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John Le Carre


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I don't have a pat answer to this, but here's a thought.

The novel (because we're really talking about novels, and perhaps drama, not poetry). There's a mainstream of development from the eighteenth century (to put it simplistically), and some novels in this mainstream lean towards being spy stories or mystery stories or, obviously, romances. And then we get the off-shoot genres which commit entirely to formulaic recapitulations of mysteries or romances for their own sake.

You can't tell the same story about music. Folk and jazz, for example, are just not offshoots of some mainstream tradition. They developed independently.

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Take The Moonstone, for example.  Initially, it looks like a big Victorian novel. It has the scale, it has the vivid settings, it has a bunch of memorable characters, but ultimately that's all subordinated to the central mystery and its solution by a detective following clues. It's a genre detective novel (although one that comes close to the literary mainstream from which it derives).

There's no analogous story to be told about Birth of the Cool or Bridge Over Troubled Water or Houses of the Holy. They're not downgraded expressions of some superior mainstream of music.

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But you could sort of say the same thing about painting, right?  And we definitely still recognize "genre" paintings (or at least "vernacular" works) as a category anyway.

Although I guess that's dying away, too.

Of course, the fight is being fought in literature as well.  I'm just personally unpersuaded there.

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Thanks for the link about the McEwan novel, I hadn't heard about that.  

I immediately thought of a number of "sci fi" novels which are considered "literature" rather than "genre" -- 1984, Brave New World, We, The Inheritors. The identity of the author is obviously a factor there, but it's interesting to ponder what else, if anything, lifts examples like those out of the genre.

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There are surely commercial and reputation-related reasons McEwan wants to avoid the sci fi tag: he wants the book to be considered alongside his other novels and not as a divergence into genre.

But also there are degrees here; there's not a bright line. At one extreme, if you take Wolfe/Goodwin and the mystery out of a Rex Stout novel, there's nothing left. That's the whole ball-game. But you could take Peter Wimsey and the crime plot out of The Nine Tailors or Gaudy Night, and still have novels based on the setting and other characters. The thing is, they'd be minor novels and out of print, because readers really care about Wimsey and the crime plot.

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Ursula Le Guin is always my example of a genre writer whose works work as literature. 
 

Margaret Atwood I think of more as a literary writer playing with genres. 
 

Jonathan Lethem isn’t on a level with Le Guin and Atwood, but I don’t think he considers there to be any categorical difference between his Sci Fi novels and his other ones. 

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I haven't read Le Guin. I am trying to think of genre writers I would consider literature. Edgar Allan Poe. Raymond Chandler is a very good writer, but if I apply the test of eliminating Marlowe and switching out the mystery plot for something else, he's a minor novelist. Charles Williams is perhaps on the cusp (I am literally looking around my shelves now).

I suppose if sea-faring yarns form a genre, Conrad is literature and C.S. Forrester isn't.

Greene separated his novels from his "entertainments": “The entertainments…are distinct from the novels because as the name implies they do not carry a message”.  The explanation doesn't really help, as there are plenty of sci fi novels with messages, and some major novels with no "message" as such.

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