Upon browsing agents’ wish lists the other day, I was puzzled when I saw the request for “literary thrillers”.
An interesting term, I thought. Truly contradictory. Right?
From everything I know about literary fiction and thrillers, I failed to reconcile this term as a legitimate genre. Is this a new “buzzword”, a peculiar crossing of two opposite literary forms? And if so, how does that work?
To see how the two might mix, I examined the elements found in both forms.
By definition, a reader expects literary works to intellectually engage the reader on a much higher level of understanding than commercial fiction. It is riddled with thematic ideas and symbolism. It thrives on deep philosophical ideas. The writer uses creative language and beautiful poetic prose, slowing readers down and forcing them to linger on meaning and imagery.
Literary novels are said to be character-driven and may not even have a plot, or if there is one, the reader has to work hard to discern the protagonist’s goal. The writer prides himself on probing human nature for meaning over entertainment. Thus, style alone can distinguish it from mainstream genres and often has the potential to become a classic. Even literary book covers have a distinct look about them.
Anyone bored yet?
How about thrillers? Now we’re talking. Tick-tock-tick-tock — a protagonist sets out to prevent a crime, a tragedy, a world disaster.
A plane is about to blow up over the Atlantic Ocean, and only one person, a stowaway, can save the passengers…if he can get out of the baggage compartment and kill three assassins within the next ten minutes and reach the cabin in time.
Whew! I’m already exhausted and sitting on the edge of my seat (pun intended).
Thrillers – fast paced, action packed, plot-driven, tense, nerve-wracking suspense, high stakes, testing of characters’ resolve. Need I say more?
‘Literary thriller’, sounds like an unlikely combination at best. Wouldn’t the components of a thriller be lost under a literary bend? Can a thriller become literary if it is character-driven instead of plot-driven? But wouldn’t a crisis force a character to take action and not the other way around? Perhaps that’s what makes it a “thing”. More character development, introspection, motivation, and life questions are intended to bring both worlds together.
Can you see it? Before the hero shoots the villain, he stops, contemplates the ramifications of taking one’s life before making a final decision to pull the trigger. No doubt interrupting the action/reaction/decision process will frustrate the reader.
If a thriller is a fast-paced plot and a literary novel is without much movement, it would seem a huge stretch that a story can sacrifice enough equal elements to become one in a literary marriage.
Sound confusing? I agree.
To me, combining the two would stifle the “thrill”. I would also have to conclude that both styles would fight the other and neither would win.
The ‘literary thriller’ union will and should create a conundrum for writers. How do you execute and master something you can’t define? At least one agent, when asked how she will distinguish whether it is a typical thriller or a literary thriller, remarked, “I’ll know it when I see it.” At least she was honest.
If anyone has any insight they’d like to share, please do.
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