Agatha Christie wrote the majority of her best-known works in the first half and middle of the twentieth century. Today, she is one of the bestselling authors of all time, and her books are considered the pinnacle of the mystery genre. Christie, however, had not always been as well received by the critics of higher literature. While she is a best seller, a master of plot and deception, and an amazingly entertaining writer above all, she has never been included in the canon of great twentieth-century fiction in the eyes of those that create the literary canons. Her own exclusion from this elite literary class tells us much about the trajectory of fiction in the twentieth century and about the ways that fiction is changing in the twenty-first.
The differences between “genre” and “literary” fiction should be noted first. Genre is a broad literary term that means that certain types of literature can be grouped together or identified based on similar characteristics. So, for instance, Homer’s Iliad and Milton’s Paradise Lost are both considered to be a part of the epic genre, even though they were written centuries apart, because they share similar thematic elements. Since the nineteenth century, the divisions between genres have often become sharper. “Genre” has become a more narrow term. The idea of a divide between “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction is a more recent development in the world of literature. The idea is that particular audiences prefer, and therefore purchase, novels or stories with particular elements or themes. These audiences are often developed out of the work of one or two authors that create a genre. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, for instance, are credited with the creation of the science fiction genre, which has spawned many novels that use similar themes and narrative techniques. Jane Austen is often credited with the creation of the modern romance genre, and Edgar Allen Poe with the creation of the horror genre. These narrow categories define an audience as much as a type of fiction.
That genre fiction came to have a bad name, and be distinguished from literary fiction, is due more to the fact that there was a great deal of bad genre fiction published in the early twentieth century than to any inherent literary flaw in the idea of genre. The rise of inexpensive mass published materials in the late nineteenth century meant that a glut of genre writing flooded the literary market. The magazines and books that published this material were given the name “pulp fiction” because they were often printed on the cheapest and flimsiest types of paper available. Entire magazines and books were devoted to the genres of romance, crime, mystery, horror, science fiction, erotica, and detective fiction. Often, literary quality was sacrificed in order to bring more material to the market at a faster pace with higher profit.
The other factor in the divide between literary fiction and genre occurred because of the trajectory of literary fiction in the twentieth century. The twentieth century saw the rise of Modernism in fiction. Writers such as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Wolff, and others exemplified this new mode of literature through densely written portraits of life in the twentieth century. Realism was a defining characteristic of Modernism. Modernists rejected chronology and causality. The neatly organized domestic dramas of the Victorian Era were replaced with chaotic narratives of inner turmoil and deeply flawed, often morally stunted protagonists. Modernist novels replaced the mystery and danger of pulp fiction with the tedious chaos of the everyday. The image of reality became more important than entertaining the reader.
It is perhaps unlucky for Agatha Christie that she just happened to have done the majority of her great writing at the same time that Modernist fiction became the de facto literary taste of the era. Her novels, in fact, do share similar themes with some great works of literary fiction. Her novels are tightly written. They often jump from inner dialogue to narrative action, forcing the reader to work at understanding the perspective of a particular scene. Her characters are always deeply flawed individuals with a deep distrust of the modern world and an ever-present sense of foreboding and death. It could be argued that Christie’s fiction is an achievement in existentialism. However, Christie was never taken seriously by critics of her day. Edmund Wilson, the famous literary critic, once proclaimed that detective stories such as Christie's were “simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”
Christie’s novels are primarily vehicles of entertainment. The author realized this fact early and never forgot it throughout her career. She noted that she often resisted the temptation to kill off her most famous detective character, Hercule Poirot, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had done to his famous detective Sherlock Holmes, because she knew that her reading public would be furious at such a move. Christie always kept her reading public in mind. Her novels were never written with the intent to define an era, even if they persisted in capturing the particular psychological eccentricities of a post World War age. The murders in her novels were never carried out for the purpose of nihilism. They were always an affirmation that life should be lived and that murder should be punished.
The fact that Christie’s body of work sold better than any other in history except for the Bible, however, does say something about the public’s literary hunger. While the Modernists sought to confuse, confound, and to make the reader work to draw meaning from the text, genre writers have always understood that there can be just as much meaning in the art of entertainment. Amidst declining book sales and publishing woes in the industry in general, genre writing has seen the most growth in the early decade of the twenty-first century. Even contemporary stalwarts of the Modernist mode of literature such as Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon have turned to genres such as science fiction and detective mystery in recent years. Juvenile fiction in horror and fantasy has sold millions of copies. In 2001, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to a novel about comic books.
With this in mind, modern audiences should perhaps reevaluate Agatha Christie’s fiction. With the revival of genre fiction as a serious kind of literature, it would be worth remembering the generations of genre writers who were, fairly or not, compared to their virtuosic Modernist contemporaries and found wanting. While some, surely, were less than great writers, Christie’s own genius seems to deserve a place in the twentieth-century canon. In psychology, disguise, and complexity, Christie set a standard for genre fiction writers and a basis on which to build a more complex and rich literary experience. While literary critics of the twentieth century might not have cared who committed Christie’s most famous murders, millions upon millions of mystery fans did care a great deal. In this case, popularity should not automatically disqualify a piece of writing from the canon of great literature.