Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Genre Writers - Slumming? That Old Argument in a Fresh New Light

I was thrilled to pieces to merit a mention in Jordan Foster's article in Publishers Weekly last week, titled "Crime Fiction: Breaking the Wall."

In her piece, Jordan considers attitudes toward crime and mystery novels and their highbrow cousins, literary fiction. "The very act of categorizing brings with it an implicit ranking," she writes, "and the idea that anything shelved under “genre” is somehow lacking."

Here's my full notes for the interview in case you're interested:

• Why do you choose to write the types of novels that you do, which often focus on crimes and criminals?

Genre fiction is all about the behavior of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In mystery novels, criminals and their victims respond to motivations that test and illuminate who they really are. Crime and its associated drama is a quick path to deep character work, which I think is the most rewarding part of writing stories.

• How would you categorize your own work? How is categorized by your publisher and how do you think it’s categorized by the reading public?

I remember a conversation with my editor when she shared that they had decided to put “A Crime Novel” on the cover of the book rather than “A Mystery,” a decision I think was apt. These distinctions are meant to let the reader know what they’re in for, and the engine running my stories is not a whodunit but rather a story of crimes and the people who commit them, why they do it and how crime changes them and their victims.

Further distinctions are difficult. There’s a love story at the core of my book, as well as gentle themes like parenthood and community and friendship and even sewing. But my character curses like a sailor, does not shy from violence, and is very forthright about her sex life. One bookseller says I write “bondage cozies,” a term I adore. My publisher has settled on “hardboiled.”

It’s been very fun to find out what readers consider my book’s theme. My favorite was a nice woman who told me she loved my book and thought it was about time someone wrote about “how women over fifty ought to have all the sex they can.”

• When people say they “don’t read mysteries,” what do you assume they mean and why?

It’s like when people say they don’t read romance – these are distinctions in the mind of the reader, generally sowed by misguided messages about the nature of a particular genre. Romance and mystery are at the heart of many classics as well as contemporary works of literary fiction, of course, so we all read them.

I think what’s really at the heart of such a comment is a belief that genre fiction is lowbrow, less intellectually worthy than literary fiction. I also think that a book-club mindset has not helped – far be it from me to condemn any trend that gets people reading, but the tendency of such groups to glom onto “recommended” novels leads to a narrowing of tastes. It’s a difficult balance. We need to cherish and support our critics and publishers and book-sellers, while at the same time encouraging a breadth of readership as well as depth.

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