What are the Classics of Genre Fiction
August 10, 2014 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Genre fiction is typically underrepresented in lists of classic novels. We all know the classics of literary fiction (War & Peace, Ulysses, Pride & Prejudice, etc.). But who's the Tolstoy of Fantasy? Who's the Austen of spy fiction?

Classics from any and all genres are appreciated, from things that everyone's heard of (e.g., Foundation as classic SciFi) as well as deeper cuts (e.g., A Canticle for Leibowitz). What are the novels from your favorite genre that you would recommend to newbies as being the big classics that everyone who is into the genre has probably read?

Some of the ones I've come up with: Lonesome Dove as a classic Western, The Once and Future King as classic Fantasy, and Valley of the Dolls as classic trash.
posted by therumsgone to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
John Le Carre for spy fiction; probably his most accessible (and still achingly topical) is The Little Drummer Girl.

For sci-fi, Dune is a safe bet; i'd add one of CJ Cherryh's brilliantly gritty space yarns, either the Chanur series or Downbelow Station.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:53 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels for historical fiction.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 8:54 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]

Espionage fiction list needs Eric Ambler
posted by thelonius at 9:00 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]

Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first sci-fi novel.
posted by angelchrys at 9:03 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]

The Lord of the Rings for fantasy, of course.

Classic feminist scifi: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ (not actually scifi, but written by a scifi writer, so it gets a lot of cross-pollination readers)

Classic YA lit that taught generations of girls about menstruation: Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce

Modern classic YA fantasy with female leads: The Blue Sword / The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane

Classic books with tantalizing (& kinda shady) stuff about SEX: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews, Forever by Judy Blume, Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel
posted by nicebookrack at 9:06 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]

Seriously, I read My Little Red Book of stories about menstruation, and there's like an entire section of women saying, "I read about it first in Judy Blume / Tamora Pierce."
posted by nicebookrack at 9:09 PM on August 10

The Old Man and the Sea, for one.

Lord of the Flies, for another.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:09 PM on August 10

Anne Rice for vampire novels

Douglas Adams for, umm... Sci Fi Comedy?

Margaret Atwood for post-something (apocalypse, singularity, democracy, ...) dystopian novels
posted by duoshao at 9:11 PM on August 10

It's funny that you mention Austen as clearly literary in a couple of places in your original post. Austen is, of course, the Austen of the romance genre.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:13 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]

Superheroes: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Orczy. Royalist Batman! If this didn't invent the "rich idiot by day, crimefighter by night" secret identity trope, it popularized it.

Superhero comics: Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Mystery lit: The Moonstone & The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (also noir lit), The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (infamously broke the "rules" of detective novels)

This is kiiiiind of a favorite topic of mine, hence the gushing.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:33 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]

Superhero/adventure: The Count of Monte Cristo. One of the best novels ever, in any genre (in my opinion).
posted by orrnyereg at 9:35 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]

Arguably, for crime/detective/mystery fiction it's more the body of an author's work rather than any specific novel that makes them a "classic", so:

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Agatha Christie, who created the detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter" by Edgar Allen Poe.

Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett for the modern "hardboiled private eye" novel. The Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald for the second generation classics of the genre.

James M. Cain and Jim Thompson for "noir."
posted by soundguy99 at 9:44 PM on August 10 [2 favorites]

Gothic style: Jane Eyre set the style and standard.
Rebecca is the best ever though.

I don't class all of Anne Rice's vampire novels together. Interview with the Vampire is a classic. The rest are not so much.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:48 PM on August 10

Are you talking about classics in the sense of widely acknowledged as being great or as in books everyone who are fans of the genre has read? Because those aren't the same thing and people are giving you suggestions from both sets. I'm guessing you mean the former since you list something like Ulysses as an example.

In that case the only answer for fantasy is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.
posted by Justinian at 10:54 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]

As Justinian says, there are a couple of different questions tied up here but I'm going to address this one: What are the novels from your favorite genre that you would recommend to newbies as being the big classics that everyone who is into the genre has probably read?

I was struck that the novels you list as classics of literary fiction all appeared on the BBC's massive Big Read survey from 2003 (Pride and Prejudice 2nd, War and Peace 20th and Ulysses 78th). So for speculative fiction the really popular books that lots and lots of people have read are:

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

You can do the same exercise for other genres such as children's fiction (which obviously contains lots of SF as well).
posted by ninebelow at 1:50 AM on August 11

Lord of the Rings for fantasy of course, and I'd argue that the Song of Ice and Fire books are also important in fantasy--the point where some harsh reality intruded on the fantasy elements.

And of course Le Carre for spy novels: I adore the Smiley trilogy especially.

And, I must disagree with Clan of the Cave Bear above... It's definitely more the Dan Brown of smutty genre fiction than the Tolstoy.
posted by The Michael The at 4:46 AM on August 11

For westerns, there's also Track of the Cat and The Oxbow Incident, both by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and True Grit by Portis, Charles.

It's easy to forget that the Bond movies were based on books, all classics of the Spy genre.
posted by Gygesringtone at 6:32 AM on August 11

They say that Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was the Model T of the Western genre, but I'd take Portis' Grit or Williams' Butcher's Crossing.
posted by mr. digits at 7:22 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]

It's a difficult question to answer because canon formation takes place so long after the fact and the idea of genre literature is relatively new. Dozens of academic tomes have been written on this subject, essentially.

Pushing that aside and looking at books that paved the way for today's speculative fiction, you could look at people like Karel Capek or Karin Boye whose works sit alongside Aldous Huxley and Yevgeny Zamyatin. You could go even further back and look at Jules Verne and HG Wells. For detective novels, you have Wilkie Collins' and Edgar Allen Poe's work. Romance, it'd be Austen or Fanny Burney.

The further back you go, the less obvious genre definitions get - that's the beauty of prose work and how the novel developed.
posted by kariebookish at 7:52 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]

The Martian Chronicles!
posted by microcarpetus at 8:00 AM on August 11

The Virginian (Owen Wister) is the classic western and virtually started the genre.
The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, is unequaled in the haunted house genre.
Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Sherlock Holmes as mentioned above. Until you read them, it is hard to believe how many detectives are copies.
The Twelve Little Indians by Agatha Christie.
Ivanhoe for castles and knight stories.
Alice in Wonderland for children's fantasies.
H. Rider Haggard for adventures.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:44 AM on August 11

angelchrys: Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first sci-fi novel.

And it's a really interesting story, and Frankenstein's monster is sadly played as some huge half-wit in modern portrayals (I'm looking at you, SNL).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:50 AM on August 11

Also, previously from 2008.

Here's a website focused on children's literature classics, which breaks down the books by category (Adventure Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Animal Fiction, Historical Fiction, Toy Fiction, and Fantasy Fiction), and Libraries Unlimited describing genre classics as a way to entice teens to read, with some examples.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:53 AM on August 11

Stephen King's Danse Macabre examines this question regarding the horror genre, though it also discusses movies (and maybe TV) and not just books. Some of his own novels should probably make the list as well. And, while we're talking about horror: Ray Bradbury (e.g. Something wicked this way comes) and Shirley Jackson (e.g. We have always lived in the castle). And Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca...

For fantasy, I'd also include Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series.
posted by rjs at 10:55 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]

John Dickson Carr's The hollow man is a classic locked room mystery.
posted by rjs at 12:49 PM on August 11

> Mystery lit: The Moonstone & The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (also noir lit), The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (infamously broke the "rules" of detective novels

I agree with those, but we have to get some Dorothy Sayers in there.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:55 PM on August 16 [1 favorite]

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