There’s been a lot of talk about genre in the air recently (well, really, when isn’t there?) — what it means, whether it’s changed, whether it’s even useful or important anymore. But no matter what is said, there’s still that lingering stigma that keeps worthy works of genre (for clarity, we’re mostly talking fantasy and science fiction, with a little historical fiction, mystery and crime thrown in for good measure) from ascending to full classic status: being taught in high schools, appearing on all-time best-book lists, etc. Some genre novels have already crossed the border into pure classic territory — Brave New World, Slaughterhouse-Five and 1984 are all genre and established classics by any measuring stick, The Lord of the Rings is so ubiquitous and grand that it’s forced itself into the canon, and let’s not forget that Wuthering Heights is a ghost story, and so, of course, is Beloved. To add to that list, here are 25 genre novels that should be considered classics. Add even more, if that’s your desire, in the comments.
Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
Ah, Angela Carter, you can do no wrong, and all the world should know it. This spellbinding novel follows a beloved aerialiste who is also half swan, and the journalist who runs off with the circus, bent on discovering the truth. Full of myth and magic and delight, and also postmodern playfulness and political power.
Embassytown, China Miéville
One of the leaders of the Weird Fiction movement, you can always count on Miéville for some strange brilliance. This novel, which won the 2012 Locus Award for best Science Fiction novel of the year, is concerned, among other things with language itself: the main character, who returns home after many years, is a living simile in a tongue she no longer speaks. Not surprising, since it takes two mouths. In any event, things soon begin to unravel, as things often do, and the result is a gem of a novel in any language.
Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
Lem’s weird, surrealist space novel is a classic of sorts for those in the know, but epidemically under-read. The book vacillates between beautifully ruminative and action-packed exciting, as the inhabitants of a space station deal with the clones of their loved ones that the sentient planet they’re on continually sends their way. Also, best depiction of an alien sea that has ever been committed to print.
The Island of Doctor Moreau, H.G. Wells
Wells is probably best known for The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds — classics in their own right. But to my mind, this bizarre book is his greatest achievement, dubbed by Borges an “atrocious miracle,” and impossible to scrub from one’s mind.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Already a classic in some circles perhaps, but let’s be real — the more time goes by, the more it’s essential that everybody read this book.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
It’s kind of unfair, because this gorgeous historical novel about a blind girl and a reluctant Nazi youth in WWII just came out this year, but I’m calling it as a classic now. Luminous beyond measure.
The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey
Tey’s 1951 novel is widely praised as one of the best crime novels of all time, but has never really crossed over into genre-blind classic. A shame, because it incorporates history, mystery, crime, and the way we construct the truth into a brilliant, important work.
Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
All right, so this isn’t a novel. But I really couldn’t make a list of genre-ish books that should be world renowned classics without it. If you’ve been even a casual reader of this space, you know we’re all obsessed with Kelly Link here — her irreverent, brilliant stories mix up magic and life, mystery and pop culture, faeries and the ache of adolescence. Also excellent is her upcoming collection Get in Trouble, so get your paws on that if you can.
The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
It’s not as though The Blue Flower isn’t acclaimed — the historical novel won the 1997 National Book Critics Circle award and is considered by many to be her best work. But I never see it mentioned outside of historical novel lists, and it should be — the story of a young poet, his wild family and his oft-questioned adoration for a simple girl, it’s such a perfect look at intelligence and love and the way we view these things, presented in vignettes like little glittering baubles of brilliance.
In the Woods, Tana French
The first in everyone’s favorite series of contemporary literary thrillers. It’s well on its way to becoming a classic, but just thought I’d give it that extra nudge.
The Famished Road, Ben Okri
This fantastical novel won the Booker in 1991, but I never hear anyone talk about it. But they should; it’s a glorious thing, narrated by a spirit child who is attached to the phenomenal world. Also, fun fact, the inspiration behind Radiohead’s “Street Spirit.”
No Beast So Fierce, Edward Bunker
A crime novel with a slant, from someone who should know: Bunker served multiple jail sentences — he was once the youngest-ever inmate at San Quentin — and also wrote multiple books and screenplays. This one, tense and psychologically complex, follows a just-released convict as he tries to integrate himself into the “straight” world, and manages to be a compelling portrait of a man and a scathing condemnation of the system and a satisfying crime novel all at once.
The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go gets all the love these days, and maybe The Remains of the Day picks up the scraps, but The Unconsoled might be the best (and most difficult, and most rewarding) of Ishiguro’s novels. Or worst, depending on whom you ask — but when a novel is this polarizing, you know it’s pushing some essential buttons. Those crazy, psychological mystery/Proustian dream-state buttons. Does everyone not have those?
Pig Tales, Marie Darrieussecq
A delightfully bizarre novel in which a masseuse begins to turn into a pig. Later she meets a werewolf. It’s all very French.
Kindred, Octavia Butler
Here’s another book and writer you’ll already be familiar with if you’re a regular reader here. Sorry for the repeat, except not sorry at all, because this book is a double-whammy when it comes to genre — it’s a time travel novel that sends our protagonist, a 26-year-old black woman named Dana, back to the antebellum South, where she has to battle her way back towards her present. It’s safe to say that Butler is familiar to anyone who calls themselves an SF nerd, but it’s long past time for the wider world to pay attention.
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
A contemporary Gothic mystery destined for the history books.
Arthur & George, Julian Barnes
Barnes’s great novel is a retelling of a real-life mystery (the “Great Wyrley Outrages”) that Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle actually solved at the turn of the 20th century. Actually, I’m comfortable saying that everything by Julian Barnes should be canonized.
The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe
What genre even is this book? Some kind of surrealist Kafka-esque fantasy, perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s an incredible novel that is more worthy of classic status than many books that already hold it. A man wandering through the dunes, is tricked and trapped inside a hole, where he must, with the help of the hole’s other inhabitant, spend every day beating back the sand so he can live another day of beating back the sand. That sounds upsetting, and it is, but it’s also a novel you’ll never forget.
Among Others, Jo Walton
A spellbinding novel told through the journals of a girl coming to terms with her own power, this book is fully invested in both family and fantasy: the discovery of, the living with, the pain of, the magic of both.
Duplex, Kathryn Davis
Davis’s slim novel is a mega-bonkers fantasy that uncorks what it’s like to be a young girl, and what it’s like to grow up from that girlhood, at the same time as it investigates robots and sorcerers without souls. How does she do it? She must be a sorceress herself. An ensouled one, of course. Maybe doubly so.
The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
A speculative detective noir, set during an alternative version of the Harlem Renaissance, that investigates race in detective novels and elsewhere, all through the unusual world of elevator inspecting.
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
Certainly a classic of SF, but less famous in the outside world (as far as I can tell) than her Earthsea cycle or The Left Hand of Darkness. I’ve no quarrel with either of those masterpieces, but only humbly offer that this one, a baldly political but captivating unpacking of the concept of utopia, should join the ranks of the all-time classics.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Clarke can tome with the best of them, and this novel, with its evil faeries, warring magicians, and footnotes aplenty, deserves top shelf treatment.
Pure, Andrew Miller
This 2011 historical novel, set in pre-revolutionary France, follows an engineer tasked with clearing an overflowing graveyard from a Parisian neighborhood. Macabre, perhaps, but so brilliantly written, so modern and powerful and vivid, that it deserves its place in any canon.
Dealing with Dragons, Patricia C. Wrede
I’ve steered away from children’s literature or YA on this list, but as the last entry, I just can’t help myself. Every child, and especially every girl-child, should read this book. It is better than Harry Potter. Wrede’s Princess Cimorene is a kick-ass princess who doesn’t want to learn the proper places to scream during a giant attack or how to host a dinner party, so instead she runs away to be a dragon’s princess, where she can organize the library, study Latin, and make cherries jubilee. It’s a feminist fairy-tale mash-up that is really essential reading for anyone. Rant over.