I’m here today, in part, to air a grievance. And to do it at some length. In fact, in two parts.
I write whodunnits. I work hard at it. I do the best I can every single day and usually wind up tossing half of my work. I am perpetually faced with something I have no idea in the world how to write, and I write it anyway. Once in a while, I think, I do it reasonably well.
But, like everyone who writes crime fiction, I know that I’m looked down upon. I’m a “genre” writer. I practice my craft in a downscale literary ZIP code, where there are cars parked on the lawn and the houses lean a little and the children usually have stuff on their upper lip. My stories, even the best of them, according to certain people, are not . . . actually . . . books.
The crime fiction ZIP code. You can’t see our beat-up cars because the banks foreclosed on our lawns.
Some of the people who write, edit, publish, and criticize so-called “literary fiction” look down on people like me. We’re not quite real writers. They see themselves atop the high, white marble towers of literature in which they and their readers live, raising knowing eyebrows at each other and tossing off quips while we genre mutts drag ourselves around in the mud on our elbows, grunting at each other and squabbling over chicken bones and the occasional bright bead.
If you’re a reader of crime fiction, you’ve probably come up against this attitude, too. There are people in my life, and probably in yours, who, when they ask what you’re reading and learn that it’s a “whodunnit,” pause for a second, make a sort of Downton Abbey sound like, “Euh,” and then ask, “Is it interesting?” As though (a) it would be a waste of time to come up with a better question for someone on your reading level, and (b) it can’t possibly actually be interesting. In any serious way, that is. For a serious person.
A seriously stupid question.
These people try to build literary fences around us, as though our books might somehow cohabit with their books and accidentally make them, you know, interesting. Nonfiction and literary fiction receive serious and relatively frequent newsprint, but genre fiction is reviewed in a modest little column that appears on odd-numbered Thursdays in months without an “R” in their name.
They restrict our books to their own little ghettos in bookstores, too – the aisles of which I’m happy to say, often have more customers in them than some other aisles I could name. Because that’s the dirty little secret. A medium-selling mystery outsells a medium-selling lit-fic novel, and genre fiction has a really uncomfortable way of taking out longterm leases on the top rungs of the bestseller lists. But you, know, that’s because ordinary people buy them.
Defiantly ordinary reader.
Those of us who write thrillers and whodunnits can get a little defensive about being classified as literary invertebrates. For one thing, we write an awfully broad and complex spectrum of books to be crammed into a one or two-word description. We write the kind of classic puzzles, dependent on clues and timetables, that marked the s0-called “Golden Age.”
We write hard-boiled private eyes, we write cooking mysteries like Murder In the Yeast or Chili Con Carnage. Or craft mysteries like The Dropped Stitch of Death. Or elaborate, amazingly literate mysteries set in the Louisiana bayous, like those of James Lee Burke. Or character-steeped police procedurals like Henning Mankell’s. Or flawed half-villains and their sometimes treacherous friends, like Patricia Highsmith’s characters. We write night-black noir, like Jim Thompson and Ken Bruen.
The House of Crime.
It this genre were a single house, it would need rooms for Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Harry Bosch, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Father Brown, Kinsey Millhone, Commissario Brunetti, Arkady Renko, Sam Spade, Easy Rawlins, Jack Reacher, Lew Archer, Lydia Chin, Flavia de Luce, Precious Ramotswe, V.I Warshawski, Inspector Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dave Robicheau, Rabbi David Small, Brother Cadfael, Father Brown, and literally thousands of others. The house would need a lot of bedrooms, and it’s hard to imagine the conversation at the dinner table, because these people don’t really have much in common.
I’ve barely scraped the surface, and I could go on all day. If this is a genre it’s so broad and varied that the people who chose the word need to go back and come up with another.
And if you doubt that the word is pejorative, a few weeks ago J.A. Jance, a writer who has sold more than twenty million books, called the college from which she graduated and volunteered to put in a month working in their writing program. She was told, and this is a quote, “Oh, no, we don’t do anything with GENRE fiction; we only do LITERARY fiction.”
Why the negative judgment? What is it about so-called genre books, including whodunnits, that gets the literary highbrows’ knickers so twisted?
My first theory is that it’s just another manifestation of the eternal human fact that everybody needs somebody to look down on. Obviously, this thought isn’t original with me, but I defy anyone to make the case that this isn’t a universal and instinctive desire. It’s why the few all-first-class airlines, like MGM Grand, have all gone broke. The problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough people who could afford it. The problem was that there was no tourist class for the people in the front of the plane to feel superior to. What’s the joy of stretching out in first with your foie gras if there aren’t a bunch of grunts in back, folded up like paper clips and eating K-rations and envying you? What’s the fun of boarding the plane first, if no one is boarding second?
So here’s my second theory.
The term whodunnit.
I’ll get to that in Part Two.