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.

A World Worth Writing For

Unfortunately, writers guilt is all too common. When we are working on a project, we feel guilty that we aren’t doing something more practical or useful – even if that task is nothing more than basic domestic chores. Ironically, as soon as we leave our desk to carry out said useful task, we feel guilty for abandoning our project. “I should be writing!” is the familiar, tedious mantra that plays in every writers’ mind.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by the other type of guilt creatives suffer from. Perhaps you are familiar with it? The “Is my art doing anything?” guilt.

Part of me believes in art for art’s sake. With so much ugliness and helplessness in the world, I believe there is a place for aesthetically pleasing art. What harm can come from admiring something that is beautiful? What’s wrong with reading fun, frivolous fiction and indulging in the escapism it offers? Then there is the other part of me. The part of me that scorns this irresponsible reader. This placid person who chooses to read the latest bestseller while soaking in a tub of Epson salt as the world burns outside their window.

A vision that spurs the question: how can reading and writing contribute to solutions?

The “civilised” world has never been perfect. For better or for worse, technology’s omnipresence means we can no longer remain ignorant of our imperfection. In the face of these serious and urgent global issues, how can writers contribute to the crafting of solutions? Do their story-telling and communication skills offer anything of value?

Some argue that the publication of books reflecting current global issues is vital. Of course, these people tend to be authors. Ann Patchett (author) recently stated that she has moved away from reading classic literature in favour of contemporary texts. She believes that the accountability and challenging themes presented in recent works have once again made reading a political act.

To contradict Patchett’s point, I recently started reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and I have been shocked by the timeliness of the commentary. Many of Esther existential concern remain relevant today.

“I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” (31)

“A million years of evolution […] and what are we? Animals?” (87)

This modern classic was published in 1971. A fact that saddens me slightly, as it illustrated how little we have evolved in the last 47 years. As an aside, I bought my copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ from a second-hand bookstore. The previous owner had unlined the above passages (and others) in pencil.

I wondered why someone who loved a book enough to read it with a pencil in hand would ever part with said book. This question was immediately followed by the thought, “Maybe they died?” Given the sombre tenor of these passages/the whole book and the former reader’s obvious identification with them, I hope their ending was happier than Esther/Sylvia’s … That being said, I was constantly impressed by Plath’s ability to clearly articulate what depression felt like. I’ve never experienced depression (though the evening news does test me…) but Plath’s considered descriptions of Esther’s mental state bridged that divide. I got it.

If nothing else, this is what writers can do. They can communicate ideas. They can shape messy and complex emotions into tidy sentences. They can shatter binaries and expose hidden nuance. They can repackage complex problems into comprehensible forms. But. Is this the only irrefutable claim that writers can make? That they can present readers with information?

As the saying goes, if information was the solution, we’d all be happy millionaires with ripped abs.

You can write about the issues that trouble you, but you can’t make people read your work and you definitely can’t make them do something. While the publication of cli-fi and other challenging literary works are appearing more and more, the market isn’t exactly flooded. (No pun intended).

In a recent episode of The Garrett Podcast, Jennifer Mills, author and literary editor of Overland said that while the magazine has been successful in the publishing of marginal voices, few submissions address our present-day issues like the Anthropocene (humans impact on non-humans). Instead, most of the submissions received are concerned with relationship dynamics.

Is this because readers want escapism or because writers do?

Mills, who has published her own Anthropogenic work, Dyschronia, says that she intentionally constructed a plot that offered little in the way of solutions or action because that is what she sees in society: passivity. An observation that is no doubt reinforced by the submissions she vets.

Information is key. Without it, people may not understand the depth of a problem or how to fix it. Historically, the publication of good writing has played a vital role in the mobilizing of populations and the igniting of revolutions. Within our current culture, the problem is not a lack of information but our passivity and denial in the face of it.

Perhaps this is where our writerly self-consciousness stems from. Words are the tools wielded by skilful writers, but are we simply hiding behind our profession? Perhaps we should accept the fact that the gap between information and action is too wide? That our culture is passive. That a challenging book is likely to achieve little more than a 3.5 star rating on Good Reads. That it is time to close our laptops, start a biodynamic farm, become vegan and trade our cars for bicycles…I’m not being facetious; sincerity rests in this hyperbole.

It is true that the grandiosity of the world’s problems is overwhelming, but none of these issues occurred in isolation. We are all driving cars, drinking takeaway coffees, shutting our mouths instead of speaking up, lying to our kids about where the steak on their plate came from and buying caged eggs because they’re a dollar cheaper.

We need to do better. We need to do something.

Writers can offer solutions in their weekly columns and fiction. They can encourage readers to re-evaluate their opinions and behaviours by holding up a mirror. While a single blog post cannot change the world, our combined voices do have the power to shift culture.

Together, we can aspire to create a new culture. A culture that carries re-useable cups, that walks to works and eats ethical, sustainable food. A culture that votes. A culture that allows minorities to have space without slipping into fear that they are ‘taking over.’ A culture that questions why education hasn’t changed in 150 years. A culture that swivels its gaze away from the individual to focus on the collective. A world that is less about stuff and more about substance.

That, my friends, is a world worth writing for.