If you peruse descriptions of Canadian novels about to be released this spring, you will be struck by one recurring word. That word is thriller. It seems that our most literary and literate writers – masters of the meditation on family and loss, adepts of the sad highway and the cold sexual encounter – are turning en masse away from all the things that have defined our national literature for 40 years. Our novelists, finished with the MFAs in which they doggedly learned about the writer’s ethical responsibility and appropriation of voice, are looking away from the feeling of cultural alienation engendered by the smell of grandmother’s cooking and towards mysterious disappearances, murders, evil conspiracies, strange psychic phenomena. They are looking towards the tropes and devices of television. They are looking for audiences.
Here are but a few examples: Timothy Taylor, author of the study in urban anthropology Stanley Park – a novel that concerns the warring philosophies of Vancouver chefs – has a new novel out, The Rule of Stephens, billed by the publisher as a thriller about the survivor of a plane crash. This book involve a woman and her apparent doppelganger – a motif that has recurred in two other major books of the past year (Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square and Barbara Gowdy’s Little Sister).
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is an author whose Giller-nominated short story collection How To Get Along With Women was a gem of precise prose – prose sometimes so controlled it could be called cold – and about uneasy, undefinable contemporary moments. Now she is coming out with the novel Hysteria, billed as a thriller about a disappeared child, a creepy mysterious child, and a husband with dark secrets. This is her second thriller.
Amber Dawn, a writer from B.C., previously known for queer-themed speculative fiction, has a new novel out called Sodom Road Exit, billed as a supernatural thriller.
Andrew Battershill, author of the whimsical Giller-nominated novel Pillow, has put out a new book called Marry, Bang, Kill that his publisher is calling a crime thriller about a man on the run from a motorcycle gang.
Then there is the spate of literary authors who publish genre fiction under pseudonyms – Naben Ruthnum (as Nathan Ripley), Michael Redhill (as Inger Ash Wolfe), Craig Davidson (as Nick Cutter). Redhill even alludes to this current in Bellevue Square, including a crime-thriller writer character amid all the split personalities.
There are some obvious reasons for the push to describe all novels as thrillers or psycho-suspenses: They might seem more fun that way. The ascendancy of high-quality television has had an influence here. Numbers of readers for quiet, reflective literary fiction have unquestionably declined, and even writers admit they spend as much time with gory Netflix series as they do reading books these days. Why not try to compete with the violent fun and sell a few books for a change?
It has been suggested that the theme of the mysterious double – the doppelganger – that has been so popular this year is a kind of metaphor for the double life of the literary artist – the writer who is thinking of selling out, maybe writing a detective novel under a pseudonym, becoming someone else just like himself. The critic Alex Good, in a review of Timothy Taylor’s new novel in the Toronto Star, wrote, “A literary author today is a divided soul.” Authors want commercial success and yet want to stay true to their obscure art at the same time.
It’s interesting, and a little confusing, to contrast this trend with the growth in creative-writing programs at universities all over the country. All you may have heard about creative-writing departments from the past year’s news may be that they are hotbeds of sexual depravity, but you may be missing the less titillating fact that they teach poetry and short literary fiction above all. Creative-writing teachers (and I am one of them) welcome genre submissions – indeed, we welcome plot of any kind, as it is without question the most difficult area to master and a rare element of student stories – but we receive few. The majority of creative-writing students want to specialize in poetry or what publishers would call “small stories” – stories of the real and the personal. (Indeed, one of the revelations of the recent scandal at Concordia, to me, was that everybody was there to write poetry. Some former students have noted that there was little discussion of the pursuit of a professional writing life there.)
Are we looking at a profound MFA/publishing industry schism here (like the MFA/NYC divide that so occupied the United States a couple of years ago)? Are there two solitudes in existence – the workshop where one discusses poignant moments, and the editor’s office where one discusses what actually happens to the disappeared girl? If there are, then perhaps this is normal: a space, and a brief time, in which writers can work in peaceful luxury on their family stories, getting their paragraphs tighter, a place of freedom before their launch into the cruel commercial world of ghosts and kidnappers and unsolved murders. Then they can write a novel about an artist with a divided soul.