readers can help define this slippery term: “literary thriller.” It’s in use by authors, agents, marketing departments, reviewers, bloggers, tweeters and a host of others. However, its usage is also inconsistent, confusing, and mystifying.
I think it’s a term weighted with the pressures of genre and literary snobbery, and I’d like to figure out if it’s an actual genre with a real definition, or if it’s a semi-fake, marketing word.
A snarky response is that a literary thriller (let’s use LT from here on out) is often a book people have heard of, but haven’t read. Umberto Eco’s books are all labeled LT’s, and, even though they’re bestsellers, I bet a sizable percentage of those who open Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose don’t reach the end. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is well-respected, but I’m sure that many more people have seen the Hitchcock film than have read the book.
Other LT authors, such as Shirley Jackson, Norman Mailer, Robert Stone, Graham Greene, even Ian Fleming and John LeCarre have written classic books that incorporate dark, criminal elements. But are they more admired than read? And what, precisely, differentiates them from “regular” thriller authors?
Literature in translation often receives the LT label. Henning Mankell is given the designation, as are Arturo Perez-Reverte and Carlos Ruiz-Zafon. There’s also a good chance that if you write a seven hundred page monster like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, then you get rewarded with the label.
Okay, so far we’ve determined that long, old, and occasionally foreign novels are called literary thrillers. The other common definition says that an LT is one where the words and characters “matter,” and the book’s not only about thrilling the reader, but about…art…or something. This definition says the author should be moving past what we expect from the genre and challenging the reader.
John Banville is as literary a writer as they come—he won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and is considered one of Ireland’s best writers. Banville also writes mysteries under the name “Benjamin Black.” These books are very character driven—some readers would characterize them as boring, or books where not much actually happens. Banville/Black isn’t afraid to slow down the narrative in order to focus on his characters. In Elegy for April, for example, the reader isn’t even sure if there was a crime or not for nearly the entire novel. That’s definitely a subversion of genre expectations.
However, the problem with saying that LT’s, such as Banville/Black’s, are meant to “challenge” readers is that writers never intend to produce bad, cliché-laden books. Don’t all writers, regardless of what genre they might work in, want to do something new and interesting, yet also entertaining? This implies that authors can’t set out to write an LT, it’s something that happens if they’re a good enough writer—basically, a prize for doing something well.
Around this point you’re probably realizing that I’m not going to come up with a solid definition. This term isn’t as cut and dried as other genre labels—if it even is a one! A cozy is easy to spot, as are procedurals and legal thrillers. But it seems like “literary thriller” is a term used by an author who wants to be taken seriously, or a book that has over the years become a classic. The term doesn’t necessarily describe the plot, the characters, or the author.
I think my uneasiness with the term stems from the fact that genre literature gets such a bad rap. Adding “literary” to “thriller” implies your book is a bit more clever and well-written than other thrillers, yet not quite good enough to be “literary fiction.” That’s really where the distinction begins to bother me. Flannery O’Connor wrote some of the darkest, bloodiest fiction in American history, but no one is calling her books literary thrillers. So are we marginalizing authors such as Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen when we simply by adding the term “thriller” to “literary.”?
Richard Z. Santos lives outside of Austin and is enrolled in the MFA program at Texas State University. Once, he worked in Washington, DC, but now he doesn’t do much more than write and teach. He blogs at Paperclip People, and is working on his first novel—a crime thriller set in New Mexico.