Thursday, September 23, 2010

Formula or No Formula?

This week, I read with great interest the entries of my colleagues, Vicki and Rick. They disagreed on the state of the mystery genre, arguing specifically whether or not the contemporary mystery novel is (or is becoming) formulaic.

The discussion here is all about expectations—of readers, of editors, and, most importantly, of writers.

Rick is 100% correct when he writes of current industry standards, claiming editors are looking for series rather than stand-alones. Anyone in the business will tell you that. And that expectation makes sense: Few stand-alone novels are breakout books; just as few first series books turn profits. Even Dan Brown’s thrillers feature the same character. So editors are (at least financially) justified in their desire for series novels.

Vicki wrote of certain requisites books deemed “mysteries” must have, specifically taking offense to one blogger’s claim that a body early in the story is a must. This, to me, speaks to readers’ expectations. And I believe readers of contemporary crime fiction demand more from the books we write. I have often proclaimed my allegiance to Robert B. Parker. There are few “mysteries” in the Spenser novels; we read them to see how he will solve the crime, to see Spenser’s intellect at work, to see Spenser’s sense of right and wrong. As a reader, I sure as hell don’t need a body by page 50.

And as a writer, I’m sure not locked into any such formula. That’s painting by numbers, not fiction writing. The best crime novels of all time are about the human condition. This should be the writer’s expectation. The Great Gatsby, perhaps the Great American Novel, does feature a murder. Is it therefore a “genre” book? A crime novel? Parker called it the best crime novel ever written. All I know is that it’s a book that broke the mold, forcing readers to examine the society in which they live closely and, just maybe, to view it differently.

We’re all trying to do that as writers. Call us genre writers, if you like. But a writer’s only expectation need be to attempt to take the genre and put his or her own stamp on it, to stretch it in a different direction, using the elements of fiction as his or her vehicle.

Here is one of favorite quotes by a writer who I think has stretched the genre tremendously: Asked, during an interview with Mystery Scene, why she continued to write the same series character, Sue Grafton, by way of explanation, said, “Mysteries are about the psychology of crime and the psychology of human nature.” If Grafton is overly concerned with giving readers a body by page 50, that sentiment is lost on me.


Msmstry said...

I totally agree with you that certain "rules" are made to be broken. I remember reading one of Charlaine Harris' Shakespeare, Arkansas book that totally surprised me after I'd read without stopping: No body at all!

Good mysteries shouldn't be predictable in any way! That's one reason I read them.

Rick Blechta said...

I agree, too, but for the average agent, editor and publisher, they want something that's easy to sell -- and that means giving people what they want, and most people want predictability and things they already know. So the "professionals" look for that sort of thing. Why do you think Hollywood keeps pushing reworked TV shows onto the big screen? They have a guaranteed audience, that's why.

I, like you, wish we could get away from that but it takes a little courage on the part of the publishing industry (and that includes writers) to break out of that mold.

Hannah Dennison said...

The "Formula" issue has really got me thinking. I have read terrific "mystery" books where there is no body and not even considered I was being 'gipped.' I agree about the expectations of the publisher because of the need to market it - or put it on the right shelf in a bookstore. But - for me, at the end of the day what matters is whether it's a good story with fascinating characters and a really good puzzle. Body or no body.

Rick Blechta said...

Hannah, I wish you were running one of the big publishing houses. We need people with that sort of attitude setting the trends for other to follow. Otherwise we get mediocrity -- and there's a lot of that around, sadly.