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Sharp Objects and genre blindspots

Genre fiction is often used to describe science fiction and fantasy, but everything fits into a genre. People tend to dismiss sci-fi as not belonging to the real world and following set formulas. I admit to similar prejudices with crime novels, particularly those with detectives or journalists trying to solve a murder. There are some twists and red herrings, the protagonist gets personally involved due to their issues but by the end of the story it is all neatly resolved and the murderer is revealed. This is the narrow-minded view I have of the crime genre.

Admittedly, I have not read much of it, preferring to focus on other genres. This is perhaps why my view of crime novels is limited in scope and why my view of an entire genre is reduced to the broadest strokes.

However, I did enjoy Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Well, enjoy is perhaps the wrong word. It’s a relentlessly bleak and grim novel with an oppressive atmosphere that gets under your skin. Even so, it was a book that made me re-evaluate my dislike of crime fiction. Flynn really takes her time to get into the psychology of her characters, so as much as you despise their choices you understand them. Added to a very unflattering view of dangerous small town America, this is a powerful statement that doesn’t so much subvert the crime genre but pushes it to the extremes.

The story of a journalist investigating a small town murder has become a cliche. The town that seems perfect but hides deadly secrets was a trope even before Twin Peaks. But this doesn’t matter in the case of Sharp Objects. Flynn’s writing is powerful and gripping and her characters are seriously messed up. The setting is the perfect place for the story to take place as it has emotional resonance for the characters. We feel the town is a trap and hides dark secrets because we see it through the eyes of the protagonist, who has some very intense issues with the place and with her family. It’s masterfully done.

It’s proven to me once again that’s it’s best to ignore my preconceived ideas of genres and just read books and hope they are good. Good writing and storytelling will shine through in any genre. A good writer will also twist and change genres to tell the stories they want to. Besides, genre is mostly there to find a place for the book to go in a shop. A talented writer can take a repeated, cliched story and breathe life into it, which is exactly what Gillian Flynn does with Sharp Objects.


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