Readers of fiction who enter modern bookstores are confronted with a series of choices. Not only are books separated and shelved according to basic categories such as fiction and nonfiction, but fictional works may be subdivided into various genres, such as “classic” fiction, literary fiction, general fiction, mysteries, science fiction, Westerns, and romance fiction. Readers may be even further confounded, however, when works that seem to fit squarely into one genre are shelved in another. For example, the works of Raymond Chandler are obviously mysteries; with the introduction of Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1939) Chandler created one of the most famous and archetypal private eyes of the genre. However, in some stores readers may find some of his novels housed within the general fiction section rather than within the mystery section.
Bookstores organize titles by category to assist readers to find what they want to read. Despite the apparent usefulness of such labeling, however, there is a negative side effect evident in the need of not only booksellers but also the entire literary world to separate titles among different genres. Inevitably, it seems, genre fiction is regarded as less challenging, more poorly written, and generally inferior in quality to so-called literary fiction. Regardless of the merit of drawing such aesthetic distinctions among genres, certain authors blur the lines. Distinctions between mystery and literary fiction become even hazier when one considers not only the mystery authors who write at a highly artistic level, such as Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but also the many authors who work simultaneously within the genre and in literary fiction, such as Graham Greene and Joyce Carol Oates and the authors of literary fiction who have turned to mystery writing, such as James Lee Burke.