Sunday, February 13, 2011

Literary Suspense

Is there such a thing? I just read two suspense novels by accomplished authors, and was less impressed by the storyline than by the prose. By nature, I am a mystery/thriller fan, and am wondering about this subset of the genre.

Both authors are positioned on the mystery/thriller bookstore shelves. In the first, I found what is perhaps the most eloquent one line description of a character's action I've ever read. In the second, the emotions swirl in a prosaic kaleidoscope as the story progresses to its ultimate conclusion.

At some level, all stories have drama. But in most mystery/thriller stories, plot by far is the focus. In the "literary suspense" stories, the prose slows the pacing and allows the reader to live inside the character's heads.

Your thoughts on this are greatly appreciated. Start the discussion by leaving a comment.


  1. Well, seeing as my novel on submission is considered literary suspense, perhaps I can share my perspective. The industry seems to consider literary suspense a "sweet spot". The audience for suspense is large--literary suspense aims to achieve its intense pacing while having characters with depth and nuance, and prose that is...considered. There may be a certain element of metaphor or description--but if these things slow the pace down, then I don't think you're in the realm of literary suspense anymore. Or at least not literary suspense that will likely get published.

    Some hugely successful authors fall on the slower side of the spectrum where the language plays a heavier role (Tana French might be one example) whereas some tend to emphasize character (Nancy Pickard is a good example).

    Of course, to a certain extent, the categorization may be false. Hemingway, who we'd probably consider literary insofar as his work makes its way into college curricula, said that style should be a clear window into which you see the story.

    In general, I would say that good writing never draws focus away from a good story well told.

  2. Jenny, thank you for sharing your insight and experience. Your comment hits to the core of the topic. Great comment!