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10 Literary Novels for Genre Readers

Every so often a debate breaks out across the blogosphere about the comparative merits of literary versus genre literature, usually sparked by some comment advocating one of the two with some supercilious tone. The topic brings out heated rhetoric, often times boiling down to one’s personal views on the shape of fiction as a whole. One thing is for sure, the debate is unsettled.

There need not be a chasm between movements, however, as genre and literary fiction can be quite complementary to one another. Certainly no one aspect of literature can lay claim to a higher standard of quality. While literary fiction can be a window into the human condition, it can also be pretentious and overbearing. Genre fiction can be full of inspiring ideas but it can also be wooden and derivative. The opportunity for a book to be crap isn’t limited by the bookstore shelf it lands on.

There are plenty of guides to gateway books for literary readers to discover SF/F, but very few to introduce primarily genre readers to literary works they would find enjoyable. And so, in the spirit of reconciliation, I’ve compiled this short list of books that fill the gap between speculative and so called realistic fiction. It is by no means comprehensive but should serve as a decent introduction for genre readers to see how the other half lives.

1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov is infamous for his 1955 novel Lolita but his masterwork may have been the hilarious and daring Pale Fire. In it, John Shade writes the eponymous 999 line poem over the last twenty days of his life only to have it stolen and commented upon by his crazy neighbor Charles Kinbote. The latter twists the tale suggested by the poem to fit some imaginary narrative about Shade’s homeland of Zembla, to which Kinbote believes himself to be ruler. A combination of poetry and narrative, commentary and satire, Nabokov’s brilliant craftsmanship blends with plenty of fantastic elements to make this a novel worth the genre reader’s time.

2. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
While this book doesn’t intimidate with its size, it’s barely a novella. Pynchon packs in detail that makes The Crying of Lot 49 more than the sum of its parts. We follow Oedipa Maas as she attempts to settle the estate of an ex-boyfriend after his death. What she winds up pursuing is a centuries-old, secret underground postal service. Oedipa’s brushes with the shady Tristero lead her further and further down a rabbit hole of paranoia that leaves her, and our, heads spinning. For those who may be interested in Pynchon’s work but don’t want to plunge into the massive and difficult Gravity’s Rainbow, Lot 49 gives more than a little taste of what’s on offer.

3. Crash by J. G. Ballard
Ballard is a name not unfamiliar to genre readers. His contributions to the cyberpunk movement and his general flare for the speculative have led many to classify some of his stories as soft SF. Crash is a novel that borders on the dystopian, dealing as it does with the transformation of people into psychosexual thrill-seekers. The book’s sensationalist overtones served as example to later shock literartis such as Brett Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk.

4. Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
Oates is an author who routinely jumps fences into areas outside the mainstream. Based on the life of Jeffery Dahmer, Zombie follows the gruesome Quentin P. as he attempts to construct a zombie out of an unsuspecting young man, seeking essentially to rewire him as a sex slave. The novel won a Bram Stoker Award in 1995.

5. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Add and M and Iain Banks transforms from literary novelist to hard SF author and creator of The Culture series. And as with Banks’ genre work, The Wasp Factory is a tight thriller. We follow the antics of Frank Cauldhame as he examines the world around him through ritual animal sacrifice. Frank is plagued by the specter of his older brother Eric, a criminal psychotic recently escaped and bearing down on Frank and his father. Controversial for its depiction of animal cruelty, The Wasp Factor is nonetheless an exciting if gruesome read.

6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Perhaps the only Pulitzer Prize winner ever to deal with the comics industry, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay deals with the eponymous duo’s creation of The Escapist, an anti-fascist comic book hero, during World War II. The two deal with the emotional toll of the holocaust from the point of view of Jewish creatives, reflecting the real struggles of ethnic and immigrant illustrators in the 30’s and 40’s as they were unable to get work in other fields. Chabon’s genre awareness makes this a great gateway book for SF/F and comics fans to get their feet wet in the literary genre.

7. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
A far cry from the plaintive westerns of McMurtry, McCarthy delivered what one reviewer describes as ” a slap in the face” to modern audiences who are cut off from the brutal reality of the old west. Controversial for its ultra-violent depictions, we follow a teenage runaway known as “the kid” as he joins a group of Indian scalp hunters. McCarthy has a penchant for extremely powerful narratives that affect the reader in emotionally vulnerable areas. His boderline SF novel The Road also strikes this cord, the struggle for morality amongst the nihilistic, the battle for life against inhospitable nature.

8. Underworld by Don DeLillo
Written in a tone dubbed super-omniscience, DeLillo’s acclaimed novel is a series of vignettes and story fragments, framing the cold war in a dream-like composite of American culture. Jackie Gleason, J Edgar Hoover, and Frank Sinatra sit in the stands of the Giants-Dodgers game, fielding a home run as they learn of the first Russian nuclear missile test. From the seeds of this prologue we filter out into wider America, as well as a memorable stint in a Soviet hospital, and the lessons of the cold war are filtered through the people we meet. A difficult book to be certain, but one worth unraveling and unique in its story telling style.

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Plenty of discussion has already gone into pondering Atwood’s place in genre. To some, she is a fantasist, plain and simple. To others, she uses SF/F tropes to bring some wonder to a decidedly literary sensibility. Regardless, The Blind Assassin gets too little attention from either camp. Ostensibly a realistic tale with a science fiction story layered beneath, the book follows the life of Iris Chase as she recalls it from the vantage of old age. The interthreaded SF novel gradually comes to mirror the happenings in the novel proper, casting doubt upon its meaning and authorship. Winner of the 2000 Booker Prize, The Blind Assassin is a unique blend of SF and literary fiction.

10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
One of the most confounding and controversial novels in recent times, Infinite Jest stands as the swansong of DFW’s novel writing career and a monument to the late writer’s genius. Equally capable of holding open your mind and your door, this sweeping dystopia takes place in a world where time itself is subsidized. Most events take place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and the majority of the plot revolves around finding the master copy of the film entitled Infinite Jest, an entertainment so compelling, people who watch it have no other earthly desires than to keep watching it. Wallace’s fiction can be challenging and none more so than this, not quite as obfuscated as Pynchon but substantially more scattered than Philip K. Dick.

A few years ago, when SF Signal posed this question to authors, there was quite a bit of disparity among the responses. So how do these books stack up to your expectations? Is there value in being familiar with non-genre literature? Or is story-telling without laser canons anathema? I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

15 Comments on 10 Literary Novels for Genre Readers

  1. The Saddling Saint // February 18, 2011 at 9:04 am //

    Awesome books that I would highly recommend. 

    The value of non-genre lit is the same as the value of sf. They have some great books, and you’re missing out if you shut out a certain type of fiction. Just because realist literature might ignore genre literature doesn’t mean it should be reciprocated; two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Oh, and everyone should read Blood Meridian for the sheer, incredible brilliance of McCarthy’s prose. Awesome book. 

  2. I think quite a few of these are known to genre readers.  Without Ballard, there wouldn’t have been a British New Wave movement.  Pynchon nearly won the Nebula with Gravity’s Rainbow, and he acts like a gateway drug into the postmodern world’s of Delillo and Wallace.  Atwood is the SF author that SF readers love to hate for her rejection of the term.  McCarthy’s most recent book is set in a post-apocalyptic world.  As you said, the only difference between the Banks’ is the M.  And Chabon took both the Hugo and Nebula for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  Nabokov and Oates would be the least well-known, and even Oates has written much in genre.

  3. I would add Angela Carter. My favourite is  The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman from 1972.  Especially if you like the fierce writing of Ballard’s Crash. Surrealist distopic fun.  Much closer to sf and fantasy than descriptions like “an amalgam of magical realism and postmodern pastiche” would suggest.

  4. TheAdlerian // February 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm //

    A good addition would be almost anything by HermannHesse

    The novels: Demain, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and the Glass Bead Game all have mysterious fantasy and adventure elements with deep subject matter. I especially recommend Narcissus and Goldmund and Siddhartha.

    Meanwhile, Blood Meridian is a very bad book because it’s trivial and boring. It’s worst crime is taking a real life story and throwing out the psychological explanation behind the scalp hunters and giving it a hollow “evil magic” explanation thus tossing out an exploration of the effects of economics, etc on human behavior. Also, it was filled with endless descriptions of landscape when I wanted to know about the characters. I thought it was childish.

    Someone like Iain Banks is many times the writer.

  5. Very good list and additional suggestions.

    I would add Jonathan Lethem’s Forterss of Solitude and Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

  6. I also love Jonathan Lethem. His Motherless Brooklyn was a sheer joy to read.  

  7. I thought of Haruki Murakami but he tends to be more popular in genre circles than literary ones. Plus I had a very male heavy list to begin with and wanted to give the list some gender variety πŸ™‚

  8. I love, love, loves me some Pale Fire and The Wasp Factory is absolutely killer. Great list!

  9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One of the great books of all time. I do not like Marquez’s shilling for Castro but then if you restricted your reading to those whose life you approve, the list would likely be quite short.

  10. Thanks for the recommendations. I’m familiar with most of the authors by name, but I’ve never heard of any of the titles. Most of these sound pretty dark and twisty. Are there any other books that fall into the category of ‘literary novels for genre readers’ that aren’t as macabre as these appear to be? Not that there’s any problem with it, just curious…

  11. Solid list. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is another good choice. Like Atwood, it might rile genre writers/readers for invading our territory, but Ishiguro’s writing and storytelling is so damn good it’s irresistible.

  12. @Constant Writer, Some of them are dark and twisty, and others are more light hearted. Infinite Jest is a good mix of humor and sometimes even emotionally gripping, nothting too dark there. Likewise, the Pynchon, Atwood, Chabon and DeLillo novels are not any more violent or macabre than you’d expect from any adult novel.

  13. + 1 for Never Let Me Go

    I’d recommend White Noise for those who want to try DeLillo but aren’t ready to tackle Underworld – it’s quite a bit shorter and has a more straightforward narrative, still quite thought-provoking however and while it’s in no way SF, it does touch on some SFnal themes (especially around media oversaturation).

    “Is there value in being familiar with non-genre literature?”

    If anyone says “no” to this question I’m going to be a sad, sad panda.

  14. Genres shmanres.  Don’t be ridiculuos. They’re BOOKs–they used to call it literature.  These are not “genres.”  If you want to list books that you like/admire, then fine.  Just don’t be makin’ up crap.  Or if you must, present it as more cogent crap.  We all need something to write/read about, but let’s not get carried away. Great books are great books; no over-reaching required.  

  15. Jack Trennor // February 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm //

    Try the recent “Deep Creek,” which the Washington Post named a Best Novel of 2010…does some major genre crossing and mixing. Critics saw it as literary fiction, but it’s also a Western, a romance, a police thriller, a tale of racial violence and culture clash, and has more than a touch of the supernatural. Basically, I found it a really good ride, and a really good read. 

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