At the bookstore where I used to work, we shelved fiction in four separate categories. Crime novels shared a wall with speculative fiction; romance had a set of freestanding shelves. The rest of the fiction room was devoted to literary fiction, which, unlike the others, we never identified by genre name. The publishing industry tends to treat literary as a descriptor, a nod to a work’s artistic quality or aspirations. But literary fiction is a genre like any other, with distinct conventions, strengths, and flaws. It typically centers the personal, preferring inner turmoil to external drama and usually de-emphasizing plot. At its best, its focus on interior life lets readers live in other people’s heads. It also means that such works are well equipped to handle the long emotional fallout of painful or complicated events, even if some of the events themselves pose a challenge to literary writers, with their tendency to turn away from plot.
Crime fiction inverts this issue. Its primary convention is a propulsive plot—a mystery driving it forward. Plot has significant upsides: It grips readers, provides narrative shape, and, if well executed, offers catharsis. When poorly conceived, however, it can shrink trauma into a single event or sensationalize pain. This problem can be especially acute in crime writing that deals with sexual violence. Perhaps as a solution, more and more crime writers are placing survivors, not detectives, at the center of their novels, thereby focusing less on assault or its perpetrators than on the mental progressions of those who have been hurt. A pair of recent literary novels about the aftermath of assault, Pola Oloixarac’s Mona and Anna Caritj’s Leda and the Swan, bring this crime-fiction strategy into their own field. These works suggest that, especially where complex stories about sexual assault are concerned, mixing genres can open up our storytelling capacities, giving writers—and readers—access to ever more empathy and nuance.