Friday, October 02, 2009

Mysteries V. Literature, continued

Charles here, ready to stir the pot.

Just for the sake of argument – and because its fun to listen to teeth grinding across North America – I want to take a different look at the ongoing discussion about why mysteries (and genre fiction in general) are often considered the poorly written, thinly plotted, painfully shallow, cliché riddled, mental junk food cousins to literature.

Maybe because it’s true.

That got your attention. But before you fire off your response, let me add some explanation to this hypothetical case. First, I am assuming the following as given – yes, there will be exceptions, but in general these will hold:
-Just because something is written doesn’t mean that it is well written
-Publishing is a business and therefore publishers will make business decisions
-People read what they like to read
-Authors write what they like to write and like to read
-There are unscrupulous people out there who will do what they need to do to separate fools from their money
-We can all be fools

Taking the above as given, here’s how my argument goes.

When you consider all the types of fiction published, novels that are considered literary (and you can quote-unquote any of these terms) as opposed to genre are just one of the options and, considering ALL the genres, a small option at that. This is because they do not sell in the numbers that genre fiction collectively sells. Since there are fewer ‘slots’ for literary fiction on the publisher’s schedule, the publisher can be far more selective. Not only does this weed out the poorly written junk, it also trims out the well-written-but-just-not-quite-good-enough. What gets published in the end is therefore the best of what was submitted – with hundreds of excellent reads sadly passed by. Now I will agree that many times what gets published as literary fiction is a bit strange or convoluted or esoteric or experimental or depressing or pointless or plot-less, but I argue that it is still well-written. It may be crap, but it’s well-written crap. The word choices are often exquisite and the rhythm of the writing can be intoxicating and, yes, it may not be going anywhere (or anywhere I want to go) but I can seldom fault the quality of the basic writing.

The same can’t be said for mystery writing, and that brings me back to my givens.

People read mysteries because people like mysteries. And people write mysteries because that’s what they like to read. Fewer people choose to write literary fiction because it is not as widely read and, for many people, not as widely enjoyed. Since fewer people are writing literary fiction in their spare time and many people are writing genre fiction in their spare time, logically there will be many more mysteries written each year (written, not published) than works of literary fiction. And since mysteries sell more – and publishing is an industry that is filling a demand to turn a profit – there is a greater chance of seeing a poorly written mystery than there is seeing a poorly written work of literary fiction.

Think about series novels. In literary fiction you have a few – Updike’s Rabbit series comes to mind – and in mysteries you have a lot. I’m not a big fan of Updike’s work, but it is well written. Even now, when he’s stretched the series out way past its prime, the writing still stands up. The same can not be said in mystery fiction. We all know of more than one strange-occupation-with-cat series books that are so poorly written that we cringe when we read a page, the clichés dropping as fast as the bad puns and witty bon mots.

As for unscrupulous people, fools and money, I have met far more self-published mystery authors than I have met self-published literary authors, and it’s not because mystery authors are fools, its because these authors have every reason to believe that their editor-free manuscript will be embraced by mystery readers since they themselves have read so many mysteries that were no better written then theirs. And a poorly written, thinly plotted, painfully shallow, cliché riddled, mental junk food mystery is still a mystery – and the vanity press does not care whether it sells or not.

There are well written books and there are poorly written books. Mysteries out number works of literary fiction. Given the numbers, you are more likely to find a poorly written mystery than you are to find a poorly written work of literary fiction. The vast numbers of poorly written mysteries water down the reputation of all mysteries. Therefore, if good writing is the criteria, when considered as a whole, literary fiction is superior to mysteries.

Gross generalizations? Guilty. Exceptions? Absolutely. Inaccurate? I don’t think so. But what do you think?


Jared said...

Well thought out and argued. Good stuff.

Rick Blechta said...

It still leaves the question of why the really exquisitely written mysteries — as good as any literary novels — are looked down on by the literary establishment, with no chance of redemption simply because they are mysteries. It's the snobbery of it all, as witnessed by Ms Crozier and Mr. Enright that makes my stomach churn.

Rick Blechta said...

Good posting, though, and what you posit is quite true.

Note to self: don't push publish button too soon.

Vicki Delany said...

Is that true about more mystery than literary? In my local big box bookstore there is a small section marked "Mystery" and a big section marked "Fiction and Literature." I consider it an advantage to be shelved under the mystery section. Less competition in terms of number of titles. And those who specifically want a mystery will head straight there.

Alan said...

"Literary Advocates Redefine Their World Without Books" Read it at

Dana King said...

Well put. This is from Raymond Chandler's essay, "The Simple Art of Murder:"

The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new, and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way. There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.

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