(My response to the escalating and arbitrary divisions between “literature” and “genre” writing, especially in Canada. I promise my next entry will be more chatty.)
The division between so called genre writing and literary writing is arbitrary. Alice in Wonderland is fantasy fiction. Orwell’s Animal Farm is fable; his 1984 is dystopian fiction. Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a horror story; Atwood’s Alias Grace is a mystery. Frankenstein and Dracula are masterpieces of horror, the former speculative and the latter psychological. James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is speculative fiction, Oryx and Crake is science fiction, although Atwood demurs on the facile categorization. Who would presume to deny P.D. James the epithet, ‘literary writer,’ despite her penchant for writing mysteries. Morley Callaghan showed a lifelong fascination with the thematic implications of crime. Michael Ondaatje continues to do so. So do I.
There is good writing and there is bad writing. Some ‘literary’ writing is execrable. I have served on award juries and been the editor of a literary journal generously funded by the Canada Council. I have read some brilliant literary writing by Canadian writers and plodded through a great deal of bad. Some ‘crime’ writing is bad; but some is profoundly well written. To dismiss the good with the bad on the basis of perceived formulaic restrictions is like refusing to buy a house because it has windows, doors, and a roof.
After a career as a literary critic, I have taken up the profession of mystery writer. This means I write mysteries, and these are intended to be no less literary than imaginative works I previously published with the House of Anansi, Cormorant Books, and Turnstone Press, all Canadian literary presses supported by various granting agencies. Recently, Giles Blunt turned from crime writing to publish a ‘literary’ novel. The powerful and poetic language, the psychological depths, the brilliant uses of locale to explore character and develop plot that are present in his mysteries enhance his newest work. Should it be considered less, or his crime novels more? All writing is genre writing of one form or another; all fiction follows certain conventions, subverts others. There are many ways to explore the human condition from a Canadian perspective. Writing about murder is one of them.