It Was Going So Well, and Then…

September 29th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

So the weather wasn’t perfect today, but it was nice. Not too hot, not too cool. The type of day where sitting outside is a true pleasure. Great lunch, crazy hummingbird dances, and the daily paper. And then we hit the sentence:

It seems that under every mystery writer’s skin beats the heart of a novelist who yearns to transcend the genre.

But it couldn’t stop there, oh no. There was another sentence:

Writing about Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, who spin tales of crime in New York and Boston, respectively, New York Times critic Caryn James describes them as “literary novelists who happen to write about criminal types, but whose work soars above genre fiction.”

T. Jefferson Parker, the author profiled by the Los Angeles Times doesn’t deny this is his ambition (the profile is, overall, nice but not too revealing). And that’s great. But is it really true that all mystery authors aspire to something seemingly greater? Is this longing peculiar to mysteries or is it true to all genre authors? And can it be that somehow genre fiction is lesser fiction? By what gauge is this possible?

We truly don’t understand the us-versus-them thing when it comes to writing. Somewhere there’s a point, sort of an “I know it when I see it” thing, that separates literary from genre fiction. It can be as simple as who represents, edits, or publishes the work. It can be a thematic issue. It could be a label derived by the press. But there’s an underlying implication that genre fiction is a lesser fiction. Less craft, less character development, less plot development, less, well, respect.

Sometimes genre fiction doesn’t help itself — there are titles published that owe more to marketing hooks than storytelling — but if you dip into enough literary fiction, it’s not all transcending of anything. There are some books, we are convinced, that are published because no agent or editor is bold enough to admit they simply have no idea what is going on in the story. If you don’t get it, it must be brilliant. This is how they get emperors to walk around naked.

It’s okay to want to transcend genre — pushing your boundaries should be exactly what you do. Just remember, when you get to the other side, it still comes down to the story.

File Under: Square Pegs