(Image: bestselling author John le Carré)
Why Genre Matters
I sometimes hear emerging writers say, “My book doesn’t fall into a genre. It’s a literary novel.”
But is it?
Often what they mean is that, naturally, they want their story to be thought of as serious. The unspoken thought is that genre novels are trivial.
But are they?
After all, it can be argued that even classic “literary” novels fall within the bounds of some genre. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a romance. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is horror. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is science fiction.
And, my goodness, what writer wouldn’t want to be classed with Dostoevsky?
Nevertheless, in our time, genre novels such as romances and thrillers have the unhappy reputation of being considered lightweight.
As the author of several thrillers, I’ve given this issue a lot of thought. So let me share what I believe about that particular genre: the thriller.
It’s often said that a good thriller is like a roller-coaster ride. That’s true enough. The genre is about high stakes, countdowns, and suspense, and every compelling thriller delivers this kind of excitement.
But the most satisfying thrillers deliver more – an exciting story that also explores complex issues. This kind of story has something important to say about our world. It takes the reader away from the amusement park and sends them on a voyage – an exhilarating journey into a different way of thinking.
I call it Deep Genre.
I believe that popular fiction is one of the best ways to illuminate crucial issues of our time, because those issues are brought to life by characters we care deeply about. Characters thrown into dilemmas in which they are forced to take risks and make hard choices. Characters who bring us face-to-face with the gripping question: If I were in that situation, what would I do?
That’s the job of Deep Genre. To take readers beyond their expectations. To crack open their comfort zone and give them an insight they never saw coming. “Insight” literally means seeing the truth through and under the surface of things. It’s the serious novelist’s job to challenge not only readers’ expectations, but also their received wisdom, their acceptance of society’s status quo.
At its heart, Deep Genre is always about confronting power.
Charles Dickens knew this when he used his immensely popular novels to hold a mirror up to the horrors that working-class people suffered under unfettered capitalism in nineteenth-century England.
In our time, bestselling author John Grisham has often done the same with his thrillers about the “little guy” up against some form of corporate bully. John le Carré’s thrillers train his unflinching focus on the corrosive corporate and political powers who leash our lives. Denise Mina, a master of crime fiction, reveals the raw wounds that Glasgow’s poor and powerless suffer, while at the same time she creates female central characters who are resilient and resourceful.
Grisham, Le Carré, and Mina use the thriller genre to say what needs to be said.
What’s It All For?
Christopher Vogler, in his book The Writer’s Journey, says the final step of any hero’s journey is bringing back an “elixir” to heal the rupture that incited the main character’s risky quest. The elixir might be literal: food for the starving tribe. Or it might be abstract: a hard-won wisdom that heals a shattered family. In a big techno-thriller, it might even heal the world.
Whatever it is, if the hero does not bring back something to share, they remain unenlightened, adolescent. They haven’t grown. And therefore, neither can the reader.
In other words, the roller-coaster ride is all you get.
A fine thriller may end in tragedy, or it may end with justice prevailing, or maybe a bittersweet blend of both. Whatever the choice, if you’re writing a thriller, embrace the challenging richness of Deep Genre. Readers welcome the experience. We need it.
Because it’s not the roller-coaster ride that satisfies the soul. It’s the voyage.
All my best,
The Man From Spirit Creek
Oil executive Liv Gardner sets out to entrap farmer Tom Wainwright who is sabotaging her company’s rigs. But when Tom is accused of a murder he didn’t commit, Liv must face the fact of her own corrupting power. Only by giving up everything to save him can she find her own redemption.
“A stunning thriller…Lost sleep as I couldn’t put this one down.” – Goodreads review
“Full of twists that kept me wanting more…a mix of thriller, romance, and redemption.” – BookSirens review