Is Thrillers the New Serious Literature?

With thrillers and murder mysteries dominating the American bestseller lists, you have to wonder if this means something. The Washington Post critic Patrick Anderson thinks so – he just published a book called "The Triumph of the Thriller," in which he makes the case for taking thrillers and murder mysteries more seriously.

Our knee-jerk prioritizing of mainstream or literary fiction as "serious," he says, comes from the innocent, "heile-Welt" times of the '50's, and no longer reflects reality today. He places the beginning of the march of the thriller at the time of Kennedy's assassination, when it became clear to most normal people, if not to literary critics and bourgeois authors, that the only valid description of the world we live in is a dark one.Since then, fiction has been at war. On the one hand you have literature that depicts reality as consisting mainly of crime, murder, ruthlessness, betrayal, immorality and death – i.e., existential themes; on the other hand, you have domestic literature that the "serious" authors write – growing up in a dysfunctional family like Jonathan Frantzen's "The Corrections," etc. Which is really just a nostalgic look back to the innocent family-oriented '50's, much like George W. Bush and his conservative basis does. You could make a case for "serious" fiction being the literary equivalent of the religious right, while the dirtier, grittier crime fiction represents the angry protests of the disaffected left.

You could make the same case in Germany, of course. For all their intelligence and "criticism," German writers who are still trying to be Thomas Mann are basically harking back to a time when the world was in order, even if they criticize that world. When a modern writer writes critically about the modern family, he is really trying to cure an ailment that has been obsolete for decades.

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