Here's something to ponder: Do you think you can identify whether or not an author primarily pens literary or genre fiction -- even if he isn't currently writing a book that could be immediately identified as such? I certainly do. Consider Justin Cronin's nigh-on-800-page post-apocalyptic vampire epic The Passage, which I'm currently plowing through.
If you were only to judge from the book's dust jacket copy or reviewer blurbs, you might conclude that Cronin cut his compositional teeth on near-future hypothesizing and creating ghoulish monsters. The novel's populated by ravenous beasties who would make both Transylvanian counts and sparkling denizens of the night gibber with terror and the ruin-scavenging, crossbow-wielding human survivors who fight them. However, Cronin is new to genre. Until recently, he's spent his time on literary endeavors, winning the Hemmingway award for Mary and O'Neil and teaching English at Rice University. But even if you didn't have access to his biography, I bet you could tell by what he focuses on. The Passage is primarily concerned not with that which will come, but by what happens in the human heart.
Some might argue that this is a false dichotomy, that genre fiction also deals with people's hopes and thoughts and dreams. Which is true, to an extent. But genre fiction (and particularly science fiction) is also interested in conjecture, in asking what if, in exploring the consequences of ideas on existence. The settings and conceits are mostly a vehicle to drive readers to the author's speculative conclusions. For example, I Am Legend, while seeming almost the same as The Passage on paper, deals as much with the origins of myth as the development of its protagnoist. Cronin uses his nouveau vampires stalking a blasted earth to turn us in a different direction, one with much more classical concerns, namely universal human experience. “Plot is a way to set a story in motion in which the characters reveal, to themselves and to you and the reader, what they are," he told The Wall Street Journal. "You can do it with a global viral epidemic, or you can do it with an awkward dinner party."
(Picture: CC 2010 by Newsbie Pix)