Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad majoring in English, our Contemporary American Lit professor made an interesting statement. He said one way to think of literary isms was in descriptive terms. For instance, the romantic writer creates a woman with a straight perfection of a nose while the realist describes the nose with a wart on it. Next, we have the naturalist who describes that nose with a hair growing out of the wart. You get the picture.
Let’s consider traditional mysteries divided by type. First, we have the cozy which generally avoids gore, provides amusing and/or eccentric main characters, and has a somewhat predictable plot. There is often a slight romantic element. They also tend to feature an amateur sleuth. Think Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes.
Then there are mysteries that are dark and more serious in nature, often police procedurals or P.I. detective fiction. These usually center on men. P. D. James wrote wonderful realistic police procedurals as has Joseph Wambaugh. Women private investigators became popular in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Think Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton. Some of these authors are deeply concerned with social issues. Think Sara Paretsky whose early novels in her series tend to be more hard-boiled. Writers like Jan Christensen continue the woman P.I. tradition.
Third, we have the noir novel which is dark and often explores the sleazy underbelly of society. Some of these are hard-boiled detective stories and more naturalistic. However, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Modern noir is more violent, at times featuring serial killers and lots of gore. They can also be thrillers. Elmore Leonard wrote successful noir.
Some features, of course, are common to all three types of mysteries, others just to that particular one.
Romances are even more conventional than mystery fiction. However, not all romances these days fit into neat categories or formulas. I’ll use the example of Western fiction since my latest novel THE KILLING LAND is an historical Western that Five Star/Cengage labeled as a romance novel.
The historical Western generally occurs between the Civil War and the 1890’s, roughly the time when the frontier vanished. The conventional Western novel features a central male figure who is manly and triumphs over his antagonists. Very few women are portrayed as anything but secondary figures. The heroes are poker-faced and stoic. These action stories are geared to guy readers as in the classic Louis L’Amour formula.
The central character in my novel is a woman. Both my main characters, male and female, have flaws and are less than perfect. They may be romantically involved but they are realistically drawn. Today novelists are willing to research and write about the real Western frontier, using realistic characters and true information integrated into their books. This was my goal in writing THE KILLING LAND.
A lot of what happens in the plot comes from reality and, yes, some of it is even naturalistic. It’s a novel meant to appeal to a wider reading audience both male and female alike. What I strived to do was create depth in characterization as well as realism in plot and theme. Has it worked? Readers will need to decide that for themselves.
Today’s fiction combines various elements. It is in essence a new frontier. Short fiction, as well as novels, are often more experimental in nature and a mash-up of more than one genre and style.
As a reader do you have a preference? Do you prefer romance, realism, naturalism or a combination in the fiction you read? If you are an author what sort of novels or short stories do you write?