There are a lot of different ways to measure the success of a novel. Sales, certainly. Lasting cultural impact counts. Influence on future writers is another great metric. A slightly more subtle but no less important aspect is an assessment of the barriers the book breaks through; the changes it causes in its genre. Sometimes the destruction of convention in a novel is obvious and immediately sensational, sometimes it takes years or decades for it to become clear—but the result is the same: Novels that broke through conventions in their genre and changed everything. Here are five of the best.
Fadeout, by Joseph Hansen
Convention Busted: Tough guys are always straight.
The detective novel rarely to stray too far from certain parameters: the violent universe, the twisty mysteries, the unreliable allies and unpredictable enemies—and the capable, macho protagonist who is equal parts tough and cerebral. Fadeout, published just a year after the Stonewall Riots helped launch the modern LGBTQ rights movement, features a detective character who is not only openly gay, but still the typically tough, capable man detectives always seem to be. Today it might be hard to imagine how unusual it was to have a gay character in such a traditionally heterosexual role, not written to be flamboyant and comical—but the good news is that today you can also enjoy this fantastic novel simply as one of the best mysteries ever written.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delaney
Convention Busted: Sci-fi can’t be literary.
It’s fair to say Dhalgren is like a science fiction Finnegan’s Wake, equal parts mesmerizing and frustrating. Dreamlike, written in a lyrical and off-center style, riddled with allusions and references to myths and poetry, and designed to be maddeningly circular (the opening and closing lines of the book are each half of a sentence, coming together to form a full thought when you circle through them), this story of a broken world and a dying city is undoubtedly a difficult book to read. It’s also one that broke all the SFF conventions and elevated science fiction from pulpy tales of space marines and rocket men into the realm of true literature.
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Convention Busted: Alternate history isn’t serious.
The works of Philip K. Dick continue to be popular, including his novel The Man in the High Castle, which took the previously disreputable and underused trope of alternate history and turned it into something literary and remarkable. Jumping off from a version of history where the United States and its allies were conquered by the Axis Powers, it wasn’t the first alternative history novel ever written, but it was the first to take the trope seriously, to elevate it to a literary status and develop a fully realized universe from the “point of departure” in its version of history. So complex and layered is the novel—to the point that it contains a fictitious novel within the story that tells an alternate history in which the Axis Powers lost the war—it singlehandedly established alternate history as more than a stunt.
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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
Convention Busted: Mysteries must be fair.
Perhaps the most notorious mystery novel of all time, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd remains controversial. Is it a massive cheat? A genius twist? Did Christie break the rules, the unspoken agreement between reader and author, or did she simply seize upon the single greatest subversion of expectations ever composed? To get into the details of the twist would ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read the novel yet, but suffice to say The Murder of Roger Ackroyd destroyed the idea that the reader of a mystery novel should always have everything they need to solve the mystery themselves—something Christie never bought into.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Convention Busted: Nonfiction and novels don’t mix
In Cold Blood was a monumental achievement—Capote was reportedly upset he didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize that year, and it’s easy to see why. In Cold Blood established a whole new genre, the nonfiction novel. In dazzling, masterful prose Capote tells the story of an actual murder, created from years of interviews and research (assisted by none other than his friend Harper Lee). Today it stands as his crowning achievement, and the first nonfiction novel in history.
The greatest books change the literary world forever, opening doors for those that follow. What did we miss?