Thursday, August 06, 2009

Why the Mystery Genre Isn’t a Genre at All

I’m re-reading THE KITE RUNNER this week to prepare to teach it this fall, and in Khaled Hosseini’s novel I’ve realized what I seem to discover every time I read a canonized work—it, too, offers a mystery.

In fact, I cannot recall a recognized work of literary merit that does not possess a mystery of some kind at its core. The College Board used the following excerpt several years ago as part of a question on its annual Composition and Literature Exam: “Many works of literature not readily identified with the mystery or detective story genre nonetheless involve the investigation of a mystery. In these works, the solution to the mystery may be less important than the knowledge gained in the process of its investigation.” My students answered this prompt by citing THE GREAT GATSBY, HAMLET, BELOVED, and other canonized classics.

So why is the mystery novel often (if not always) considered lesser works of art by the literary establishment? It sure isn’t because they’re easier to write. Florida International University literature professor James W. Hall has authored three collections of poetry, a collection of short fiction, and 15 novels including the best-selling Thorn series. In the March 2005 issue of January Magazine, Hall addressed the issue: "Writing a novel of suspense,” he said, “I've discovered, is a far greater challenge than writing a mainstream, 'respectable' novel, in which nothing much needs to happen for a lot of pages. I think this [the mystery] genre has attracted some of the best novelists of our era, mainly because it's a form that demands great discipline and forces good writers to stretch themselves in all sorts of ways." And, oh, by the way, Hall ought to know. He won an Edgar Award for MAGIC CITY.

So why aren’t novels like THE BIG SLEEP or more contemporary works by top mystery authors canonized? Why aren’t they thought to possess the same literary merit as the so-called classics? A colleague once told me “a book with raised lettering gives me hives.” A tongue-in-cheek statement, no doubt. But to say it—regardless of the level of humor—is to think it. For, as my grandmother used to say, There’s a little bit of truth in everything we say.

On the publishing end of the genre-or-no-genre discussion, one must consider that books are classified as “mystery” novels by marketing people who give them that designation with only the best of intentions—marketers want to help sales. As a guy whose first novel was forever doomed when it was designated a “sports” book and thus placed in the sports section of stores nationwide, I greatly appreciate the efforts of the marketers who call my novels “mysteries.” However, I have no such appreciation for members of the Academy who fail to realize today’s novels by top novelists like Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Sarah Paretski, and others have nothing in common with the traditional locked-room puzzle that Poe created.

In a May 2005 interview posted on his Website, Ed McBain made this statement: “If you want to win either the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, stay far away from corpses among the petunias.” And why did McBain believe his brilliant 87th Precinct novels would never achieve such lofty literary status? You tell me. McBain’s novels will certainly stand the test of time because they are about real people in real conflicts with self and society (can you say HAMLET?). And McBain was a stylistic virtuoso. Who else creates settings so significant that the place is actually a major character in the novel? I can name two: Charles Dickens and Richard Russo, who just so happens to have won the Pulitzer Prize for EMPIRE FALLS.

I’d argue that McBain—and a handful of other contemporary mystery writers—aren’t so far behind him.

# #

Well, it’s official: I’ve crossed over to the Dark Side. I joined Facebook last week. Linked my page to Type M for Murder, to my Website, and even posted pics. Why? Because as a high school teacher, I hear my students talking about it, and I figured it would not only help me reach lost friends but might even be good for book sales. Anyone agree or disagree with this?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

John, there are several John Corrigans on FB...which are you?

I've found FB useful, but I've got 2 pages--one is professional and one is personal. That way I don't have folks from college remembering when on my author page. :)

Feel free to befriend me--Elizabeth Spann Craig Author.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Vicki Delany said...

I pretty much use Facebook for communiting with my family and friends. I'd say its useless for promoting your books - like so much else there is so much chatter out there you're drowned out. You're about to be innundated by other authors pushing their books on you.

Rick Blechta said...

This is something that has bugged me for a long time, John. There is most definitely a "snob factor" at work that automatically moves any genre fiction to the back of the literary line for no other reason than genre fiction has to be not as good as "literary fiction" or "serious fiction". If you push these snobs to explain why this is happening, they can never give you a good answer. Why? Because they don't read "those sorts of things".

The best writers in crime fiction stack up very well against the best writers of "literary fiction". I know, because I read good books, not just certain ones the book marketers have sullied with their labels.

But because of this ridiculous bias, it will be a cold day in hell before you see a crime novel, sci-fi novel, etc., listed for any sort of prize like the Mann Booker, Pulitzer, Giller, etc.

It's pretty sad, really.

Mack said...

Interesting post John and a subject I've pondered myself. Dreiser's An American Tragedy is certainly a crime story at its core.

Regarding FB and other social networking tools - I'm friends with several authors and, as a reader, I like reading what they are doing, it establishes a connection. For authors whose books I haven't read it increases the likelihood of a future purchase.

Like FB, Twitter can be a time suck but there is at least one author whose book I purchased entirely because of Twitter.

Rob Kitchin said...

A discussion on the difference between literary and crime fiction has unfolded in the UK and Ireland in the last two weeks as John Banville (Booker prize winner) and who writes crime fiction under the name of Benjamin Black said he writes 100 words a day as JB and 2000 words as BB. This was interpreted as the literary fiction is more challenging and hi-brow and he's slumming it as a crime writer. For more info see the Crime Always Pays blog and which also provide links to the relevant UK newspaper articles.


Rob Kitchin said...

Sorry, I should have also suggested having a look at a similar discussion taking place in Scandinavia last week where it was claimed that there is a lost generation of literary writers who have deserted for the more financially rewarding crime fiction.


Vicki Delany said...

I stand corrected. Mack, look me up on Facebook - there is one other Vicki Delany and she lives in Philadelphia. I am the one with the hat! As for genre fiction, I challenge anyone to find a better opening paragraph in anything written recently than Peter Robinson's Friend of the Devil.

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

I like you "did it" a couple of weeks ago. I have to get a lesson from my daughter-in-law about hiding things on Facebook and figure out how to use it to sell books.

I'm one of those lowly mystery writers, and to make matters worse, a Realtor who uses a real estate agent as a protagonist. Since I've never written "literary fiction," I can't comment on how complicated it is, but I bet writers of it don't need to create a precise time line of who-knew-what-when as they prepare their outline and personal history for each of their characters like I do.

If anyone is interested, you can read the first chapters of my books at for the sake of comparison.

Nancy Lynn Jarvis

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

Hi John, I too joined a couple of weeks ago, but need a lesson on how to use it from my daughter-in-law.

I'm hoping it helps with selling books because I am one of those lowly mystery writers. I don't know what writing literary fiction is like, but I bet in addition to an outline and a personal history created for each character, "real" writers don't also have to create a time line of-who-knew-what-when to keep their books on target.

If anyone is interested, they can read first chapters at to see if my work is subprime.

Rick Blechta said...

In case anyone is interested, I've been on Facebook for quite awhile. Most of the stuff there is music-related, but it has proven to be a good way for me to get in touch with people. All of them have bought at least a dozen copies of my novels.

I also own a bridge in Brooklyn that I might be willing to sell you...

Charlotte Hinger said...

I like John Gardner's statement that all books are genre--the same as all music is genre. You've written an an opera, a folk dance, a symphony piece, a ballad, etc. It eliminates snobbery and sorts things quickly. You've written a mystery, a western, a romance, a literary book, and there are different conventions for each. There are masterpieces in every genre.

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