Serving the Genre, Respecting the Genre, Transcending the Genre

By David Corbett

Starting tomorrow, I begin my second class through Chuck Palahniuk’s online writing university, Litreactor. This one is titled The Character of Crime.

The class deals with the importance of knowing your subgenre in order to better understand reader expectations so you can not only meet those expectations but exceed them.

I also stress the need to create characters with sufficient depth and complexity so your story has a chance to achieve not just popular but critical success.

There is still room for four more students in the class, so if you’re interested, sign up now.

I realize I seem to be harping on the same theme as two weeks ago  – the potential for greatness in the crime genre. My apologies if I seem a bore. Two weeks back I was inspired by Don Winslow’s marvelous talk at the Book Passage Mystery Conference. This time I’m just restating my fundamental belief that this is a great genre that owes apologies to no one.

Either way, I find myself returning to a debate we often have in this particular corner of the literary world:

What does it mean to serve the genre, to respect the genre, and to transcend the genre?

I’m normally one of those people who finds the phrase “transcend the genre” more than a little patronizing. It’s so often used to describe the works of literary writers who go slumming in the Naked City to make a few bucks – and who often not only don’t “transcend” the genre, they fail to respect or even understand it.

Literary writers often think of genre conventions as mere formula, and automatically recoil. This is, to my mind, exactly the wrong way to look at it.

Rather, if you’re going to try your hand at a genre and not just wander in as some kind of snooty tourist, you need to know what makes the thing work, and why. Anything less simply reveals your arrogance and ignorance – and it’s been my experience that arrogance and ignorance all too often go neatly hand in glove.

But by saying we need to serve or respect the genre, I’m not saying that we can’t expand our usual understanding of what a crime story can do.

One thing I’ll emphasize in the class: The difference between a good crime story and a great one often lies in seeing in its subtlest, most far-reaching or most profound terms the underlying thematic premise of the particular subgenre you choose.

The detective genre, for example, is fundamentally about: How can we determine the truth?

This idea is as subtle and as vast as you care to make it. It’s no accident, for example, that Chinatown is based on the oldest detective story in the Western canon – Oedipus the King – or that it resonates with the same theme: the intrinsic danger in presuming the truth can be known.

And in Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson doesn’t just solve the crime and overcome his fear of heights, he tracks Freud’s understanding of male sexuality, from the pleasure principle (Babs) to romantic idealization (Madeline) to the reality principle (Judy) – with tragic results, as in Chinatown, due to a fundamental lack of knowledge.

At the heart of every detective story lies a mystery – something that baffles our usual understanding of things – and there is nothing confining the limits of that mystery except the reach of your own imagination.

The crime subgenre, which is more about the battle between police and criminals than about solving a mystery, fundamentally addresses the balance between individual freedom and social conformity.

A world run by criminals would be a Hobbesian state of nature, with no rules, the war of all against all, and ultimate power residing with those who possess money and weapons. A world run by the police would be – you guessed it – a police state, with everyone guilty of something, and paranoia and suspicion underlying every act.

Every society seeks a balance between these two polarities, and the crime story is a great vehicle for exploring what it would mean to move the goal posts in one direction or the other.

You can also ask fundamental questions such as what makes a given act a crime, or to whom do you owe your loyalty, and answer them in as ingenious a fashion as you please. Two great Boston crime writers, Dennis Lehane and Chuck Hogan, do this brilliantly in such books as Mystic River and Prince of Thieves.

Crime stories that feature the criminal as hero – like The Thomas Crowne Affair  – often ask us to reconsider the value of the creative individual in a society defined by compromise, mediocrity, and conformity.

The criminal in such stories is often devoted to excellence – and risk – in a way that others in the society are not. In a very fundamental way, the criminal in such stories is a stand-in for the artist, whose role is every bit as challenging, enigmatic, potentially disturbing – even revolutionary. (It’s no great surprise that real revolutionaries are often described as terrorists or criminals by those hoping to trivialize their political aims.)

Other stories with criminal heroes, like The Winter of Frankie Machine, Goodfellas or In Bruges, achieve greatness by forcing the criminal hero to perform a moral accounting of his entire life.

The thriller, which combines elements of the detective story with the horror story, pits the seeker of the truth against relentless pressure and danger. It shares certain traits with the epic and myth, and like those ancient types of stories it can be expanded to show the individual hero, through great sacrifice and personal transformation, redeeming or redefining the society in which he or she lives.

In other words, the genre is perfectly capable of delivering big themes and great art, and it doesn’t need interlopers to pull it off.

This is something I’ll continue to hammer away at here, in my classes, and in my own work. I love the crime genre. I think more than any other form of story it represents our current mythology on how we live. And if you see it in that context, you can achieve something truly original and meaningful and profound.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros – What crime stories do you think have that spark of greatness?

When was the last time you had to defend crime stories against the snoots?

What themes in the crime story affect you most deeply?

Note: I’ll be traveling again today, and won’t be able to check comments until this evening when I get home on the west coast. Don’t let that stop you from chiming in, though. This community is more than capable of having a rousing discussion without me as room monitor.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I was visiting the east coast this week, and on Saturday had the chance to visit with former Murderati regular Cornelia Read and her beau, the actor Peter Riegert. Peter shared a clip from a former student, the beautiful and gifted and quite tall Storm Large (her real name, interestingly enough). It’s a number from her one-woman show and I can’t get it out of my head.

WARNING: This track has quite explicit language and a perspective on sex and womanhood some may find offensive. If you think you might fall into that camp, by all means skip it. But if you’re up for it, this is one of the wittiest, raunchiest, most wryly ironic and unapologetically non-PC performances you’re likely to see in quite some time. (Real catchy tune, too.)

18 thoughts on “Serving the Genre, Respecting the Genre, Transcending the Genre

  1. David Corbett

    I'm heading off to the airport, and to make things easier, I'm kicking things off and checking the "Notify me" etc. box below so I can follow comments on my phone as they come up.

  2. Cornelia Read

    It was so, so wonderful to get to hang out with you on TWO coasts in one month (okay, or July-August) over the span of a couple of weeks–that counts, right?) And this is an amazing, amazing post. You are most excellent, dear David.

  3. Nikki Magennis

    Aw, this is all fascinating. I wish I could take the class. Any chance you'll ever produce a book on the subject?

    (8 Miles Wide is a fantastic song, too.)

  4. Sarah W

    Can these genres be woven together? Because Alex’s HUNTRESS MOON starts out in the detective genre but eventually has themes from at least one other genre you mentioned (won’t say which one, because I can’t bear to spoil it).

    Would the detective genre cover the search for an item or person — the truth of where something is, as well as the truth about what happened?

  5. David Corbett


    Well, some day I may pop out a book on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone hasn't already beaten me to it. (Glad you liked the song.)

    Sarah: Of course there are hybrids. Like I said, the entire thriller genre is a kind of hybrid between detective and horror. And the search for the truth in a detective novel needn't be limited to a person — the how, what, why and who are all interconnected. And though the crime genre often reveals the bad guy early on — we know who the Joker is and what kind of person he is pretty quickly in The Dark Knight — but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of pursuing clues and searching for the truth amidst the cat-and-mouse, punch-and-counterpunch. These sub-genres aren't straightjackets — they're just general approaches that every writer is free to improvise upon.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, I was just thinking of how to respond to this when I read your post – and what I would say to that is – I think all of those subcategories David listed take on a significantly different meaning when the traditional roles are played by women instead of men. Sara Gran, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, and Christa Faust are all doing really exciting work genre-bending with their female-driven noir, and I was definitely thinking along those lines with Huntress Moon.

  7. Sarah W

    Alex, do you think genders actually do have different motivations, whether hardwired or cultural–which would make these gender-bending novels essentially gender-swap anomalies, if breathtaking ones–or that writers and readers simply tend to automatically assign specific motivations to specific genders in specific genres?

    I'm thinking about your (or, Roarke's, I suppose) list of reasons why a woman might or might not kill. Before I read HUNTRESS, it never occurred to me that women serial killers were so rare. Though delving into that abnormal (one hopes) a psyche is difficult anyway . . .

    And is it significant that all the author examples you gave are women? Or are those simply the writers who have been mentioned around here recently?

    And is it as cool as I think it is that we don't seem to think of Charlie Fox as a gender bend? 🙂

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hah!! Thanks, Sarah, I was hoping to make people think about that rarity, and about what it means. I find it fascinating and significant.

    I mentioned those authors because they ARE genre-bending, consciously, and pretty brilliantly. And I suspect it's easier, or really I mean more natural, for women to achieve a genre bend with thrillers because we're working against a very entrenched male tradition.

    But I think Dennis Lehane did it in Mystic River by going places that men don't usually go in their own psyches (they'd rather assign that scary stuff to female characters to distance themselves from the experience instead of having to put themselves into those vulnerable positions, which personally I think is cheating.)

    Yes, I agree – Charlie Fox doesn't feel like gender bending, and it IS cool.

    Your first question, not so easy to answer. I think sex crimes and serial killing are the great divide between the motivations of male and female criminals, though.

  9. KDJames

    Oh, David. You get all serious and literary and I just want to muss up your hair. Except you don't have any. STOP THWARTING ME.

    I think it's interesting you feel the need to defend crime fiction from detractors. Because it gets waaaay more respect than, say, romance. In fact, I've never heard anyone suggest the crime genre is something for which to apologize. I must be hanging out with the right people.

    I couldn't begin to pass judgment about which stories have a spark of greatness, but that video was pretty awesome. Thanks.

    Hi, Cornelia!! God I miss your voice over here.

  10. PD Martin

    Loved your post, as always, David 🙂

    And KD, hilarious: "You get all serious and literary and I just want to muss up your hair. Except you don't have any."

    Can you hear me laughing on the other side of the world? I think that could be David's tag line for every post!

    I do find crime does sometimes get a negative 'vibe'. For example, the Melbourne Writers Festival usually has heaps of people from the more literary side of the fence and then they bring in a 'famous' international crime writer to represent the crime genre. Aussie crime writers rarely get a look-in. It's almost like crime is worthy if you're an international best seller!

    Then again, at dinner parties there's definitely a 'cool' factor of being a crime fiction author 🙂


  11. Reine

    Oh, David you are so terrific. I like to use the topic of genre to weed out my non-friends.

    Oops big haboob with thunder and much lightning… be back later… LOVED this!

  12. David Corbett

    Sarah: I'd add to Alex's list Cornelia Read, who's fused memoir with crime fiction and created something unlike anything else, in the genre or outside of it.

    Perhaps women haven't felt as confined by the genre conventions because they had little to do with inventing them, except for Agatha Christie. So they don't have to prove they belong in the club — the club was perfectly content to ignore them, until not even the troglodytes could do so anymore. They just decided to write well.

    But though PD James and Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie may not "bend" the genre, they've made incomparable contributions to it, as did a host of others.

    Are Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina and Tana French and Louise Welsh and Mo Hayder "bending the genre" or simply writing brilliantly? Does it matter?

    Josh Bazell bent the genre with a hitman-noir-cum-medical thriller-cum-comic crime novel. Don Winslow's bending something, if not the genre. Ditto Ken Bruen. I think it's almost required now to bring something new to the table or get lost in the avalanche. Or to just write with uniqueness and skill, like a number of the women we're discussing.

    KD: Yeah, I know, I be all serious and shit. But I know how to pick a video, yeah?

    Phillipa (& KD): Here in San Francisco, they still announce me as a "mystery writer" as though that's the equivalent of sleeping with barn animals. (And I don't write mysteries, I write crime stories. Sigh …)

  13. David Corbett

    Reine: I miss those big haboobs. I was just back east, and hadn't seen a thunderstorm in the longest time. It was such a kick — and it finally cut the ungodly humidity.

  14. KDJames

    Just for fun, I googled literary awards. There is a HUGE listing on Wikipedia, things I'd never heard of. There's even a category for "food and drink." But "romance" is not even mentioned. Never mind that in 2010 romance sales were $1.358 billion and the next category (religion/inspirational) was $759 million with mystery coming in third at $682 million. No separate category for "crime" so, yeah, I guess that's included in mystery. (RWA website stats)

    But c'mon. That's not disrespect, it's people being lazy about categories. Disrespect is when people try to explain the RITA award and they don't say it's the romance equivalent of some other writing award, like maybe the Edgar. They call it the romance genre's Oscar. I guess it's better than comparing it to the People's Choice award. And it's often self-inflicted. I defy you to find another genre convention where one of the highlights of attendance is people posting pictures of SHOES.

    You all should do that at Bouchercon this year. Post pics on twitter of everyone's shoes. :eyeroll:

    Ooops. Sorry. I'm being all serious and shit. But really, David, you're not going to convince me that crime writers have much to complain about on that topic. At least the snoots notice you.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David

    Sorry to come late to this – as ever. Great post. And strangely enough it kind of fits in with my own post today, too.

    Sarah and Alex, I've never thought of Charlie as gender bending. She just is the person she is, just as I am the person I am. It's only when someone steps in from outside that I realise what I do is not always considered 'normal'.

    On Wed, for example, I was wiring new speakers into the doors of my car when the guy arrived to read the electricity meter. He seemed totally fazed by the fact that I had my car in pieces on the driveway. But, I can follow a wiring diagram, and use a jigsaw to cut out new spacer rings, and drill holes, so … why not? And now I have sound quality I can listen to with the soft top down when I'm driving on the motorway.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    David, I don't know who makes your list of inventors of the genre, besides, I assume, Sophocles and Shakespeare – but in my book Mary Shelley and Charlotte and Emily Bronte rank pretty high up in the pantheon.

    You ask: >>>>Are Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina and Tana French and Louise Welsh and Mo Hayder "bending the genre" or simply writing brilliantly? Does it matter?<<<<<

    I don't think that those brilliant authors are bending the genre the way Abbott, Gran, Flynn and Faust are, no. I'm rabid about Mina, French and Hayder, but they seem to me to be writing more traditionally, with immense depth, while the other group is looking at crime through a specifically feminine lens that we have NOT seen, traditionally.

    Does it matter? Not at all in terms of quality , but you're the one who blogged about transcending the genre.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    KD, I'll take some shoe photos for you at Bouchercon! I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Andrew Grant is quite the shoe horse, for example…

    On the RITAs, I can't see them getting more respect until they limit the number of categories, like the other genre awards you mention. That's just a practical fact.

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