How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction

Realistic stories once dominated American literature, but now writers are embracing the fantastical. What happened?



In 2010, scientists from the University of Bristol demonstrated that genetically modified crops can—and do—pass their DNA onto other organisms . Through a process called horizontal gene transfer, altered genes break the species boundary, introducing foreign mutations into the wild.

Horizontal gene transfer is a good metaphor for something that's happening in literature, thanks to writers like Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead—whose new novel, Zone One, comes out this week.

The trappings of genre fiction—monsters, masked marvels, gizmos, and gumshoes—are no longer quarantined to the bookstore aisles reserved for popular fiction. Horror, mystery and science-fiction books have spread their genetic code to a foreign habitat: the literature section.

To understand why this is significant, it's important to stress how rare genre interpolations were in late 20th-century fiction. In the 1980s and 1990s, serious writers trafficked in realistic tales, simply told. Led by their patron saint, Raymond Carver, American minimalists like Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, Anne Beattie, and Tobias Wolff used finely-tuned vernacular to explore the everyday problems of everyday people.

Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, our literature unfolded in diners, standard-issue automobiles, and the living room. Even those writers who did not subscribe to a Hemingway-influenced minimalist aesthetic—John Updike, Phillip Roth, Jane Smiley—still wrote about modern-day people in believable situations. In the 1990s, a new generation of writers took this tendency one step further, hyper-focusing on the stark realities of lesser-known contemporary subcultures (see Annie Proulx, Chris Offutt, William T. Vollmann, and Denis Johnson).

But now, only eleven years into a new century, American literary culture has undergone a sea change. A group of high-profile literary writers have fled the place we call "real life"—and their numbers are growing. Literature shelves now commonly feature Halloween party staples: Zombies, werewolves, and vampires; hardboiled gangsters and private sleuths; space aliens with high-tech gadgets. Today's serious writers are hybrid creatures—yoking the fantasist scenarios and whiz-bang readability of popular novels with the stylistic and tonal complexity we expect to find in literature. Meet the New Mutants of American fiction.

Colson Whitehead is just one example of an award-winning literary writer breaking rank and going rogue, berserk on the genre gene. Zone One is his crack at the zombie mythology, which has seethed in pop culture veins for decades but has not received a serious literary treatment until now. In Whitehead's telling, a plague disrupts civilization in the very near future, spreading rabidly and transforming victims into amped-up, addled cannibals. In the course of one long and blood-drenched night, civilization as we know it ends.


The novel begins during a post-apocalyptic period of Reclamation, following a loner called Mark Spitz (he's a Joe-average, ironically nicknamed after the Olympic champion swimmer). Under direction from the provisional U.S. government—now headquartered in Buffalo—he sweeps lower Manhattan for plague survivors and zombie holdouts.

Raymond Carver, this isn't. And yet Zone One was heralded with equal eagerness in "serious" venues (New York Magazine) and "popular" venues (USA Today) throughout the fall. How did we get here?

The seeds of realist discontent can be seen in two genre-bending fiction anthologies, published by McSweeney's in 2003 and 2004, that included work from both unit-shifting megasellers (Michael Crichton) and literary darlings (Aimee Bender). In his introduction to McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004), editor Michael Chabon argued that both "popular" and "serious" fiction become sterile through too much inbreeding. He called for a new American literature that would "haunt the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore."

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In his own Pulitzer prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001), Chabon had already begun to foray into genre, exploring the behind-the-scenes lives of comic book creators. But his disquiet was shared by other writers like Kevin Brockmeier, Stephen Millhauser, and George Saunders who bucked against the formal and topical constraints of realist work. Then, in both 2007 and 2008, the Pulitzer was awarded to works of fiction with strong genre overtones. The 2007 winner, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, unfolds in the ashpit of a nuked-out future, its landscape like something out of 1950's sci-fi comic. In Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), geekdom reached its apotheosis: Surely, some literary historian will confirm that it's the first Pulitzer-winning novel to take its epigraph from a Marvel comic book (Fantastic Four #49, to be precise).

In fact, Diaz provides a clearer illustration of horizontal gene transfer (the genre/literary kind) than almost any other writer. During the 11 years between his debut, the short story collection Drown, and Oscar Wao, the author underwent a Weapon X-worthy transformation from grim realism to full-bore genre-lit. Drown's stark, affecting portraits of Dominican immigrants in the United States brought Morningside flair to post-Carver groundedness; the book makes no mention of comic books or superhero capes.

But in Oscar Wao, Diaz comes out of the geek closet. The book's narrator, Yunior de las Casa, is also a recurrent character/narrator in Drown—but only in the second book, more than a decade later, do we learn that he's a science fiction fanboy who can drop allusions to Frodo Baggins and Jack Kirby with machismo grace. Where were Yunior's graphic novels and superhero comics in Drown? Unseen. I suspect the narrator, with his author's approval, swept them under the bed—though Yunior did it to stay cool for the ladies, and Diaz did it to stay cool for the critics.

It's an understandable anxiety. Though Zone One unabashedly embraces its genre roots, Whitehead has the benefit of hindsight on his side. Even five years ago, a genre/literature segregation was in full force.

One book in particular helped break the genre barrier. By now, everyone has heard of Justin Cronin's fantasy smash The Passage, which combines a science-fictional apocalypse and bloodthirsty lab-engineered vampires with complex characters and top-flight prose. The book sparked an unprecedented bidding war between publishers and film studios in 2007, and was on the New York Times bestseller lists for weeks.

But people forget that, in 2007, the book went to auction under a pseudonym: Jordan Ainsley. At the time, no one knew whether a respected literary writer could publish a Stephen King-style blockbuster without critical or commercial consequences. "We weren't trying to hide who he was, but I didn't want him to be typecast as one kind of author," said Ellen Levine, Cronin's agent, in a 2007 New York Times article about the book.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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