Friday, May 25, 2007

Literary vs. genre

Thinking about the Yiddish Policeman's Union, I was trying to understand why I considerate it a literary novel that uses the detective form, as opposed to a literary detective novel. While the distinction may seem subtle to the point of triviality, it does make a difference.

In the latter case, if someone tells you the ending, it may not be worth reading the book. In the case of the Chabon book, you would certainly lose the pleasure of guessing, but the main point is the characters and their reactions. For straight up mystery novels, keeping the plot a secret is essential. As an example, Rennie Airth's River of Darkness has some of the greatest surprises I have ever read. Few books elicit actual outbursts of surprise, but this one certainly did. But if someone were to describe the plot of the book to you, I wouldn't recommend reading it.

Of course literary books have plot points you would rather not know. In the case of Atonement, there are some real shockers that are best experienced by reading. That said, even if you know the surprises, there are chapters that are well worth reading. The Dunkirk retreat was astounding and could be read as a standalone story.

I am not defending spoilers, as spoilers are evil, but noting that certain books, once spoiled, are truly not worth the time, while others provide value despite the revelation. I think this is one dimension of a literary book. One fellow who certainly agrees is Anthony Trollope, who in the midst of one of his books asks the reader if he or she thinks so and so will marry so and so. And he tells you yes they will so stop worrying and just enjoy the story. That is someone confident in his writing.

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