I agree with Olen Steinhauer that "capital-L Literature could be created from the tools of the thriller." (Perhaps we could just drop the "capital-L" and say instead that the thriller, or any any genre, is perfectly able to achieve "literary" status when in the hands of a good writer.) I also admire his honesty in admitting that "the subject of literary ambition, or more specifically, literary quality, is a hot-button topic, particularly in the world of genre writing. There's a deep-seated insecurity among genre writers, an insecurity I share."
It is surely the case that in the periodic skirmishes between the partisans of genre fiction and those of literary fiction the former are at least as likely to fire the first shots, attacking the former for their snobbery, their failure to recognize that so-called literary fiction is just as dependent on convention as any form of genre writing. As Steinhauer suggests, such defensiveness does seem to reveal a certain insecurity, however "deep-seated." It should be clear enough by now that "literary" writers have long abandoned a similar disdain for the conventions of genre fiction. Elements of SF and detective fiction abound in much contemporary fiction, especially among writers thought of as "experimental." (Writers like Thomas Berger or Robert Coover love to play around with these conventions, and who would consider Jonathem Lethem or Michael Chabon to be hostile to genre?)
But if Steinhauer and other genre writers really want to produce "great art," they're going to have to get beyond the assumptions about what makes great art not just great but "art" to begin with that are revealed in this post. "Bad art is distracting without being provocative," he writes. "It tells us things we already know, and know consciously." Presumably "good art" would do the opposite. It would "provoke" by telling us what we don't know. But only bad art "tells us things" in the first place. Good art does indeed provoke, but it does so by providing us with a disinctive kind of experience, not by "telling," by "saying something." And what art offers is not knowledge--either direct or implict--but an enhanced appreciation of what it means to be aesthetically "provoked."
Steinhauer continues in this line of thinking when he asserts that "Art that reinforces what's already fully accepted by the mainstream of our society is either bad art or propaganda. . .Sometimes the distinction is confusing, because bad art can be masked in wonderful prose, great acting or cinematography (see Leni Riefenstahl). But we have to see beyond this and ask what it's revealing to us." Again, one can only presume that, in Steinhauer's view, "wonderful prose, great acting or cinematography" becomes "art" only when it does not reinscribe "what's already fully accepted by the mainstream of our society." Art has to do not with a superior use of the medium in question--written language, film--but with the "message" the medium might convey in its own particular way.
Steinhauer is on firmer ground when he concludes that "Power is what it's about. Good and great art have the power to transform in some way." I would agree that an aesthetic experience involves sensing the "power" of good/great art, and even that a form of transformation is involved. No doubt for many, such transformation does mean "transforming how you look at existence, how you look at your life." But no art is going to provoke this kind of change if it simply seeks to affect beliefs and attitudes through making "statements." The power of the aesthetic, at its most compelling, strengthens our powers of perception, enriches our sense of what it means to be alive.
Genre fiction ought to be just as capable of expressing such power as literary fiction. But it doesn't come from any particular sort of plot or any specific way of creating character or through pursuing the right kind of important theme. It occurs when the artist disregards the imperative to "communicate" altogether and focuses instead on the ways in which his/her medium and its formal possibilities can be explored and expanded. When the integrity of the artist's creation is more highly prized than whatever it might be supposed to "tell" us. Ultimately, powerful art communicates nothing, but it is a "nothing" that is also everything.