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6 Books Crossing the Boundaries (When it Comes to Genre)

Ever since the early 20th century, genre snobbery has been a frequent phenomenon in the literary world. In the eyes of some critics and academics, popular fiction is inferior to literary fiction and is not treated as seriously.

However, many authors of a newer generation are combining the two types of fiction, making their novels hard to fit into a certain box. While this practice has been going on since the early days of Postmodernism, this recent trend raises new questions and debates about the delimitation between popular and literary fiction. Is one really more valuable than the other? Does being part of a popular genre make the novels less valuable?  Is genre appropriation a legitimate term or are genres just a way of aiming books at a certain audience? Are the boundaries all that clear anyway?

In order to ponder these questions further, here is a list of six books with hard to define genres, but which are successful and memorable nonetheless.

1. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

This Booker Prize winning novel is essentially a combination between thriller and suspense. We are given a story of friendship and love that ultimately wraps itself neatly around the detective story revealed in the end. A piece of Crime fiction, masterfully done.

2. When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Being quite the opposite of Amsterdam, Ishiguro’s book tells the story of Christopher Banks, a private detective who goes looking for his missing parents. On the surface, it is the perfect detective story, but not quite. Christopher’s search has hardly any investigative details in it, and throughout this story the narrator seems to reflect on the parent/child relationship as well as on political issues in pre-World War II Japan.

3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro again uses popular fiction tropes, this time science fiction. While the plot is set in a dystopian universe in the context of cloning and great scientific development, hardly any attention is given to the ‘technicalities’ of cloning. The moral issues of this practice are presented, but the context is mostly used to pose general questions about confronting death and the fragility of life.

4. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical novel follows the life and coming of age of Jason Taylor. The only thing that differentiates this book from lad-lit is the age of the character (Jason is going through puberty, while lad-lit characters are usually men in their 30s) while the eerie, fantasy tropes frame the story. The author uses these scenes to masterfully introduce characters from his previous novels, and interweave them into the plot of Black Swan Green. Those familiar with Mitchell’s books will recognize characters such as Eva van Crommelynck, Vyvyan Ayrs and Robert Frobisher from Cloud Atlas.

5. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Even though the book is considered literary fiction there are elements of fantasy and even mystery that fit perfectly seamlessly into the plot. These elements are so discretely introduced into the story that they are hard to spot unless you are familiar with popular genres. Moreover, the story, as strongly anchored in reality as it may be, does not make sense without the fantasy aspects (especially in terms of the character development).

6. The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

There is no denying that the books in this trilogy are crime novels. All the elements are there: the unconventional detective, the detective’s helper, the victims, the witnesses and the criminals. However, it is the eeriness of the two main characters along with Larsson’s journalistic background that makes The Millennium Trilogy stand out from other crime novels. The trilogy tackles profound societal issues such as prostitution, paedophilia, political corruption, as well as the hidden actions of the Swedish secret service. The attention to detail is extraordinary and the research that backs up these issues is obviously that of a committed journalist who had some experience in the field. These elements make The Millennium Trilogy not only a series of very popular crime books but also three different pieces of great political journalism.

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