I tend to agree with you, Frank.Although I've seen examples on a case-by-case basis that seem to be exceptions. And I'm not sure one can count first novels, in which an author previously unknown to most readers is able to bridge the gap successfully; I'm thinking of Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife." I also think of SF writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Samuel R. Delany, whose writing is *always* of high literary quality no matter what they put their mind to: it's almost irrelevant that both started out to be known as SF writers. They've both been "genre-breakers" for a long time.One bit of history which possibly proves your suspicion: In the late 60s and early 70s, there was the "New Wave" in science fiction, which was a deliberate and self-conscious attempt on the part of many SF writers to bring "mainstream fiction" literary values to their genre, including avant-garde writing techniques and styles. This opened a lot of artistic doors for SF; not that SF before that was completely non-literary, but it wasn't intentionally literary either. Some key writers who emerged from this period, many of whom also later wrote crime fiction and/or "mainstream" novels, were: LeGuin, Delany. Kate Wilhelm, Roger Zelazny, Philip K. Dick, and others.It was a boom time. SF lately has some good new writers; although it seems to me lately that fantasy has gotten stuck in a post-Tolkein rut, and only dug itself deeper. Again, with some excellent exceptions.I think perhaps that the "hardboiled" detective novel had had a similar impact on crime fiction, a couple of decades earlier.As for plotting in crime fiction, there are conventions, surely. But Chandler's plots are often illogical and not very tightly wrapped up; it's his characters and the sheer beauty of his writing that keep you coming back for more.So, while I agree with your thought, I also think that there were and are some writers who happened to start out in genre fiction, but had they started out in mainstream fiction they would have been just as good. Which has been my point in many similar discussions: Great writing is great writing, period, no matter where you find it. A great writer's gifts transcend the genre being written in. Which leads me to my other refrain: There's often writing that is as good or even better in the genres than there is in the mainstream. It's the mainstream who tend to be ambitious about "fine art literature," and who tend to be snobs about "genre," not the other way around.
Reading the review in yesterday's Times* (Sat) of Douglas Kennedy's latest book reminded me that his first two were very good genre thriller books, but he has now turned into a more "literary" author.*That's the Times, not the NY Times.
The distinction between "literary" and "genre" fiction is complicated but, in my humble opinion, a large portion of the issue involves somewhat arbitrary labels that have been artificially manipulated by two forces: academia and publishers. For example, there is a reason why Ursula Le Guin's THE DISPOSSESSED and THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS now have the stamp of acceptability (i.e., "literary") on them: academia (that self-important defender of all things literary) has belatedly embraced those books. Moreover, there is a reason why Atkinson's novels, for one example, are "cross-over" successes and carry with them both labels: publisher marketing (because the label "mystery" now translates into better sales than the label "literary"). The final judgment to be adjudicated through time involves something more significant than academia's pronouncements and publishers' marketing strategies: quality of the books, and discerning readers. Quality books (i.e., those with "literary" merit, whatever that subjective term may actually mean) will find their way to readers, and whether or not they are labelled "literary" or "genre" fiction matters little to the readers who are merely seeking out the best books. After all, life is short and there are far too many books; therefore, readers recognize the need to seek out and enjoy the best books and, in doing so, the readers should try to ignore academia's and publishers' labels.