There’s a great piece by Kim Wright in The Millions on literary writers hurling themselves lemming-like off the cliff of literary fiction into the big, churning ocean of genre.

The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The PassageTom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.

What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a miniscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?

The answer has to be all of the above, plus more. Publishing has gone very quickly from being okay to being in serious, serious trouble. A whole lot of things are happening to it at once: technological change, competition from other media, the global financial crisis and the resultant drop in discretionary spending. In Australia, the collapse of the Borders and Angus and Robertson bookstore chains has seriously affected book sales,  and so has a leakage of the traditional book-buying customer base overseas. (Who couldn’t resist Book Depository, with their discounted books and free shipping? Awesome while it lasted but it laid waste to the bookselling marketplace). All this has led to an unprecedented sense of crisis in the book trade, and thus, of course, amongst authors too. Is it any wonder we’re all trying to chase what seems to be a shrinking pool of readers, by giving them what we think they want? (I feel like one of the fishermen in The Perfect Storm, with their boats loaded up with the latest fish-seeking technology, roaming the Grand Banks trying to find the last two or three fish.)

One of the interesting points Kim Wright’s article makes is the question of expectations: publisher expectations and reader expectations.

there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.”

So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing.

The issue of career building is a very real one: as publishing falters, it’s becoming clearer than ever that one thing the shift online enables – and practically makes essential – is the need four authors to build a readership. We used to rely on publishers to do that for us, but increasingly their ability to do that is limited. We’re already seeing authors being pushed to do more of that work themselves, through social media, Twitter, and (ahem) blogging. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives authors power and flexibility and encourages them to be more actively involved in building their career. But all that career-building activity takes time, ingenuity, commitment, imagination, pushiness and a thickish skin, something many writers, especially those with day jobs, lack.

The other question which interests me is the problem of reader expectations. As the comments string for this article makes clear, not all genre writers or readers are delighted to have the literary folks arriving on their turf.

“You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller’ but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller?

If it doesn’t, it can really annoy readers. Many of the genre forms are essentially problem-solving narratives. Crime fiction solves crimes. Romantic fiction makes matches. If you ignore this fundamental expectation, you do so at your peril. It’s all very well for publishers and publicists to put a genre cover on a book and flog it to the core readers of that genre, but if you don’t satisfy the fundamental expectations of the genre, you can’t be surprised if they hate your book and give it nasty reviews on Amazon.

This is not to say that literary writers shouldn’t explore genre, or even that they shouldn’t push its boundaries and fool around with generic expectations.  Of course they should, and more: why not try to work within the generic expectations and still bring something exceptional and exciting and new to it? But we shouldn’t regard genre fiction as some sort of cash cow that’s going to save us from the book apocalypse. Surely what we’re looking for is some sort of third way: uniting the best elements of genre fiction (page-turning narrative) with the best elements of literary fiction (social inquiry, elegant prose, sophisticated exploration of character and the human condition).