« Hit that one on the head | Main | Latest Chicago Sun-Times roundup column »

September 19, 2008


Gonzalo B

Talking about the "confines" of a certain genre or how a given work "transcends" a genre is one of those overused cliches that at this stage is hard to determine what they mean. Reviewers should be wary of using that argument because, like you point out, it can imply that the critic is embarrassed to have read the book or somehow justifying his pick so as to not seem too lowbrow.

Plus, it opens a whole new debate on what exactly those confines are. By not elaborating on her point, Maslin could lead some to believe there's a consensus on the nature of those boundaries, not to mention how she legitimizes the absurd but widespread notion that genres are a "confined" form of literature.

David J. Montgomery

A few years ago I wrote in a review that a book "transcended the genre" and I got some shit for it. It wasn't the best choice of phrase, although I didn't mean it in a anti-genre way. (And I think the latter is what most critics mean when they use it.) I've made sure never to say it again, though.


The way I took your use of "transcends the genre" was nothing like the way I interpreted Maslin's words.

Within the context of your review, I took your meaning as saying the book excelled or was superior to anything else currently within the genre.

Maslin's silly ass statement means "This is so good, it almost qualifies as real reading." When I read this junk from lazy critics I lose respect for them.

I will put the best of crime fiction up against the best of "literary" fiction any day, and I'll win. Hands down.

I'd even put the worst of crime fiction up against the worst of "literary" fiction... not a battle I'd care to witness - God how heinous would that be - but in the end, the "lit" garbage would smell far worse than the crime garbage.


Calling THE GIVEN DAY a crime novel is akin to calling AMERICAN TRAGEDY a crime novel - there are good justifications for doing so, since they both center very heavily around death and murder and crime, but ultimately I don't think it's the right term in light of what "crime novel" usually suggests in a reader's mind.

Interestingly, of the other reviews of THE GIVEN DAY out so far, one is by someone very much in the crime fiction world (Adam Woog of the Seattle Times) while the other is of someone who isn't but has some offbeat pronouncements when he visits (Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post).

David J. Montgomery

Okay, so the expectations we bring to the book as readers will help shape how we view the book. That makes sense and I think that's natural. But it also seems that there are some good and fair reasons for calling it a crime novel.

Because of that, it would seem that Maslin's statement -- "moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre" -- is just as silly as it appeared when I first read it.

(To those readers who've made it this far and are asking, "Who the hell cares?" I'll grant you, it's an academic point. And most people WON'T care. But I do find it interesting because the dividing line between crime fiction and literary fiction seems to have grown increasingly blurred in recent years, assuming it was ever that rigid, and this make me all the more curious when I read statements like Maslin's.)

Brian Lindenmuth

1) From the review of The Given Day in Entertainment weekly: "While it's become hip for highbrow writers to pop out thrillers in their downtime, you don't often see a cool noir master risking his cred with a literary novel. Why chance an embarrassing failure when you've got a moneymaking formula down cold?"

2) From the accompanying article: "After Prayers For Rain his last Kenzie novel, Lehane wrote Mystic River -- technically a whodunit, though it felt much richer -- in 2001..."


Well, it's customary to take up arms in defense of the lowly crime novel (or any other genre novel). From an author's point of view then: there is a lot of garbage being published in genre and readily bought and consumed by its fans. Most of it is "formula." That is not to say that a crime novel cannot do better, and frequently does. I don't use the word "transcend," though it doesn't bother me because to me it means transcending the facile formula novel. I think of it as "reaching" beyond what is required for a reasonably entertaining page turner to explore human relationships. Or whatever.

barbara fister

Crime fiction does have confines, I think - and that's not a bad thing. Sonnets have confines, too.

When you pick up a work of crime fiction, you expect to have a crime or crimes as a major focus. You expect the solving of that crime, or the playing out of that crime's effects to constitute a major driving force for the plot. You may well expect some sort of resolution, even if it isn't justice being served. You expect that resolution to come at the end of the book, not in the middle. You don't expect large chunks of the book to be about something unrelated to the crime.

I didn't find Janet Maslin's statement to be a slam on crime fiction, or a slam on those who read crime fiction. She was saying (I think) that Lehane is not writing crime fiction in this instance, and that it's a good book with a lot of suspense and a lot to say about society. You could say his other books fit that description too, but they have had detectives as the protagonists and they revolved around the effects of a crime. I haven't read this book, so can't comment on how accurate her depiction of its focus is, but I've been hearing for a long time that the author didn't think he was writing a work of crime fiction.

What probably annoys people is the word "beyond" - because it implies "better." But I don't think that's what she meant; I think she meant this book doesn't try to satisfy the usual expectations of crime fiction but is working outside those expectations.

Maybe "outside" would have been a less charged word than "beyond."

We are such a touchy bunch! There's some fabulous work being done inside the genre. Working outside it isn't necessarily saying otherwise.

This review is a far cry from the critic who said "Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it."

Now, them's fightin' words.

Kevin R. Tipple

I saw the NYT review and realized this was a book that wasn't for me. I also saw the genre conventions quote and shook my head because one just should really avoid that phrase.


I have noticed a tendency to talk about "literary" novels and "genre" novels (when in fact the writer/speaker means crime fiction or thriller).
Recently in Melbourne Writers' Festival Kate Atkinson was referred to on the programme as a Genre Jumper as if you couldn't write a crime fiction work that had literary qualities.
I do get a bit tired of crime fiction being put down as somehow not-literary, and therefore those of us who read it must have only half a brain, or be only "half-educated". I wonder if the writers of The Golden Years wrote deceptively simple novels therefore underestimated by those who read only "real" literature.

David J. Montgomery

I don't think Maslin was being insulting to genre fiction or genre readers. I certainly wasn't offended or upset by her remarks.

What I find interesting is this notion that because one is writing in a genre, one is necessarily confined in the types of stories one can tell or the way in which one can tell them.

While the concept of genre obviously connotes some restrictions, they aren't nearly so prohibitive as some (including Maslin) seem to think they are.

Whether this notion is prompted out of condescension, ignorance or simply a different conception of what genre means... That I couldn't say. Maybe some of all three.

Karen Olson

This whole crime vs. literary fiction crap irritates me. I've read plenty of so called crime novels that were very "literary," by which I mean the authors stretched their writing legs and took a crime but went beyond the traditional whodunnit. Granted, there are traditional mysteries and thrillers that aren't anything except that: traditional mysteries and thrillers. But sometimes there's an author like Richard Price or Kate Atkinson who takes the concept of a crime novel and melds it into something a bit richer.

I just hate it when people start to get snobby about what they're reading — or writing.

Clea Simon

I'm with Karen: screw the genre wars. What bothers me is that Lehane (in that EW interview) seemed to diss crime fiction. I want to know, if he didn't like it, why did he write it? Show some respect for your readers, please!

First Children Fiction

First Edition Book offers a wide range of children's first edition books by various contemporary authors. If you are a connoisseur of first edition books or are planning to buy some children's fiction, why not get a first edition children's book

First Literary Fiction

If you are a connoisseur of first edition books or are planning to buy some literary fiction, why not get a first edition literary book ....

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

About Me

David J. Montgomery is a writer and critic specializing in books and publishing. He is an emeritus columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Daily Beast, and has also written for USA Today, the Washington Post, and other fine publications. A former professor of History, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two daughters.

Read the long-form version of David's bio.

Email David J. Montgomery

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner