Genre Bashing

On Thursday afternoon, I encountered a pretentious coffeehouse on State Street. I did not know it was pretentious at the time. It was Thursday. I was existing in a pleasant miasmic swirl and I hadn’t ingested anything narcotic. I needed prodigious oil. The overwhelming need for coffee (red-eye flight, one hour of sleep) overwhelmed my abilities to detect yuppie factor. The below picture (about as close to a W.G. Sebald moment as I can offer) should give you a clue as to how zonked out I was:

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I bring this up not to knock down a Madison coffeehouse that is, in all likelihood, still finding its sea legs (or, this being Wisconsin, lake legs), but to suggest how such an autocratic atmosphere of Caucasians staring intently into a frighteningly similar series of grey laptops, no different from a cube farm really, might spawn or influence the conversation I observed between a humorless barista and a rather sour-faced thirtysomething (apparently one of the regulars):

“What’s going on at the Concourse?”

“Oh, it’s just a bunch of mystery writers. Some conference.”

“Mystery writers? What a bunch of dorks.”

“Well, I suppose it’s good for business.”

Now I was prepared to jump to the defense of mystery writers. After all, I have tried over the years to be a genre-blind reader and see no difference between a book categorized in the fiction section and one categorized in one of those other sections. And it pisses me off when a book is so readily dismissed because of its genre (or, if you’re a mainstream critic like Lev Grossman, you cling to it like a weekend hobby you might try out someday). As a exuberant conversational propagandist, I have done my damnedest over the years to get literary people, everyday readers, and pretty much anyone who reads to consider that the books shoved off into the back of the library or the bookstore are as genuine as their literary counterparts.

In fact, one of the reasons I had come to Bouchercon was to see if I could solicit ideas on how to beat genre ghettoization or perhaps get some thoughts from various people on why the great divide continues to exist. Could a literary guy like me, who goes out of his way to read widely and deeply, allemande with these mystery enthusiasts and work for a better tomorrow? Could we work to extend the conversation further?

But while I had great fun in Madison (if you ever go, you must see the cows that line down State Street and around the capitol; there are also beautiful trees and lakes), I ended up avoiding most of Bouchercon. Oh, there will be a small Bouchercon podcast. But if Bouchercon is the model for the mystery convention, I have no desire to go to one of these things again. There may have been a kernel of truth to what the two people at the cafe were talking about.

Perhaps there’s something metaphorical in the way the first interview I recorded at Bouchercon was seven minutes of conversational gibberish. (Then again, it may very well be Lee Goldberg’s fault. Or my own.)

As it turns out, the mystery writers and mystery enthusiasts I encountered, with only twelve notable exceptions (I did talk far and wide), have no interest in chatting with you unless you have read some obscure novelist. Dare to mention a mystery author who straddles the fence between mystery and fiction and you will be given a look normally reserved for a Mensa member preening down at the commonweal. I tried to talk with these folks with the apparently feeble string of mystery authors I had read. I mentioned Walter Mosley, Stanley Ellin, Laura Lippman, Ian Rankin, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Charles Willeford, George Pelecanos. That’s seven names right there. You would think that would be enough. And failing books, I was prepared to dip into my considerable film noir knowledge in an effort to find some common ground.

No such luck. I was greeted instead with exasperated sighs, guffaws, and a passive-aggressive contempt.

“If you haven’t read mysteries, then what are you doing here?” said one frumpy middle-aged woman, clutching a collection of books to her like the Babylonian Talmud. “Why don’t you go down State Street and drink with the college kids instead?” This was after I asked this woman if she knew of any mystery novelists, outside of James Ellroy, who might employ experimental style.

Well, with prissy elitist attitudes like that, I would, in fact, much rather talk to some drunken twentysomething in a Packers sweatshirt. His incoherent shouting would be more heartfelt. Is it any wonder why the genre isn’t taken seriously? Is it any wonder why no newspapers bothered to cover Bouchercon? (And after about twenty minutes of waiting around, I never did collect my press credentials. The security was so lax that I simply walked right into the Concourse with my gear.)

I talked with a number of mystery writers (among the twelve exceptions) about this issue. They claimed it was because much of the Bouchercon crowd was socially inept. They claimed any number of excuses. I suspect it has something to do with the idea that these people are pilloried at home when they read mysteries and that this is the only time that they are able to announce their interests. But why not stand proud for what you like every day? Why be ashamed when a humble enthusiasm is often infectious?

I don’t buy it. If these people are smart enough to read mysteries and become experts at them, then it follows that at least a few people among the crowd might be smart enough to recognize that the kind of strange hubris I have described above further margnizalizes the genre. It is this attitude that causes the two people at the coffeehouse to dismiss them. And it is this attitude that makes Bouchercon a colossal joke.

Of course, there will always be the books. And I’ll be happy to read them and suggest them to friends. Except I won’t be calling them mysteries. I’ll let the Bouchercon monomaniacs do that. They’re doing a fantastic job expanding the chasm.

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18 Comments

  1. “This was after I asked this woman if she knew of any mystery novelists, outside of James Ellroy, who might employ experimental style.”

    I’d be really intersted to know if you ever found the answer to this question.

  2. I have to admit that one of my pet peeves is “lit fic” folks who shit on genre – drives me up a wall. (As a mystery writer in a MFA program, I encountered this a lot. A lot.) But I have met pop fic people who shit on lit fic, which I find completely idiotic. There are varying degrees within each story that pushes them toward different genre walls, including the mystery/literary divide. I say divide, but I guess what I really mean is a gray neutral zone where many books stand – Pete Dexter’s “Train” or Daniel Woodrell’s “The Death of Sweet Mister” are just two examples. But the thing one has to admit is that there are far more lit fic shitters than pop fic shitters, and that will create an anomisity among many people who will go to the mat to forward the progression of genre. Those in the extreme of both sides of this issue can be compared to the extremists in the political divide; people with blinders on who can only see one point of view, and will dismiss the opinions of others to the detriment of the entire cause of literature. What one has to remember isthat the extremists may have the loudest voices, but they do not represent the majority.

    As for others within the mystery field who have tried an experimental style, I think you will find that there isn’t a large place for it at this time. A major reason Ellroy was able to execute the style of “White Jazz” was because he was already successful – and the novel worked. But if you had a mystery genre equivalent of John Barth, I don’t know if that writer would find an audience. Personally, I would love to see a new section of the mystery genre emerge in the same way that Slipstream has invigorated the Sci-fi genre. Will that ever happen? I guess that depends on how many people embrace the gray zones of genre.

  3. I also went to that place. They didn’t know what a macchiato was. If they’re not knowledgeable about their own product, I’m not exactly going to listen to them on the subject of books.

    I think it’s true that there’s some elitism around certain sub-genres of mysery writers. At one of the last panels of the Con (Ken Bruen and Four Kick-Ass Writers), the chestnut was raised about whether women’s writing merited the same serious consideration as men’s writing. Interestingly, some (not the panel) “defended” women by saying women could write books which were just as violent and chilling books as those written by men. Whereas I (and I suspect, the panel) would have preferred a discussion about why books that are not necessarily dark and violent are at least equally worthy.

    Some man I didn’t quite see (was it Joe Scarpato?) but who has my eternal gratitude, got p from the audience to say that it was women like Christie and Sayers who got him reading mysteries in the first place. Thank you for that!

  4. I’d hesitate to call Ellory experimental — hard to read comes to mind, lacking in emotion also pops up, at least in his last several novels — but I think you’d have to look beyond the style and look at the kinds of mysteries people are writing if you want something that deviates from the norm. I’m thinking about Scott Phillips’ wonderful Cottonwood and the Walkaway, or Michael Collins’ recent Death of a Writer, or even Daniel Woodrell (though I’d hesitate to call him a crime writer per se, though that’s where they shelve him) and his most recent novels Winter’s Bone, The Death of Sweet Mister, Give Us A Kiss…basically all of his Ozark-based novels. The lack of innovation in the crime genre is something that really bothers me — I can’t read another novel about a drunk PI, I just can’t; I’d rather eat my own liver — but I suppose the people who buy the books don’t care. They are more than happy to read a by the number mystery novel where, unless you’re a complete fucktard, you’re able to solve the crime 100 pages before the PI does or a crime novel where a cat, a fucking cat, helps solve the crime than they are something truly innovative or new, like Woodrell or Phillips. How many fucking mysteries is Spenser going to solve before a reader sits up and says “Why hasn’t he had any emotional growth in 35 years? And why doesn’t Hawk kill Susan Silverman so he and Spenser can finally have their twilight years alone?”

    Innovation and experiementation are out there, but the public wants serial killers, forensic wonks and cats. Fucking cats!

  5. I bow in the general direction of Arkansas at the mention of Daniel Woodrell. WINTER’S BONE is one of the best novels I’ve read in ages. It contains no drunken PIs or cats. The prose is sublime, and the story has the inevitability of myth.

  6. What kind of experimental did you have in mind? My edits are looking pretty damn experimental at the moment. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly on purpose at the moment. All hints welcome…

  7. Ed, First of all we need to get you on the road more often, into the Heartland where barristas tell it and the cube farm is owned by a limited liability corporation. After getting pushed around by middle aged ladies rising to genre defense I’m sure you’re ready to flee back to the Bay Area, but don’t. Soldier on. I can’t talk about the cat mystery thing without sounding like Otto Penzler, so I won’t. Get yourself to a tailgate party in Green Bay and ask who’s reading Carlos Fuentes. It’ll be fun.

  8. Why would “experimental style” be what the doctor ordered to rescue that genre from the doldrums? Surely there are other things that can lift a book above your average cat mystery.

    I could name a few mysteries I’ve read lately– say by Ryu Murakami or Susanna Jones– that seem to me as vigorous and surprising as any other current fiction I’ve come across. Perhaps people would just respond that those books aren’t mysteries, but that always seems circular to me. (Like what Kingsley Amis said about science fiction.)

  9. Genre distinctions are always more useful to readers than writers, I think. Certain kinds of readers want to know what they’re getting when they pick up a book and so to qualify as genre a book has to hit all, or at least most, of those notes. If it doesn’t the genre reader will be disappointed.

    So the problem with an “experimental” genre novel is that once you start monkeying too much with the formula you are probably no longer writing genre. HOUSE OF LEAVES certainly draws successfully on the conventions of the horror novel, but I doubt any bookstore would shelve it there. Walker Percy’s last book (THE THANATOS SYNDROME) was basically a mystery/thriller, but most mystery readers wouldn’t recognize it (I know this because I talk about that book at almost every appearance).

    There are many writers who write books that are firmly within the genre but transcend it in one way or another. Dexter and Ellroy have already been mentioned. John Burdett and Michael Gruber and Henning Mankell all write series books featuring police detectives but the characters and sharp prose would satsify anyone looking for a literary fix. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of examples

    I didn’t set out to be a “mystery writer” necessarily, but my own book is most often shelved in the mystery section and that’s fine with me. I’m happy to have my books called mysteries or thrillers or suspense novels. If that designation helps people get a handle on them, that’s great. But even though I wouldn’t call CAST OF SHADOWS “experimental” I’ve had several mystery lovers (including one at Bouchercon last year) bite my head off because they disliked the ambiguity in the story and because it doesn’t have a clearly defined hero. That’s okay too. If you don’t know anyone who hates your book, it just means not enough people have read it.

    Obviously I love a great genre read. It can be very satisfying to have the bad guys get theirs, and although I like to read all kinds of novels there aren’t enough people reading any books at all for me to get down on someone because they know what they like and want to keep going back to the same well, even if at the bottom of that well is a cat that solves mysteries by doing Sudokus or whatever. Heck, I order the exact same pizza from the exact same place every Friday night.

  10. I wrote a novel my publisher is calling “literary suspense.” I still don’t know where I belong–at the conference or the coffee shop. Maybe that’s why I stayed home.

  11. Nice photograph. Coffeehouses have come down a bit since the 18th century. Of course, things are much different in the big city. Here, we have African and Asian Americans staring at their laptops with blank intensity alongside their oblivious Caucasian brothers and sisters. As for not knowing what a macchiato is, after repeated aural assaults in the Starbuck’s at the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago, I’ll settle for a coffeeshop where the staff can pronounce “macchiato” correctly.

    Sorry you had a tough time with the mystery snobs. I’ve read five of the seven crime writers (it’s not called “mystery” anymore in up-to-date circles) you mentioned, and I regard three of them as terrific. If no one would talk to you about them, you picked the wrong people to talk to.

    ===================
    Detectives Without Borders
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home”

  12. I enjoyed reading this post, because most of the Bouchercon stuff on the crime blogs is pretty much “I met so-and-so and we hugged had a big laugh and everything was wonderful and great” and you just know that it isn’t that way for everybody.

  13. Well, thanks to Lev G and Time Magazine here I am at 7:00 AM not only reading what is fastly becoming my favorite blog but strangely enough (for me) responding.
    I have read anything and everything that came before me since I was five years old(trust me, that’s many years of reading) I was always a little snobbish regarding mysteries but five years ago I read Sayers and have become an avid fan of the genre. Nothing to say that mysteries(crime) can’t be great literature.
    Being new to this site, I have been reading the archives. A bit of trivia for those who wondered why Isabel Allende starts her novels on Jan. 08. ( It has nothing to do with Elvis:) On Jan. 8, 1981, Isabel received a phone call that her grandfather was dying. She began a letter for him that became THE HOUSE of the SPIRITS. Live to a ripe old age and you mind is filled with trivia.

  14. Wow, Ed, I’m surprised.

    I wasn’t at Bouchercon, but I made it to Thrillerfest and last year’s con in Chicago, plus a few smaller get-togethers and everyone I met, with very few exceptions, was friendly, smart, funny, generous, and open.

    But maybe my standards aren’t as high as yours. And maybe people can tell.

  15. I’m not a mystery writer, but worse (according to some) — a thriller writer — and I was at Bouchercon. And I have to say that, based on my own experience, you must have attended the Bizzaro world version of the conference.

    The people I met, readers and writers and publishing executives, were not only the exact opposite of socially inept, but were great conversationalists with knowledge about a broad range of topics, including politics, sports, writing, reading, mysteries and, yes, even “mainstream literature.”

    I’m frankly surprised that you encountered such hostility. Everyone I met was cordial and welcoming to a first timer like me. Bouchercon made me glad I turned from screenwriting to novels, glad to be in the company of so many generous writers, and glad I spent the money on hotel and plane fare to hang out with them.

    I’ll definitely be going again.

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