50 Great Genre-Bending Books Everyone Should Read

Sometimes, it seems as though the arguments about genre — be it poetry vs. fiction, fiction vs. nonfiction, literary fiction vs. SF vs. fantasy vs. mystery vs. vs. vs. — will never end. So why not just take yourself off the board entirely? After all, marketing professionals aside, does anyone really care what genre they’re reading if the book is good? After the jump, 50 genre-bending novels guaranteed to enthrall you, whether you’re a literary fiction snob or a die-hard fantasy nerd. Enjoy without judgements!

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Bluets, Maggie Nelson

This gem of a book, an ode to the color blue that winds up being a passionate story, is technically classified as an essay — but it’s also undeniably poetry, and to my reading, a novel. It’s fierce and beautiful in both mind and heart.

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The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Sebald’s work is as notoriously unclassifiable as it is notoriously amazing: his novels are essayistic travelogues that encompass memoir, history, biography, fiction and (often) small, black and white photographs, some doctored, some not. This novel is perhaps the best of his oeuvre, though I recommend them all.

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American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is a habitual genre-bender, but this novel is one of his best: an American adventure story populated by the ancient gods and goddesses of global faiths. Part fantasy, part myth, part Americana, all pure joy.

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The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson

Novels in verse perhaps can’t help but be genre-bending — it’s all there in the title. But in this gorgeous little volume, Carson goes even further, spinning her half-real, half-imagined myth, and turning one of Hercules’s minor labors into a classic teenage love story, with monsters.

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Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Mitchell’s most famous novel has a slightly different take on genre-bending: instead of genre fusion, the reader gets a tasting platter, cycling through, among other things: epistolary high seas adventure, crime thriller, SF, post-apocalyptic quest. What genre is the novel as a whole, then? Who can say?

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Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson

A techno-fantasy focusing on the adventures of a contemporary Islamic hacker fighting government censorship — and oh, also there are djinni.

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Gun, with Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem

Lethem’s first novel is half hardboiled crime novel, half bonkers science fiction — or whatever it is you call it when your smart-talking informant is a gunslinging kangaroo.

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Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link

Kelly Link has thrown just about everything you can think of — fantasy, horror, fairy tale, literary fiction, science fiction mystery — into her cauldron, and added what I can only imagine is some secret ingredient that makes every story a sparkling triumph.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Clarke’s epic alternative historical novel imagines 19th century England if magic, (and more importantly, magicians) existed openly. Part fantasy, part pastiche, part realist historical novel, part romance — plus 185 footnotes thrown in for good measure.

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Zone One, Colson Whitehead

A literary zombie novel!

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Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino

Calvino is, in many ways, a genre unto himself. But this collection in particular is a surprising set of influences: each of these literary, fabulist (and fabulous) stories is based on a scientific principle, creating, almost, an entirely new world.

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Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Perhaps it’s the fact that it takes “Snow White” as its source material and starting point, but there’s something magical lingering around the edges of Oyeyemi’s most recent novel, which investigates race, “passing” and the tragedy of the “evil” stepmother. Or take it from Porochista Khakpour, who called the novel an “unapologetic, all-encompassing contradiction-celebration: the story-allegory and real-surreal gyre.” Either way, read it, and soak in all the bendy brilliance.

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Red Moon, Benjamin Percy

A werewolf epic slash political thriller slash literary horror novel that you won’t be able to put down.

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The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster

Funny, postmodern meta-mysteries that mix the tried-and-true hardboiled detective novel trappings with something altogether more strange and subversive.

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Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

Eco-horror? Mold-based psycho-thriller? Whatever it is, this science-based mystery/SF/adventure/weird fiction novel will have you planted (ha ha) to your chair.

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Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

But of course: Vonnegut’s most famous novel is a semi-autobiographical historical satire — with, you know, time travel.

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Perdido Street Station, China Mieville

Steampunk meets fantasy from one of the preeminent contemporary practitioners of Weird Fiction. As Mieville himself described the novel, it’s “basically a secondary world fantasy with Victorian era technology. So rather than being a feudal world, it’s an early industrial capitalist world of a fairly grubby, police statey kind!”

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Gutshot, Amelia Gray

Gray’s most recent collection of very short fictions has a little something for everyone: horror, fantasy, the horror/fantasy that comes with everyday relationships, Kafka-esque psychological meltdowns, comedy, fable and fairy tale. Plus enough raw language and strange emotional body-blows to leave you, yes, feeling gutshot.

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Neuromancer, William Gibson

This one invented its own genre, a mash-up of SF and techno-babble: cyberpunk. Now, we know what that means, but at the time (1984), the book was a radical new invention.

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Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes

In this novel/biography/fictional autobiography/essay/postmodern investigation of fiction itself, amateur scholar Geoffrey Braithwaite makes use of every mode of language and literature in his arsenal to get at his subject, Flaubert — and in the process creates a book that no one really expected him to create, least of all himself.

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House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

A horror/love story that is unlike any horror or love story ever written before.

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick

A 526-page historical novel with pictures? Or as its author described it, “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.” It was, incidentally, the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal (which is generally for picture books).

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The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

A time travel romance novel that both you and your mom will like. Talk about a genre-bender.

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore

This story — which spans two graphic novels as well as several comics — started out as, as Moore put it, a “Justice League of Victorian England” but wound up as much, much more, a gyre of influences and characters from across fiction. Where else would you find a gang war between Moriarty and Fu Manchu? I ask you.

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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami

Many of Murakami’s novels play with genre, but in this one, the mix is right there in the title: the book’s chapters alternate between two parallel universes. The “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” sections (though they’re never named as such) are SF-like, while the “End of the World” sections are dream-like and surrealist. Both ultimately converge to completely mess with your mind.

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11/22/63, Stephen King

King has dabbled in just about every genre, but this one in particular is all over the place: a historical/SF/thriller/fantasy/crime novel about a man who goes back in time to try to save JFK. To give you an idea, upon its release, the book won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller and was nominated for both the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

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Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake Shange

An affecting, lyrical novel and a delicious cookbook in one — but if you really want to understand these characters, don’t skip over the recipes. You must read them (and even better, make them) all.

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Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

Just what you’ve always wanted: a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that’s also a murder mystery, from one of the greatest mystery writers of our time. Oh, you didn’t know you wanted that? Well, you do now.

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The Keep, Jennifer Egan

A Kafka-esque crime novel with some gothic elements, plus some magical realism, plus a healthy dose of good old literary fiction and postmodern narrative layering. Brilliant and mind-bending.

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The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips

Half novel, half play (long lost Shakespearean play, at that) and all postmodern delight.

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Reality Hunger, David Shields

“Genre is a minimum security prison,” writes Shields in this book, which is described on the cover as a manifesto, but which is also an essay, a meta-narrative, a literary collage. It’s a genre-bending book about genre-bending.

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The Princess Bride, William Goldman

A romance/fantasy/high seas adventure/epic/comedy/fairy tale/postmodern work of genius. Having only seen the movie is, as ever, inconceivable.

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The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon

A detective story set in an alternate version of America in which part of Alaska was set up as a refugee settlement for European Jews on the run from the Nazis, which won both the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Mystery Novel but also the SF trifecta: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus. Not for nothing, but Chabon is the only writer to have won both the Hugo Award and the Pulitzer Prize. That’s some commitment right there.

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Beloved, Toni Morrison

A work of vivid, brutal historical/literary fiction that is also a retelling of a real event that is also a ghost story.

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The Teleportation Accident, Ned Beauman

A clever, manic hodgepodge of a novel, in which an undersexed set designer in 1930s Berlin tries to make a teleportation device (for an avant-garde play) that won’t explode, and winds up in a wacky, inventive caper that spans countries, not to mention genres — SF-noir-steampunk-slapstick-history. Or something!

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The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Michael Ondaatje

A revisionist history/deeply researched collage of the Old West disguised as a book of moving poetry/prose.

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2666, Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño is a constant genre-bender (just read his poems!) but why not note his epic posthumous magnum opus here — a book so big it almost can’t help but include a swath of genres, moving from academic satire to bildungsroman to police procedural to historical romance to mythic landscape. But of course, this does nothing to describe it.

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Crystal Eaters, Shane Jones

In this strange and psychedelic novel, the pages count down instead of up, so you’re always aware of how much time is left. Much like the people in this weird, mythic, fabulist, techno-future world, who are hoarding their crystals, trying to stay alive.

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The Just City, Jo Walton

In this novel, the goddess Athene is collecting thinkers, anyone who has ever prayed to live in Plato’s Just City, and gives them their chance. But of course, a philosophical thought experiment comes to life is never easy sailing, and when you try to do it with people from across five centuries, well. Part philosophy, part fantasy, part myth, all fascinating.

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This is Not a Novel, David Markson

Believe the title — this is not a novel, exactly, or a memoir, or a work of nonfiction, but something else all together, almost like a notebook of scribblings typed up and sent out into the world, investigations into art and self via bits of trivia and intrusions from the Writer. On second thought, rather than calling it not a novel, I’d say it is — it’s just everything else too.

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The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

A work of historical fiction narrated by Death. I don’t even know what you call that.

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The Book of the Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor

An incendiary work of “future fantasy” in which a superhuman woman named Phoenix is raised in a tower with other experiments — before, as she must, breaking free to change the world.

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The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes

This crazy and incredible novel features a time-traveling serial killer spurred on by the demands of an evil house in Depression-era Chicago. He kills “shining girls” until one of them recovers and begins to hunt the hunter.

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Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

You know all about this one: historical fiction slash romance slash science fiction slash a lot of sex featuring Scottish Highlanders.

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Radiance, Catherynne M. Valente

Okay, this book doesn’t come out until August, but how could I leave off a novel described as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system—very different from our own”? Especially one by the author of the excellent Fairyland books? I could not, is the answer.

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Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Here’s another one that’s so hefty it can’t help but span genres: the psychological novel, the campus novel, science fiction, adventure, drug narrative, informational pamphlet, film back catalogue — really the list (like the book) goes on and on.

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Weight, Jeanette Winterson

A retelling of the myth of Atlas and Hercules, a retelling of the myth of storytelling, a retelling of the myth of Jeanette Winterson. All in less than 200 pages.

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Libra, Don DeLillo

Another speculative history about JFK. As DeLillo himself writes in his introduction to the book: “Any novel about a major unresolved event would aspire to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I’ve altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters. Among these invented characters are all officers of intelligence agencies and all organized crime figures, except for those who are part of the book’s background. In a case in which rumors, facts, suspicions, official subterfuge, conflicting sets of evidence, and a dozen labyrinthine theories all mingle, sometimes indistinguishably, it may seem to some that a work of fiction is one more gloom in a chronicle of unknowing.”

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The King, Donald Barthelme

It’s the Knights of the Round Table as you’ve never seen them before — in World War II, seeking the Holy Grail which turns out to be an atomic bomb. With pictures! Only Barthelme could pull this one off, folks.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

Video games, epic nerds, Dominican history, and curses that function on all levels of reality: a true-to-life portrait of the inside of the swirling genres that make up reality in a certain kind of mind.