Literary thrillers

Dear Miss Snark,

My novel has been described as a "literary thriller" or a "literary page-turner" by writers with more experience than I have.

The first term seems vague, and I can't shake my preconceived notions about what "thriller" means. The second term seems too obvious. (Who's going to buy a book that isn't a page-turner?) I've seen both terms in marketing for books from The Egyptologist and The Rule of Four to Atonement and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Supposing an author's novel is literary and has elements of a thriller (which I gather to mean exciting plot points). Would she describe it as such in a query letter, or would this designator cause agents to roll their eyes and pass?

Literary thriller is a perfectly acceptable designation for a novel. "Page turner" is a cliche, and solely reserved for the lads in the marketing department who are writing copy for airport bookstore buyers.

A thriller is generally a book in which you know the stakes and the stakes are big (think James Bond saving the world) and the action is fast paced. Not so much whodunit as will he do it.

Agatha Christie did not write thrillers. Neither does Scott Turow or John Grisham.
Ian Fleming wrote thrillers. Really really good ones.


Cornelia Read said...

See "What is a Thriller" on the homepage of the International Thriller Writers website:


Maxwell said...

That's a much broader definition of "Thriller" than Miss Snark uses. It wasn't too long ago that all kinds of crime fiction were found under the mystery genre. Many mysteries had no mystery at all. You knew who dunnit, how, where, when and usually why as the events unfolded.

If you follow the broad definition of thriller, it's looking to become another catch-all genre.

While we're at it: I always thought that Fantasy required the concepts of good and evil, but Science Fiction did not. If a work of Science Fiction used real science and made every effort to speculate reasonably, then it could be considered "Hard Science Fiction." However, the works that did not qualify are never called "Soft Science Fiction."

Angie said...

What do Scott Turow and John Grisham write? I ask only because I don't know what the specific genre would be. All I can think of is "legal thriller," but obviously that's not it.

Miss Snark said...

actually their work is often described as "legal thrillers" by the marketing department.

those of us who read this genre would probably call them "novels of crime", or just crime fiction.

bonniers said...

However, the works that did not qualify are never called "Soft Science Fiction."

Sure they are. All the time. I write litfic, some magic realism, and a little soft science fiction.

I always thought that Fantasy required the concepts of good and evil..

It's a common theme, but not absolutely necessary. Most people will agree that fantasy requires fantastical elements, like fantastic creatures or the practice of magic, but blood has been shed over what those fantastical elements are. Some fantasy publishers, especially anthologies, include magic realism. Some include alternate history. Many include horror.

It's almost as broad a genre as "thriller."

Maxwell said...


I was trying to be polite about the Soft SciFi. I've heard the term used as an insult. I didn't think, in practice, anyone used the term to describe their own work. I stand corrected.

Good points on fantasy. Obviously, post-modern fantasy is beyond good and evil.

So, what's the difference between Soft SciFi and Fantasy sans good and evil? Just semantics? Ray-gun Vs. Magic Wand? I'm not tying to be cute; I'm genuinely confused.

Maya said...

Maxwell, I took a workshop in which the instructor made the following distinctions:

Sci-Fi: The science (whether hard or soft) had to be earth-based and at least possible.
Fantasy: Had to include “world-building.” Must be set on another world or in a reality other than our own.
Paranormal: Includes elements of legend. These might be vampires, werewolves or mermaids.

These distinctions worked for me.

Maxwell said...

Thanks Maya! That makes perfect sense. That puts Star Wars and Dune in the fantasy camp, which is fine by me. Star Trek gets to be SciFi by virtue of being about humans from Earth. Works for me!

Kaytie said...

Thanks for the clarification on thrillers, and for the unexpected clarification on hard and soft sci-fi.

Since I've just deleted several sentences I found impossible to finish, I'll leave it at thanks.

Clearly I need to ponder Miss Snark's wisdom in terms of my manuscript.

bonnier said...

Hard SF writers and fans do tend to look down on soft SF.

I'm not sure that science fiction definition works, Maya. It's convenient, but it puts all science-based stories depicting truly alien societies in the fantasy camp, where they would most definitely not want to be. Maxwell's "rayguns versus magic wands" is probably about as close as anything :)

There's always "speculative fiction,' a term that covers a great deal more than just fantasy and SF.