The term “literature” covers a lot of ground. Ordinarily, literature is thought to be writing that has appealed to a large number of readers over a long period of time. So-called “classic” literature is sometimes measured according to four criteria: solid plot, beautiful texture, deep character development, and historical context (see Gone with the Wind). Not every good novel can meet this standard. New fiction has not been around long enough, and many interesting stories are not set amidst dramatic human events. That leaves plot, texture, and character development as the essential criteria by which to judge the worth of a contemporary novel.
I don’t claim to be writing literature, let alone classic literature. I write thriller fiction (see The Jungle Rules Trilogy). Although many novels of this genre become classics (see Fredrick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal), only a few can be called literature (see The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers). So, how do we determine whether thriller fiction can be called classic… or perhaps even literature? In other words, is there a reliable set of criteria upon which readers might make this judgment? I think we could adopt and adapt the three criteria mentioned above, then add two more.
Plot is often seen as the most important of the three. After all, if the story doesn’t make a reader eager to turn the page, it is – by definition – not a thriller. Textured writing and character development are seen as less important – and there are many best-selling thrillers that have neither. Still, these books sell. Even so, they will never be called classic… and certainly not literary. Such novels rarely present important ideas to the reader… and this is probably why thriller readership is so limited. A lot of us need substance to balance the action. Something to take away from the thrill ride besides a quickened pulse.
In my view, the final criterion by which to judge a thriller is whether or not the main characters have actually influenced the ways in which readers think and live after reading the book. This goes beyond character development. Call it “reader development”. Call the novel that produces this effect a “thinking man’s thriller”.
Another useful analysis framework comes from the advertising world: “Loyalty Beyond Reason”. Why, for instance, do some consumers pay more for Apple computers and Mercedes automobiles when they could spend less money for the same quality? The answer is that these products have the combination of respect and love needed to create a “lovemark”. Products with high respect and low love are called “brands”; those with low respect and high love are called “fads”; those with low levels of both respect and love are called “commodities”.
Let’s apply this qualitative tool to judging the appeal of thriller fiction. A commodity would be what is sometimes called pulp fiction. A brand might be one in a long series of novels – churned out at a high rate of speed – by a popular novelist who doesn’t leave his readers much to think about. A fad, in this context, would be a novel that sells virally for no apparent reason (these books are often made into bad movies). Can we identify lovemarks in thriller fiction? I think the answer is yes… and that takes us back to the “classic” judgment criteria. A thriller novel that makes us turn pages quickly; reads like poetry; and introduces us to fascinating characters who influence the way we think and live, I believe, qualifies as literature. The author who writes such works of art has created a lovemark.
Thanks Paul – Though “thriller” genre is not my go-to genre, I have seen and read some authors who have crated a brand and churn out reasonably good books that sell. Where would Larry McMurtrey or Cormac McCarthy fit into your taxonomy? Two guys who write novels which are not quite thrillers but who have a brand, or a lovemark?
I think Cormac McCarthy’s novels are hard to classify. They are thrillers, to be sure, but not formulaic. I would almost say that he has created his own genre (though I wouldn’t know what to call it). I have great respect for McCarthy’s novels… but no love. I can’t comment on ‘Lonesome Dove’ (since I still haven’t gotten around to reading it) except to suggest it belongs in the genre “Western” long with ‘The Virginian’ and other novels set in that subculture. I liked ‘The Virginian’ so much (a lovemark) that I used it as a central theme of the second novel in my thriller trilogy.