The “Family Thrillers” Shelf


Want to make a successful novelist squirm? Ask her to shelve her own novel at the bookstore.

Kelly Braffet (Save Yourself), Carla Buckley (The Deepest Secret), Jenny Milchman (Ruin Falls), and Therese Walsh (The Moon Sisters) have craft skills galore, street-smarts, and publishing contracts with “Big Five” companies–success by any definition. Their passion to reach readers recently brought them together for a panel discussion at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, New York.

Jenny moderated, first asking, “Where in bookstores are your books shelved?”

“There’s just no easy answer for that,” Therese commented. Her novel, The Moon Sisters, deals with two sisters grieving their mother’s death in very different ways. It is also about a quest that one of the sisters undertakes despite having the unique perceptions of a synesthete. “It doesn’t quite fit into a ‘genre,’ in which a story is stereotypically more concerned with action or plot than character development; but it isn’t ‘literary’ in the stereotypical sense either, in the sense of being focused on character over plot. Because Moon Sisters walks a sort of ‘middle ground,’ my publisher and agent call it ‘upmarket fiction.'”

Where does the bookstore shelve “upmarket fiction?”

Carla Buckley’s latest novel is, according to her publisher, “part intimate family drama, part gripping page-turner, exploring the profound power of the truths we’re scared to face…” (The ellipsis probably graces a lot of “upmarket fiction” back covers.)

Carla observed, “This question reminds me of what it was like to be a new mom.”

She related the tension she sensed at times between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers over parenting styles. In the end, she wondered, is this really a constructive debate?

Does anything set literary fiction apart for readers?

Great literature is marked not by style, story type, or structure per se, but by the test of time. Staying power defines novels like On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, The Lord of the Rings; alongside Shakespeare, Dante, and others that are seemingly unrelated. The authors don’t tell similar stories, or employ “better” vocabulary or craft methods than modern writers.

New books written and marketed as literary fiction seek instant authority as part of a body of work that pushes the boundaries of the written word. Writers like George Saunders (see “Adams,” in which a man engages in chemical warfare with a bad neighbor) and Joyce Carol Oates (The Accursed–a 600-plus-page literary-gothic novel about the elite of Princeton in the early 19th century, who may or may not have been in league with the Devil) exemplify effective literary storytelling. But pushing boundaries can make for unsatisfying stories, if the author forgets–or does not acknowledge–her duty to engage the reader. No need to cite sample works here; every avid reader has come across overly ambitious literary novels that leave us scratching our heads.

Literary fiction is defined by “lots of words,” the panelists and audience of readers agreed. But not necessarily a lot of story.

One audience member said, “The last time I picked up a novel by a writer with an MFA, I couldn’t get past the first page. There was nothing happening, no voice, nothing. It sounded more like a thesis than a story.”

From the bottom of my MFA heart, ouch. I worked hard on my thesis.

But panelist Kelly Braffet has an MFA, too. While she agreed she was an anomaly in her program for her passion for story over craft, she felt that she became a better writer by working on craft alongside other committed students in workshop.

Interviewed recently at The Rumpus, Kelly resigned herself to the ongoing quarrel over “fictional” distinctions. “The rest of the world persists in making the distinction, so if we’re going to have any chance of communicating with that world, we sort of have to make it, too… it’s not so much a question of whether or not something happens in the book, as it is whether that something is unabashedly exciting. Five people sitting around discussing their divorces is a Something that can Happen, but it’s not necessarily Exciting. Excitement isn’t built into the [literary] story, as it would be if they were sitting around discussing their divorces while planning a bank heist.”

Jenny Milchman describes her novels as “family thrillers”, quoting critic Oline Cogdil, who coined the term. In Milchman’s book Cover of Snow, a woman investigates her husband’s suicide, revealing ugly family and community secrets. Her novel Ruin Falls tells the story of a mother whose children are taken unexpectedly by trusted intimates. No wonder Jenny tossed out this firecracker during the discussion: “A while ago I read Stuart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing, about as literary a novel as might be found, despite its suspenseful premise. One reviewer said that O’Nan avoided the ‘cheap payoff of a thriller’ with his novel. What do you think the reviewer meant?”

Which “cheap” thrillers, exactly, did the critic have in mind? Does he intend to intimidate writers out of telling stories? How does the critics’ disdain for “cheap” operate alongside readers’ prejudice against highbrow “literary” prose? What line should the writer walk?

A thirteen-year-old girl spoke up from the back of the room. (I kid you not, thirteen.) She talked about reading The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird, not as school assignments, but with the same interest she had for Divergent and The Hunger Games. “I really like it when I’m reading and I can hear the author’s voice,” she said. “That’s why I liked The Great Gatsby better than To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Wisdom emerges from the mouths of babes. (For the record, she preferred The Hunger Games to Divergent.) “Literary” is a shelf at the bookstore, not a meaningful distinction for readers who love a good book.

The following week, as I began work on this post, I read that Jenny Milchman won the Mary Higgins Clark award for her first novel, Cover of Snow. So now you know one thing, at least: Wherever your bookseller shelves Mary Higgins Clark, that’s where you’ll find Jenny Milchman.


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