How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction

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

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Reuters

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.

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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.

And yet, in 2011, the era of the literary-genre hybrid novel has undeniably arrived. I spoke with three literary genre writers—Whitehead, Cronin, and Benjamin Percy—whose werewolf novel, Red Moon, comes out next year—about the reasons why.

1. Our day-to-day lives are becoming more science-fictional.

Every day, newspapers—sorry, handheld tablets—produce more headlines from the frontiers of modern science. A government-backed initiative has built protein-eating war-bots that could conceivably power themselves off human flesh. A renowned paleontologist is trying to reverse-evolve chickens into dinosaurs. And the world of personal computing makes leaps forward with every passing month. Dick Tracy's two-way video wristwatch—unfathomable in the 1950s—is now no further away than somebody's iPhone.

Of course, with these advances come anxieties about Faustian bargains and Pandora's boxes. "It's always been the case that the greatest horror stories are tapping into cultural anxieties of the time," Benjamin Percy told me, by phone. "Take a look at [Mary Shelley's] Frankenstein and the Industrial Revolution. Or [Bram Stoker's] Dracula and Victorian prudishness. Or Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Red Scare. And if you look at what's been on bookshelves since 9/11, there's been an abundance of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives. All of them have to do with our fear of disease, our fear of environmental devastation, our fear of nuclear annihilation. Maybe because the end of the world has never seemed so possible."

2. For writers, pop culture influences are now as important as literary influences.

There was a time in recent memory when writers took their cues primarily from the literary figures that came before them. But in 2011, our literary, media, and entertainment landscapes are unprecedentedly vast and various. Not only that, but appropriation has become an important artistic currency—seen in everything from hip-hop sampling, to Internet remixing, to literary mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. We define our current cultural moment in terms of media consumption, and we try to reflect our varied interests in our art. In the hands of pop culture wizards like Jonathan Lethem or the late David Foster Wallace, you're likely to see prose equally indebted to Catwoman and Catullus, Star Wars and Keats' "Bright Star."

Colson Whitehead told me that he thinks we're seeing the first tremors in a seismic shift of influences. In his view, novelists and short-story writers working today are no longer afraid to embrace the pop cultural influences that excited them as kids. He remembers growing up when VCRs were a hot new thing, and renting horror movies on Friday nights was a part of his childhood education. For him, writing genre acknowledges influences that were always there—his love for comic books as well as literary books.

"I think that people of my generation are more comfortable making the foray into genre," he said. "Because of macabre books, Stephen King, and probably cable. Culture changed in the '70s and '80s [...] Look at the phenomenon of the blockbuster, whether it's an adventure like Indiana Jones, or something like Star Wars and Star Trek. You're exposed to that pretty early. And you're supposed to walk away because you start reading Ernest Hemingway? It's just one of many influences that makes you into the writer you are today."

Justin Cronin agrees. In an interview on KRUI Radio in 2010, he told me that he enjoys genre works like Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove every bit as much as literary novels. For him, writing The Passage was a way of interpolating two different types of influences. Like Chabon, he feels that both literary fiction and genre fiction are more robust when they cross-pollinate.

"There are indeed books that are clearly [genre] or clearly [literary], and it would be disingenuous of me to say that's not true," he said. "But the middle is really large. And the middle is where I've always found the books that were most captivating to me."

3. Literary tastes are increasingly global.

American literature has diversified as a broader pool of voices, within the country and without, gain mainstream cultural recognition. Latin American magical realism, as well as Japanese horror and science-fiction have already had substantial effects on American art; in recent years, Roberto Bolano (Chile) and Haruki Murakami have especially increased the writer's sense of novelistic possibility. The increased availability and viability of contemporary works in translation also opens up new avenues for innovation and exploration.

4. Stories with mythic dimensions are timeless.

We've been telling monster stories (Scylla and Charybdis) science-fiction stories (the Tower of Babel), superhero stories (the Epic of Gilgamesh), horror stories (Oedipus Rex), and apocalypse stories (the Book of Revelation) for a long, long time. Maybe the appearance of modern myths in mainstream publishing is not so new--in a sense, it's a return to form. Cronin insists that this is good for literature, and that the best mythic archetypes will continue to appeal to new generations of storytellers. In his view, they're just too good to leave alone.

"The traditional vampire story is a story of a magical creature, but I wanted to base mine in a sort of plausible physical and biological reality. That was my version of the story,

which is the best thing about these stories: you can go back and—not only can you, but you have to—make them your own."

5. Financially—and aesthetically—genre pays.

It would be naive to say that modern writers aren't aware of the potential financial gains of embracing genre. What starving artist, underpaid and under-read, hasn't at least once looked at J.K. Rowling's massive royalties—and throng of adoring readers—with envy?

But Cronin rejects the idea that serious writers are simply cashing in on short-lived, Twilight-spawned trends.

"You will not remember this," he told me, "but there was a vampire soap opera on television in the late '60s and early '70s called Dark Shadows that everybody in my generation went home and watched after school. Vampire comic books, the original Bram Stoker, this stuff has never gone away. It never will. It's great material, and it's constantly reinventable."

Whitehead agrees, insisting that readers can tell hack work from honest engagement with a form or meme.

"To me, [Zone One] is just another book," he said. "I was aware that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a huge bestseller, but I thought that when I finished my book this brief trend would probably be over. I mean, I was wrong. But given that it takes two or three years to write a book, I assumed I was not going to be part of some larger cultural conversation. I think if you do your job, then people will come to it--whether it's about elevator inspectors, or John Henry, or zombies."

Percy goes even farther, saying that literary writers can unleash new power in their work by tapping into genre conventions. In his view, people respond positively to books like The Passage not just because there are vampires in it; for him, works that balance readability with literary complexity have a hybrid power beyond what's typically seen in either form.

"If look at the best of literary fiction," he told me, "you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany."

Genre fiction, by itself, can be just as fallible.

"In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next."

"So what I'm trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I'm trying to take the best of what I've learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal."

A hybridized animal, a healthy body implanted with a ballistic, foreign gene--sounds like a mutant to me.

* * *

Genre will always have its critics. As a 1969 New York Times review of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five acknowledged, "You'll either love it, or you'll push it back into the science-fiction corner." This is a matter of taste; some will audiences will bristle at the strange or otherworldly scenarios that other readers instinctively seek out. The same can be said for any book that contains readily identifiable character archetypes—detectives and spacemen, cowgirls and zombies.

Still, if widespread genre cross-pollination results in a new breeds of literary chimera, our literature will benefit. Establishment writers will open up new worlds of possibility, and gain an ability to explore myth and magic without marketing stigma. And genre writers with undeniable literary merit will earn a less tentative place in the annals of literature.

Presented by

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 TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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