What the hell is a literary thriller, anyway?

Once again, please welcome our guest blogger, Derek Nikitas.



I’ve been trolling.  Saw some blog chatter re: the endless debate over literary fiction versus genre fiction.  (What’s to debate, except that lit fiction gets more prestige, genre fiction sells more books; seems to me an even tradeoff.)  One guy’s got this long-winded theory about literary fiction being all logical and grownup and staid, while genre fiction is primitive, ritualistic, fantastic, appealing to the child-mind inside us all.  This was his advertisement for genre fiction:  reintegration of the child with the adult to become the fully self-actualized self, or something like that.  I didn’t get it.  He quoted Freud; I tuned out.  Also, he’s wrong.

This literary vs. genre smackdown debate irritates me, though I’m oddly compelled by it.  I understand distinctions, but those distinctions get blurred so often, there’s no point in nitpicking.  I’ve claimed before that the best fiction is the kind that blurs literary and genre, but that’s because I’m a “literary thriller” writer, according to my press kit.  Some will argue that I’m elitist because at heart I don’t think plain old blueprint mystery writing is good enough; it’s got to be hijacked by a literary stylist to be legit—but I’m just talking about my process, and my taste.  If you can diversify, why not diversify?

Why not, indeed.  Eddie Muller’s wonderfully humbling positive review of my novel Pyres in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that my book might suffer on the market because it’s too schizo, even though he liked it that way.  He says, “For an author, the dilemma of the literary thriller is that many critics don’t take such books seriously enough. They suspect the author of pandering to reach a broader market. The irony is that the ‘broader market’ comprises a majority of avid genre readers who tend to favor easily digestible fare and often scoff at efforts to transcend the form’s beloved tropes.” Readers pick sides, apparently, which frankly seems idiotic to me, no matter what camp you’re from.  Good writing is good writing.

Well, all right, I admit it—good writing’s in the eye of the beholder.  And there are distinctions that separate readers from readers and writers from writers.  Those of us “literary thriller” writers who try to blend the distinctions meet resistance from some readers on both sides of the spectrum. But another kind of resistance happens long before the novel ever gets to the reader.  This resistance is within we writers ourselves, a war between two kinds of writers going on within each of us.  Even in my own head, there’s always a negotiation between techniques that separate some of the things people talk about when they talk about “literary versus genre.”  I try to marry them together, but sometimes it’s a shotgun wedding.  Sometimes somebody gets a couple fingers blown off.

So I don’t want to blabber about literary vs. genre as if one’s the devil on your shoulder and one’s the angel.  I indulge them both.  But I can maybe point out some of the battlegrounds where these two kinds of writers go to war when I write. 

Language is one.  Some folks believe plain, utilitarian language is best.  Subject verb object.  Short declarative sentences, grammatically complete (unlike this one).  Figures of speech and turns of phrase that are likely to be relatively familiar to the reader.  One of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for good writing clearly shows his allegiance.  He says if it sounds like writing, he takes it out.  On the first page of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code we get: “Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars.  He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair.” 

This is workmanlike language, useful because it coveys information clearly and calls no attention to itself.  The description is familiar because it is bad-guy iconic, the sinister albino!  Big things are mountainous, of course.  Pale things get compared to ghosts, of course.  The virtue here is invisibility; the writing is so familiar and predicable that it fades into the background, allowing the reader to forget that there are even words on the page.  This is the basis of good storytelling.

But another kind of writer revels in language, plays with it like poets do.  The idea here is to compel the reader with unique diction, unique turns of phrase, acrobatic sentences.  Language that calls attention to itself conveys mood and a psychic rhythm in its very utterance.  In Blood Meridian, a Western of sorts, Cormac McCarthy writes stuff like:  “a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”  He could’ve written, “there were some barbaric Indians coming toward us,” but what he did write is more fun—and, by the way, chock full of horror-genre evocations, despite its supposed “literariness.”

I have to admit that for me, the stylist usually wins out over the stoic word-worker.  It dominates my writing and my reading because stylized writing sounds prophetic, almost superhuman in its scope.  Sure it stops the reader short, causes him to dwell a bit, but heck, the human mind is supple enough to imagine a fantasy world and admire language, both at the same time.  Stylized language is perhaps the most direct reason why I take so long to write.  I can’t be satisfied with “her back was killing her.”  I have to labor a few minutes to get: “Her spine throbbed like the vertebrae had crumpled zigzag along the hot electric line of the cord.”  Write one single page of sentences like this and four hours have passed. 

This language issue doesn’t cause much of a fight between the two writers in my head because I simply don’t believe stylized language is antithetical to genre writing.  Some of the best literary stylists, Raymond Chandler chief among them, were and are mystery/thriller writers.  And some literary writers, like Hemingway and Richard Russo, are as workmanlike with their words as you can get.  But clearly, many readers disagree with me, and the quality of language often has nothing whatsoever to do with the mass appeal of a book.  Dan Brown and James Patterson are both superb storytellers, but both have a dull sensibility for language and a tin ear for rhythm.  And they’re two of the most popular writers in the country, suggesting that many people consider stylized language either a mere embellishment or an annoying nuisance.  I sure as hell could save myself  a lot of time and grief if I agreed.

Character emotion is another problem.  It’s the lifeblood of fiction because fiction exists for readers to feel these emotions by proxy.  One part of me thinks intense emotion is the most dramatic emotion because it is the most visceral and the most overt.  Readers want to have their blood pressures raised, want to know what it feels like to be caught in the middle of a firefight or to discover that you’ve killed your own father and married your mother by accident.  This is spectacle, and its virtues are its thundering pomp and brilliant gleam.  Since genre fiction usually relies on big events that evoke big emotions, intensity gets a lot of play in thrillers and horrors and fantasies.  It’s that feeling you get at the theater during the b
ig battle sequence, or the rush you get on a hairpin turn in your Corvette.  It’s adrenaline, but it’s fleeting.  The reader’s sense of intensity fades fast and can’t be reached to the same degree when a reading experience is repeated a second time.

The other way is subtle emotion.  This writer wants to explore a psychological state carefully and exactingly, in order to get a sense of its textures and contradictions, its surprising insights.  If we go inside the head of a spy hero who’s just defused a nuclear bomb by cutting the right cord, that’s intense emotion.  Subtle emotion is evoked when we explore a young man’s impulsive decision to drop out of college and become a dockworker.  Not because he’s lazy, but because he wants to know what it’s like to suffer.  Not because he has proletariat leanings, but because he wants to replace physical suffering with emotional suffering.  Not because his emotional suffering is too strong, but because he thinks it’s frivolous, even though he can’t help it.  Not because he’s a depressive, but because…

You get the point.  My example is terrible, but that’s because this kind of character exploration takes a writer with intense concentration and awe-inspiring insight.  The virtue of subtle emotion is that it’s complex and requires the reader to reenact nearly the same kind of concentration and insight that the writer mustered to create it.  It resonates and often lasts in the reader’s mind well beyond the reading, even compelling a second or third read.  It’s elusive and suggests unanswerable questions, like real life does.  It is very much like looking at an ordinary object through a microscope and discovering a fascinating world of microbes you did not know was there.

But many readers have no patience for this stuff.  They come to fiction to escape the complexities of their real relationships, to dispel boredom, to simplify and magnify life through grand actions and intense emotions.  What’s more, the stories a thriller writer usually tells do not lend themselves to subtle emotion.  Subtleties come from magnifying the mundane, from noticing the energy encapsulated in a moment of stillness.  Thrillers are all about blasting away from the mundane and going on the run.  There’s no time or space for careful scrutiny.  Plus all the plot twists are going to strike the characters hard enough to elicit only various kinds of unsubtle screams.  The more intense the emotion, the less nuance it has, probably. 

Negotiating an interaction between subtlety and intensity is no easy task, but I often feel it’s necessary to give characters the depth and the resonance they deserve, to prevent them from becoming “types.”  And, quite frankly, some of us writers have this crazy whim to shoot for insight and profundity just as much as we want to spin good yarns.  Both impulses come from the exact same place: the desire to show off one’s skills.  In practice, this means moments of stillness where character’s minds are dissected for three or four paragraphs at a stretch, just the sort of thing that kills plot momentum and bores readers who want constant unrelenting suspense.       

Endings tend to exacerbate this tug-of-war between subtlety and intensity, especially when big revelations are about to go down.  Think of all the mysteries you’ve read where the killer, unmasked in the last few pages, turns out to be a close friend of the protagonist.  Or a shadowy character in the wings who’s had no development so far.  Generic structure dictates that the whammy should hit as close to the end as possible, because everything afterward lacks the same slam-bang intensity.  After the city fireworks grand finale, nobody wants to stick around to see a one-man sparkler show. 

But often these whodunit revelations leave huge gaps in characterization that have to be fulfilled by hasty psychobabble exposition about why such-and-such killed Mr. Mustard in the study with a candlestick.  These summarized pathology reports rarely give the character more dimension.  Instead, they tend to flatten the character and his motivations into a brief newspaper clip, much like obituaries do.   

More emotionally stimulating would be a deep, gradual exploration of the character that revealed his intricacies and subtleties.  But there’s no time for that.  Too much character study after the climax will bore the reader to tears because the suspense is gone.  But too much character study before the big reveal will necessarily ruin the revelation.  If we knew what was truly in his heart, we’d know he was the killer.  What ends up happening, then, is the reader gets short-changed on one of the most intriguing characters in the book.  Some of my favorite novels and movies suffer this rather unavoidable flaw, despite their brilliance otherwise: Michael Connelly’s The Poet, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, not to mention Psycho.  Thrillers—where the killer is already known—fare a little better in this regard because the writer can explore the killer’s psyche without giving anything away.  Although, how subtle can a killer’s psyche really be? 

Endings enact yet another battle between the two kinds of writers in my head.  One writer wants to be meticulous about tying up loose ends.  The bad guys (and there should be clear bad guys) should be caught and punished.  The good guys (clear, again) should be rewarded for their efforts, or mourned for their sacrifices.  Narratives have endings, and plots should feel conclusive.  Why?  Because most readers come to fiction for a sense of completeness and symmetry and tidiness that the chaos of real life does not offer.  Readers are willing to feel a bit of discomfort along the way for the sake of suspense, but endings should be eminently comfortable and clear.  Few people want to read three hundred pages only to meet a cliffhanger ending.

But, of course, there’s a devil in my head that loves inconclusiveness.  Not for its own sake, but because inconclusiveness suggest other moods and world views that tidy plots simply cannot.  Often, elusive endings will shift the emphasis from plot to character, so we see a character at his most revealing moment, rather than at his most final and conclusive moment.  Or elusive endings will shine some light on a truth—the kind of truth a lot of readers go to fiction to escape.  No Country for Old Men had this quality; it was a fundamentally cynical book and movie, and it deliberately undermined the audience’s desire for closure.  Why? In order to highlight its cynicism about the nature of evil—its relentlessness, its incomprehensibility, its unpredictability.  Consequently, the movie irritated lots of people while delighting a few with its audacity.

One of my teachers once quoted a friend of his as saying, “there are two kinds of books: those that confirm reader’s prejudices, and those that challenge them.”  I don’t like the simplicity of this aphorism, since it sounds too much like that artificial divide between literary and genre all over again.  But I do agree there are at least moments inside of individual books that either confirm or challenge.  Either the style seems familiarly invisible or it seems weirdly attention-grabbing.  Either the emotion evoked seems familiarly singular and intense, or oddly complex and contradictory.  Either the structure is comfortably fulfilling, or frustratingly open-ended. 

As an entertainer, I’d like to suggest that confirmation gives the reader what she paid for, though confirmation runs the risk of dull commonality.  As an artist, I’d like to suggest that challenge giv
es a reader more than she could’ve expected, though challenge runs the risk of obscurity or downright resistance from the reader.  I don’t want to champion one merit over another, nor do I think I could.  This unwillingness to choose, I suppose, is exactly why the battle rages on inside my head.


8 thoughts on “What the hell is a literary thriller, anyway?

  1. ken Bruen

    DerekI think we can fairly say you’ve made this post your own and you should take this as a regular gigAs for genre, your Pyres is in a class of it’s own, if I had to categorise it, I’d say, One hell of a great bookSee you May 1st and let’s wear them suits as if we meant itTerrific blogbestKen

  2. billie

    Wow – really fabulous post today. And synchronous for me, again.

    Even as I type this, I have two characters who are both on the run AND undergoing internal scrutiny.

    “Negotiating an interaction between subtlety and intensity” is precisely why I have been stuck in this scene since last week, pushing forward a few sentences at a time.

    Shotgun wedding barely does this battle justice! There’s a chase scene waiting to happen, but if it happens, I’ll lose the opportunity for these characters to grow to where they are at the end of the book. I keep starting it and then pulling back from it.

    You have not solved this dilemma for me, but boy have you nailed it!

    Pyres is actually next in my pile. In a fit of frustration this weekend I started re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. Gives a hint of which soldier in this battle is winning right now!

  3. JT Ellison

    Derek, as always, your insights are a fabulous learning tool. I so enjoy your blogs because I feel like I’ve just stepped away from a literature class, the kind that inspired me and made me want to be a writer. Perfect timing for today, as I go into revisions of Book 3.

    Thanks for being here, and it was GREAT to see you this weekend! See you in NY!xo

  4. Louise Ure

    Derek, I’ve often described this dichotomy as the distinction between storytellers and word-slingers, but I think I like your description of “word stylists” even better.

    And like you, I want to be a bit of both.

    Doesn’t it just come down to voice, after all?

    Thank you for being a guest blogger here. I hope you’ll come back to join us again.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Derek,I love this post. You’ve delved into so many aspects of the internal debate many of us face that I’m a little stunned.

    Also, I just finished reading my first James Patterson — ALONG CAME A SPIDER — and found it aggravating, fascinating, irritating and compelling. I can see why Patterson is so popular and yet . . .

  6. Bill Cameron

    Good god, you are fucking brilliant, Derek. Just sayin’.

    I am definitely on the same page as you when it comes to this whole great mess. A lot of days I wonder what the hell the fight is even about, and then I see someone come crashing down, feet first, on a writer who is too “writerish” and I think, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” When someone posted to a famous email list that they couldn’t tolerate books in which the writing was “too good,” I unsubscribed. No strong feelings here.

    I don’t know exactly where my own stuff falls. I try to write a good story in a style that is interesting to me (after all, no one is going to read it as many times as I will, considering how much revising I do), and just hope it engages other people too. Half the time I don’t even know how to describe my work in the most general terms beyond, “It’s a story,” or “It’s a novel,” so the distinctions of genre vs. literary utterly escape me. And yet I must be dancing close to the precipice, because I once had someone say to me, “I hope you aren’t insulted by this, but I think you’re kind of a literary mystery writer.” No, I wasn’t insulted. I was kind of pleased.

    It is what it is, but when someone complains about “good writing” in one sentence and then praises someone like James Lee Burke in the next, (as I also saw on that aforementioned unnamed email list) they don’t really know what they’re upset about. I think that’s a common problem. Some people hate all that fancy word stuff, except when they love it.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “Negotiating an interaction between subtlety and intensity”

    Wonderfully put, and the reason I will always read Stephen King and Dan Simmons and, well, early Anne Rice – over some of the – um – others you’ve mentioned.

    Thrillers without rhythm, language and character don’t thrill me a bit.


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