The Rise of the Hybrid Novel

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog that listed my favourite reads of 2018. Of the six novels that I listed, five could easily be described as literary hybrids.

A hybrid is a novel that can be identified as literary but that also contains the tropes typically associated with genre fiction. For those of you who may be a bit lost, literary fiction can be described as intellectual narratives that explore ideas and themes through the vessel of story. For example, the rape trial depicted in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not about Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson, it is about racial injustice and the loss of innocence.

Literary fictions tell the reader a story, but the story is not the point. You can enjoy a literary book for its ‘plot’, but the purpose of literature is to communicate a bigger idea or to contribute to a cultural/political/social discussion. Imagine the story as a monster costume and it is your job as the reader to find the zipper and to peak underneath.

Genre fictions are stories that use similar elements, tropes or structures. Horror, science fiction, romance and crime are considered the largest genre categories, but beneath these umbrella terms lies a multitude of subgenres. Readers of genre fiction have set expectations of how a novel from a certain genre will handle elements such as plot, character and setting. If you select a novel from the crime section of your local bookstore, before you even crack the spine, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what that story is about. Obviously, not all crime books are the same, but readers of crime fiction would expect the novel to be about a crime told through the perspective of the person whose ‘job’ it is to solve it. Note: The character may not get paid for solving this crime (detective, lawyer), but instead have a personal motivation (victim).

At their best, literary fiction is seen as sophisticated and highbrow; they are the types of novels that get nominated for awards. At their worst, they’re considered elitist. Genre fiction can be described as entertaining, exciting and engaging, but their (supposed) lack of originality can mean they are perceived as ‘childish’ or ‘books for dumb people.’

And yet, five of my favourite novels from last year are literary hybrids: smart novels that use genre tropes.

Australian authors Angela Myer, Jane Rawson and Emily Maguire have all chosen to include genre tropes as part of their literary explorations of feminism, technology, ecology, sex and violence. American author Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties combines horror and science fiction tropes as she explores the themes of women’s bodies, sex writing and queer writing. George Saunders identified himself as a science fiction writer, yet critics consider him a hybrid author due to his literary voice and his 2016 win of the Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo only further solidified this title.

So, why are literary authors suddenly using genre tropes?

Literary fiction is often described as realist fiction, by which I mean, no aliens or monsters. Of course, there are examples of literary novels that are told via otherworldly perspectives. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is narrated by Death and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is narrated by a deceased teenage girl following a brutal rape and murder. Though these novels are told through the perspective of mystic beings, they are not considered hybrid novels as they do not use genre tropes.

Perhaps literary novelists are including elements from genre fiction as a way to test their skills as a writer and to stretch the boundaries of their own genre. It takes a high level of skill to use supernatural creature or futuristic technology within a text that can also be described as intellectual. Realism, as a mode, is somewhat limiting. Perhaps literary novelists are enjoying the innovation and possibilities that can occur when realism is blended with elements of the fantastical.

Interestingly, this trend also goes the other way as authors like Stephen King, who is typically described as a horror author, won the medal for American Letters in 2003 and the National Medal for Arts in 2015; an award previously won by Ray Bradbury, Harper Lee and Maya Angelou.

Considering that genre fiction is sometimes described as Popular Fiction, i.e., fiction for general audiences, the sceptic in me wonders if literary authors are simply trying to get in on the market. In general, genre books outsell literary fiction. With publishing houses merging (Penguin/Random House) and book deals becoming harder to secure, perhaps literary novels are doing what they can to appeal to both genre and literary readers.

Regardless of the motivation (author or publisher), hybrid novels are successfully bridging the divide between these two camps. And more importantly, they make for a ripper read.

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