In 11th grade, our English teacher had each of us pick an American author and do a big project around him or her. One of my friends wanted to pick Stephen King, but the teacher wouldn’t let him. Stephen King, she said, was not “literature.”
Halloween seems a good time to note that that distinction has become more blurred over the past couple of decades, as “serious” writers churn out books and stories that would previously have been shunted off to genre sections like horror, science fiction and mystery. The latest example is Colson Whitehead, author of such well-received novels as “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days” and “Sag Harbor.” His zombie novel, “Zone One,” was released earlier this month to good reviews, and is on several best-seller lists.
Joe Fassler had a great piece in The Atlantic last week that looked at the phenomenon and some possible reasons behind it. In the story, Whitehead said part of the reason is modern-day novelists have a different set of cultural references:
Colson Whitehead told me that he thinks we’re seeing the first tremors in a seismic shift of influences. In his view, novelists and short-story writers working today are no longer afraid to embrace the pop cultural influences that excited them as kids. He remembers growing up when VCRs were a hot new thing, and renting horror movies on Friday nights was a part of his childhood education. For him, writing genre acknowledges influences that were always there—his love for comic books as well as literary books.
“I think that people of my generation are more comfortable making the foray into genre,” he said. “Because of macabre books, Stephen King, and probably cable. Culture changed in the ’70s and ’80s […] Look at the phenomenon of the blockbuster, whether it’s an adventure like Indiana Jones, or something like Star Wars and Star Trek. You’re exposed to that pretty early. And you’re supposed to walk away because you start reading Ernest Hemingway? It’s just one of many influences that makes you into the writer you are today.”
There have always been some genre books have transcended their limits to become classics; Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” come quickly to mind. But the trend has become more prevalent recently, as The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda noted back in 2007:
Over the past 25 years, literary fiction has increasingly disdained the strict tenets of social realism. Our finest writers are now producing what is essentially science fiction (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), alternate history (Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and absurdist fantasy (the short stories of George Saunders). A hot author such as Jonathan Lethem proudly introduces the work of Philip K. Dick for the Library of America. Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman series, has achieved rock-star status. We are living in an age when genre fiction — whether thrillers or graphic novels, children’s books or sf — seems far more exciting and relevant than well-wrought stories of adultery in Connecticut.