I'm reading Dostoyevski's The Demons, mainly to get some idea of how politics drove people nuts in the early 19th century. It's always a little dangerous to read Fyodor when one is writing a book. One is tempted to say, oh, why bother? But actually, any comparison would be unfair, because no one can write a Dostoyevsky novel nowadays. He's far too dense and multilayered, and just, well, better that anything in modern literature, and far, far better than anything in the kind of popular books I write. One is tempted into trying for unmarketable psychological depth; but I believe I can resist.
Nicolas Freeling, the late, great writer of European policiers, had a take on this subject. In his volume of essays, Criminal Conversations, Freeling asked a question about the ultimate purpose of genre writing, using genre painting as an analogy. He describes a visit to the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, which has one of the world's great collections of 17th century Dutch genre paintings. (Genre is a term of art criticism that is now applied to certain forms of popular writing. It refers to interior scenes of ordinary life, as opposed to religious, mythological or historical themes.) So he describes the line of wonderful genre paintings by the best artists in the field--De Hooch, Gerard and the rest--in which all the aspects of the life of those times are expertly rendered. The porcelain and pewter, the lace and brocade, the tiles, the colored glass, the food on the tables, the jolly ladies and gentlemen at leisure are all as they should be, vivid and charming. And then, he says, you come to a painting that is not like that, that partakes not of the transitory genre world, but of, in a sense, eternity. This is The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Vermeer. It's hard to precisely describe the difference, but I've been in that museum and I know what he's talking about. Somehow, Vermeer has managed to capture mortality itself, to convey the beingness of his subject in a way that the other genre paintings do not for theirs. And so Freeling says that as the existence of genre painting provides a backdrop against which the genius of Vermeer shines forth, so does the work of genre writers like him (and me) enable a truer appreciation of Dostoyevsky's grandeur.
It's the case that when genre writers gather and talk to one another, there's a certain spite in the air with regard to literary fiction. You hear people say that genre writing is good writing, or can be good writing, or is better writing than some of the writing sold as literary fiction. All this can be true, but it's also true that literary fiction has a higher and more important aim than genre, which is ultimately mere entertainment. Literary fiction is about changing the life of the reader, or rather explaining their lives to them, giving them a different central narrative by which they can understand their existence.
I actually try to do this, to the extent allowed by the constraints of a genre novel, but basically the constraints block the effort from developing too far. Meanwhile, being the backdrop to Dostoyevsky seems a reasonable purpose for my career as a writer.