Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Marlon James and Viet Thanh Nguyen: Why is one's work considered crime fiction and the other's not?

I recently read two novels that won big literary awards, and I thought highly of both. One of the books is very much a crime novel, the other is not, yet it was the non-crime novel that won this year's Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America.

That novel, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, I wrote:
"includes two killings of the kind that presumably would be investigated by local authorities if they happened in the real rather than a fictional California, but there is no such investigation in The Sympathizer. Nor do the protagonist's reaction to and thoughts about those crimes constitute a major component of the narrative. Significant, yes. Thematically dominant, no.

"Rather, the novel's generic affinities are from the very first sentence with the espionage novel, which has long led a comfortable co-existence with crime fiction. Still, I suspect that few readers will regard
The Sympathizer as a spy story. Indeed, the subject does not come up in an interview with Nguyen included as an appendix to the Grove Press trade paperback edition of the novel. Rather, the book is a political novel, a novel of immigration, a novel about Vietnam, a novel about the United States, about the perils and exigencies of moving between the two, about the equivocal (at best) nature of revolutions, and, most important, about the illusory nature of binary opposition, whether between American and Vietnamese, European and Asian, communist and its opposite, or what have you."
Yet the MWA gave the novel an Edgar Award that the author can hang on his wall next to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The action of Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, on the other hand, is set in motion by a real-life crime reimagined: the 1976 assassination attempt against Bob Marley. It includes scenes of gang and drug violence in Jamaica and New York, and its story of a crime's ripple effects is something like that told in James Ellroy's A Cold Six Thousand or perhaps Don Winslow's Savages, yet James has no Edgar or Dagger Awards to hang next to the 2015 Man Booker Prize he won for A Brief History ...

I don't suppose it matters much in which category one places these two fine books, but I wonder why Nguyen's achieved purchase in the crime fiction world while James' achieved none, at least in that part of the crime fiction world that gives out awards. Did Nguyen's publishers make a conscious decision to promote the book as crime? Did James' make a conscious decision not to do so? And does it matter?

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Blogger seana graham said...

I think it matters mainly in terms of whether a book will find the audience that will enjoy it most.

July 12, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think you're right, and I hope matters of category keep no one from reading these books.

I may have mentioned that the shelving policies at the Barnes & Noble nearest to me defy any logic that I can think of. Lee Child is in Literature & Fiction, for example, and James Ellroy is in mystery. I guessed that B&N decided to shelve all fiction together to save money, they ran out of money in mid-project to pay staff to complete the reshelving.

July 12, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

In my old place of employment, I always found it unfortunate that the fiction room was clear across the store from mystery and sci fi and fantasy sections. I know many people, not finding Lee Child in fiction, for instance, just assumed we didn't have him. It was more a floor plan problem than a philosophical one, though.

July 12, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I guessed something like that might be responsible for B&N;s shelving Lee Child where it does, but the juxtaposition with Ellroy was jarring because I've read barely any of his early crime fiction and thus have never thought of him as a crime writers. This B&N at least has literature & fiction next to all the genres, so I always look in both

Marlon James was in literature & fiction, by the way.

July 12, 2016  

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