Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Guest Blogger: Steve Steinbock, president of the International Association of Crime Writers

John here.

It’s a pleasure to introduce Steve Steinbock. Steve is a theologian, educator, and authority on the history of detective fiction. His reviews, interviews, and columns have appeared in The Strand Magazine, Audiofile, Crime Time, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and The Armchair Detective. He is currently president of the International Association of Crime Writers. He is the author of several books on Jewish philosophy, history, and Bible. His first published short story will be appearing in the March/April issue of Ellery Queen. You can read his weekly (Friday) column, “Bandersnatches,” at Criminal Brief: the Mystery Short Story Web Log Project (

What’s Your Genre?

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is not one of Mark Twain’s more famous books. But it has a special place for me because of two little story elements. The first is that it contains what I’m fairly sure is the first use of fingerprint analysis to appear in fiction. The second is the wise and witty manner in which the author shook up my conceptions of race. I was taken with the character of Roxy, a woman who – because one of her great-grandparents was black – was considered black, and born into slavery.

To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro.

This really struck me at the time. And it still strikes me today. I was taught in high school anthropology that humankind could be divided into four “races” – Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Australoid. The very concept of race strikes me at best as simplistic, artificial, and pointless. I had a friend back then who considered himself Black (probably because he had always been told that he was Black) even though three of his biological grandparents were pasty-faced northern Europeans. Heck, I could never pass as Hispanic even though Spanish was the native tongue of my mother’s parents. And can my children claim to be African American because their great-grandmother was Moroccan?

Categories of race serve as a means to identify human remains, and as a way to identify geographic origins. But as practical divisions of people they are pretty arbitrary and are probably a lot more destructive than they are helpful. The same can be said of genres. Just as skin tone, skull shape, and DNA markers are used to categorize people, plot elements, settings, style, and character types are used to categorize books.

I’m not ready to toss the whole notion of genre out the window. When I go into a bookstore, I know that if I narrow my search to the section called “Mystery” (or “Crime Fiction” in some stores, especially in Britain) I’ll be more likely to find what I’m looking for. I’m a proud defender of that much-maligned type of literature called “Detective Story.” But when we use terms like Mystery, Thriller, Crime Novel, etc., what are we really saying?

This thing we call a “genre” is really a complex clustering of traits and characteristics. Voice, tone, and atmosphere may be part of one set of traits. Character types – FBI profilers, village spinsters, average-Joe-in-the-wrong-place, women in peril, gentleman thieves, tormented ex-cops – these are part of another cupboard of traits. If you can, think of all crime/mystery fiction as hovering in a three-dimensional field of Venn-diagrams, overlapping non-concentric circles of description. Like Pudd’nhead Wilson’s fingerprint collection, no two are the same.

Genres are the invention of the marketplace. They help booksellers better shelve their products. They help publishers precisely target specific types of readers. They help lazy shoppers like me to identify what books we’ll most likely enjoy. Genres help us. For me, genre is a subject of pride. But it’s important to remember that every book, like every person, is ultimately an individual deserving of an identity free of labels.

While there are some writers – and many readers – who think they’re too big for it, this umbrella we call “Crime fiction” covers a pretty wide area. There is room enough under its shelter for hard-boiled Private Eye novels, traditional cozies, techno-thrillers, espionage, psychological suspense, fair-play puzzlers, crime capers, and police procedurals. Are Dumas, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens “Crime” writers? To the chagrin of most literary elitists, I would think so. Are they in the same category as, say, Sue Grafton or James Patterson? Does a cozy mystery involving antique collectors or crime-solving felines belong in the same class as Paul Auster or Jorge Luis Borges?


marta said...

I have so much trouble assigning a genre to my work. I just want it to be a book, but it seems when I approach an agent, I should have some idea where my book would go on the shelf. Getting this label right seems important because if I get it wrong, I will approach the wrong agent and get nowhere. The descriptions in many agent guides often don't help. For example, does fantasy include magical realism? When does a novel that contains fantastical parts change from being literary to fantasy?

Then there is this label--women's fiction. I don't even know what to make of that.

Donis Casey said...

I used "Puddin'head Wilson" as a device in my last book - the story helped the sleuth solve the murder. Twain was a remarkable observer of human foibles.