Fighting the Genre

by Pari Noskin Taichert

True confession time:
Twelve years ago when I began my first Sasha Solomon manuscript, I wasn’t a big mystery fan. Like many people who don’t know much about the genre, I had a pejorative, limited view of it. With a self-satisfied smirk, I called it, "bubble gum for the mind," and believed my own faulty rhetoric.

Still, common sense — and advice gleaned from writers’ groups and conferences — convinced me to try to get published in a definable genre rather than to go straight for mainstream fiction.

Oh, how I fought that advice.

I thought there was a formula, a magic one-two-three, that every mystery author stuck to. This repelled me; I despise being told what to do. The more rigid the structure, the more I want to blast it to smithereens.

So, my first two manuscripts were pieces of crappola. In them, I scoffed at all the conventions of the genre and ended up with about 800 unusable pages of cliches, lousy prose, and meandering plots.

Since CLOVIS’s publication, I’ve met many aspiring novelists. Our conversations often begin like this:

Pari:   Tell me about your book.
AN:     It’s not a typical mystery. It’s a thriller, mainstream novel with elements of literary fiction.

What intrigues me about this are two ideas. First, that there is a typical mystery. Frankly, the more I learn about the genre, the less I believe it’s true. And, second, the writer’s attempt to squiggle out of the genre. (I recognize the tell-tale signs . . . )

Before I started writing my mysteries, I didn’t know about the battles among our community’s subgenres. Hell, I didn’t know there were subgenres! I also didn’t know about the Otto Penzlers of the fiction world who actually derived pleasure from denigrating certain manifestations of crime fiction.

No, I fought the conventions of crime fiction simply because it was defined at all. I suffered from creative machismo. Somehow, I thought that to have a structure within which to work was admitting a lack of imagination or thought.

The truth is, I didn’t get published until I learned about the structure and general requirements of "traditional" mysteries. I now abide by many of those rules. Sasha Solomon, my protag, is an amateur sleuth. My books don’t have much graphic violence, sex, or profanity. They’re absolutely who-dunits.

I break rules, too. Sasha is a reluctant sleuth. She steps up because she has to, not because she’s particularly noble or curious at the moment — though she always grows in my books. Sasha also travels to many small towns — rather than staying in one charming or quaint little place — and all the towns have weird names. (This is a real marketing no-no. Oh, well. I have a weird name, too.).

What’s the lesson here?

Sometimes the fight is just plain stupid.

Now, when I read a review that says something like, "It transcends the genre," I think to myself, "That reviewer doesn’t know what he or she’s talking about."

At least in mysteries, the genre is a very flexible, very big, and tremendously satisfying canvas for both readers and writers.

11 thoughts on “Fighting the Genre

  1. Mark Terry

    I agree 100% that when a reviewer says “it transcends the genre” that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I also feel that they’re arrogant, because genres can be pretty amazing. What is “Crime and Punishment” after all, but a crime novel? What, for that matter, is “Hamlet” but a political thriller (with a little woo-woo thrown in).

    I seem to be much more successful as a writer when I work within a given, identifiable genre as well.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.markterrybooks.com

    Reply
  2. JT Ellison

    That’s so funny, I’ve never seen mystery novels as formulaic, not until I stared writing them and found that there is a formula. It’s called a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s the difference between mystery and literary, in my mind. There’s an actual arc, and some literary novels just meander aimlessly, which is why I can’t enjoy them as much as I should.

    Reply
  3. Deni Dietz

    I never read mysteries either, Pari. Oh, I read true crime – In Cold Blood and Fatal Vision – but my taste ran to thick sagas – i.e. John Jakes, The thorn Birds – so that’s what I wrote. And couldn’t sell it. When I had the concept for my first “mystery” – killing off dieters at goal weight – I thought it was a “book.” I didn’t give it a genre until I was told I must. Then I called it a “funny mystery.” Editors didn’t like the words “funny” and “mystery” in the same breath. I got “rave rejections.” So I decided to call it “a witty psychological thriller” and finally contracted my series.

    Witty psychological thriller, my asparagus!

    It was a mystery. A funny mystery.

    Reply
  4. pari noskin taichert

    Hey, all,I’m sitting here with a jug of coffee and adhesive tape holding both eyes open. Magna Cum Murder is a great convention — one that deserves every bit of praise it’s garnered.

    Anyway, it’s great to be back — even though I’m exhausted from fantastic conversation, panels, bar chat and unlimited cable in the hotel room.

    Sorry. Let me focus.

    Mark, we’re in total agreement. It’s nice to be brilliant (g).

    J.T., I laughed at your comment about beginning, middle and end . . . I believe that’s true of any good fiction — disirregardless of length or genre. Literary fiction can be glorious, but it damn well hold together.

    Deni, I laughed through most of your post. Thank you. I do think you’re right about “funny” and “mystery” being in the same sentence — being a kind of turnoff for industry professionals. It’s odd, that. While I don’t believe readers want funny all the time, they sure want it a lot. I think it would be interesting to get into a discussion about the push-pull of “funny” in our genre (and others). I’ve noticed that “funny” often gets translated into “fluff.”

    G.T., Glad you stopped by. And, I’m even happier that Deni’s comment provided the oomph for a smile.

    Reply
  5. Naomi

    Don’t beat me with a club, but I think there is something to a literary mystery or a crossover mystery. I’m reading Lynette Brasfield’s NATURE LESSONS right now, and would categorize it as a literary mystery. It’s definitely a novel that a mystery fan AND a literary reader might enjoy. What makes it a crossover mystery? I think her use of language and the pacing of the book. I do think traditional mysteries, especially series, have built-in requirements and a certain structure to them. Does that structure make it lesser than literary mysteries? No. But at least my expectations for each kind of book are different. I would also put Carole Goodman’s books in this literary category.

    I personally love these kind of books because I find that they challenge me more as a writer. Much of the tension comes from internal struggles rather than external. Both struggles are difficult to write about–action fight scenes are really hard for me–but I find the head stuff a more rewarding area to mine.

    Reply
  6. pari noskin taichert

    Naomi,Why would anyone beat you with a club? Sheesh.

    Fighting the genre because you’re ignorant is just plain lazy.

    Creating a different “genre” intentionally, is something else entirely.

    Still, I stand by my statement about reviewers and that “transcending the genre” hooey. To me that disrespects everyone — including the author deserving praise.

    Testing the limits of the genre is fine — if it’s intentional. If it’s simply because you haven’t done your homework, well, it’ll probably show.

    Look to the genre you’re getting into: Young Adult. Some of it is astoundingly beautiful and literary, some falls under “quick and easy read,” but I suspect most of it adheres to at least a few common “rules.”

    Reply
  7. Naomi

    Regarding critics and literati looking askance at a genre–YA is way up there, maybe right below chick-lit.

    I was fighting within myself on making this current book women’s lit vs. YA. I finally gave in and made the book what it naturally wanted to be. I call it finding the right container for a book.

    I’m just getting my toe wet in the YA genre, so I suppose I’ll be learning a lot more. Quickly.

    Reply
  8. Deni Dietz

    For me, literary mysteries – or literary anything – work if they have characterization. Would you call Dreiser’s An American Tragedy a mystery? I would. How about Jane Eyre? Literary suspense!

    And yes, Pari, funny is seen as fluff. But I’d rather lie down on a quilt filled with fluff than on a board filled with splinters.

    Reply

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