by Rob Gregory Browne

"You're a terrific stylist," she said.  "How long do you see yourself writing this kind of stuff?"

The woman, who is an acquaintance, was referring to my latest book, WHISPER IN THE DARK (which comes out in a week — eehaa), and there was an emphasis on the word "stuff" that made it sound as if she'd just bit into something quite sour and maybe a little moldy.

I don't have a lot of practice with people praising and insulting me simultaneously — it's usually just the insults — so I stammered a bit and said, "Uh, as long as I can."

But because she'd been raised on "serious" fiction and had studied it in high school and college, this poor woman couldn't fathom why I would ever want to write what I write or why anyone else would want to read it.

If I were to suggest that what she normally reads is really no different than what I write — characters trying to get themselves out of sticky situations — she would have looked at me as if I were completely out of my mind.

To her, the subject matter I cover is clearly the stuff of tabloids and B movies and is not something to take seriously.  And because I'm such a "terrific stylist," surely I'll one day graduate to writing real books.

We've talked about literary snobbery here at Murderati, probably more than once.  But its a subject that doesn't seem to want to leave me in peace.  Not because I feel any kind of guilt about what I write, but because I can't for the life of me understand how someone could categorize thrillers as somehow less important than any other type of book.

If you don't like thrillers, fine.  You don't like them.  But to avoid reading them because they're "beneath" you, tells me a lot more about you than I probably want to know.

The truth is, I love what I write.  I wouldn't be writing it if I didn't.  Thrillers are not a stepping stone to literary greatness.  There are enough thriller writers both past and present who have already achieved that greatness and I don't see them rushing out to write something more suitable to their talents — whatever that might mean.  If I should ever manage to join their ranks, it won't be because I decided to alter my subject matter.

In his bio of Raymond Chandler — one our greatest American writers — Tim Hiney tells us that when Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, most critics not only refused to review it, but those who did thought it was too "seedy" to be taken seriously.  I doubt that those critics, if they're still alive, would say the same thing today.  And if they did, I'd have to label them complete idiots.

Some of the Gold Medal paperback "potboilers" that were written in the fifties and sixties were truly great works of fiction.  And anyone chased away by the lurid covers and subject matter can be forgiven if that's simply not the type of book they want to read, but they're just plain crazy if they think those books are any less worthy than what their "serious" literary heroes were writing at the time.

Great writing is great writing because of the author's voice and point of view, not the stories he or she chooses to tell.  Even the label "genre" fiction is insulting, because it tries to set the work to one side, as if it's somehow different than any other story being told.  As if a certain set of qualifications make it a lesser work that shouldn't or can't be compared favorably to the more literary work.

One "genre" that always seems to get the worst of this kind of prejudice is the romance field, where so many are so quick to lump it all together and call it trite and inconsequential.  But the truth is, there's a lot of great work being done in that field as well and those who discount it are, in my humble opinion, fools.

But then I guess that's what all this boils down to, isn't it?  Opinion.  And I'm certainly not short on those when it comes to popular music or politics or the clothes my neighbor is wearing.

But at least I don't walk up to that neighbor and say, gee, you're a good looking woman, how long do you think you'll be dressing like a circus performer?

Tell me I'm wrong about this.  I dare you.  :)

For those of you interested, I'll be making a number of appearances here in California next month, so I invite you to go to my website and click on the events link.  Hope to see you!

28 thoughts on “Stuff?

  1. Jude Hardin

    A couple of guys on another blog were sort of bashing James Lee Burke yesterday, saying his style is “intrusive.” Come on. The guy’s a literary fucking genius. You can like his work or not, but if you say his prose is anything less than stellar then you’re just…wrong.

    I agree with you 100%, Rob. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it happens to be shelved.

  2. Kaye Barley

    This sort of thing just lights a fire under me.

    It just ROYALLY pisses me off that ANYONE would dare voice an opinion that any one particular field, type, genre, category or WHATEVER is beneath them, and question the segment of society that does read them and does enjoy them. WTF?! There’s a book or a writer you feel is beneath you? So don’t read it. Nora Roberts gets bashed a lot. Grisham gets based a lot. Not someone’s cup of tea? So be it. But to bash it and call it crap is just patently, in my humble opinion, unfair. And makes the person saying it look less than gracious, and whether its the truth or not – comes across as sour grapes.

    I’m not stuck in one single genre, but for the life of me, after many many years of reading I still don’t know what the fuck is meant by serious or literary fiction. And I don’t want anyone to try to tell me. Its all subjective.

    And as far as this person bashing James Lee Burke’s work?! Where is he?! Lemme at him! He’s messing about with one of my heroes here!

  3. B.G. Ritts

    A refreshing, unique description, viewpoint or turn of phrase is delightful to run across no matter what I’m reading. There might even be some in literary fiction, but I wouldn’t know ’cause I don’t read that ‘stuff’!

  4. tess gerritsen

    Rob, might as well get used to it. You’ll hear it for the rest of your career as a writer. I bet literary authors get slammed too, but in a different way: “You’re such a great writer. When are you going to write a bestseller?”

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Many many years ago, it was a revelation for me to walk into a used bookstore and see “antique” books–those hardcovers which did not have dust jackets or fancy covers, and were all nearly the same monochromatic color–dusty blues, grays, maroons, blacks — with only the title and the author’s name emblazoned on the front and spine… shelved alphabetically. The only way to tell what the story was about was to pick the thing up and start reading it, and quality was evident, regardless of what label we would put on it in later years. I wonder if we haven’t done ourselves a grave disservice in this effort to help the customer find our books (‘we’ being ‘the industry’) by claiming a genre and a certain shelf space in the bookstore. Have we alienated more readers who would’ve found the book than those who did? Ah, ruminations before caffeine are probably not useful.

  6. Rae

    One of my favorite things about crime fiction is that there’s almost always a plot. “Literary” fiction, not so much – the vast majority of it makes me feel like a judge in the Bulwer-Lytton contest.


  7. Alli

    Obviously this woman doesn’t know a good thing when she sees (reads) it. I don’t know why people think they can pass a biased judgement (especially to the artist’s face) and feel they are doing a service. What a boring place the world would be if we all liked the same thing.I was witness to the whole Chick Lit/Literary Writers argument (which seems to have died down slightly but I believe is bubbling away at the moment, waiting for someone to turn up the heat). What I didn’t get (and still don’t) is why fellow writers would waste energy hurling insults at each other when we are all trying to do the same thing – that is, write the best book we can, keep our readers entertained and hope they walk away satisfied.Rob, perhaps this is one person you don’t need as a fan of your work – I am sure you have plenty more willing to shout you praise from the mountain top.

  8. pari

    It’s those damn labels again.

    They’re so convenient, so popular, because they allow the speaker to forgo thought in favor of posturing.

  9. Louise Ure

    “Terrific stylist” is what I say to the woman who cuts my hair. I’m not sure how I’d respond if I heard it applied to the craft of writing. (You’re clearly more polite than I am.)

    Respect for the genre? I’d say that romance, science fiction and westerns all have it worse than we do.

  10. Dana King

    I think Toni has a point. I know a book’s cover has nothing to do with whather I buy it.

    As for Rob’s comment to his neighbor, I’d be inclined to say, paraphrasing her, “You’re a good looking woman. How long are you going to keep that up?”

    This is probably why I don’t have any friends.

  11. Allison Brennan

    ROFLOL, Ann. I so know what you mean. And I love your expression “complinsulted.”

    You can’t please all the people all the time. I know, trite, but true. I just assumed everyone would love my books, but they don’t. Even my mom, who loves my books and talk them up, tells me when she doesn’t love one as much as the others (and she tells me why, too! LOL.) Just last night at my daughter’s basketball game, another mom came up to me saying she looked all over Borders for my books, couldn’t find them, looked them up on the computer (thank God) and said Borders put them in romance and shouldn’t I talk to them about that? When I told her they were romantic suspense and thus were shelved in romance. Then I thanked her for buying my backlist 🙂

    I even had one fan email me saying he’d never been in the romance section because they’re all trash, so he had the clerk fetch him one of my books. At a signing at BN with Brenda Novak, she and I were chatting with a husband and wife who were broadly read, and an old guy came in and looked at the books on our table. Brenda offered him a bookmark and said, “We write romantic suspense and are latest are set here in Sacramento–” and he waved his hand and said, “I don’t read those trashy books.” I have oodles of stories like that. Shrug.

    In Sol Stein’s STEIN ON WRITING, he said: “Today, I urge my students once they have begun to master craft, to read a few chapters of John Grisham’s THE FIRM, or some other transient bestseller, to see what they can learn from the mistakes of writers who don’t heed the precise meanings of the words they use.”

    Oh, to be a transient bestseller like Grisham . . .

  12. R.J. Mangahas

    You know what I would do, Rob? I would point out that even some of the “literary” books could be genre. That’ll really mess with them Look at Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. Father and son traveling through post-apocalyptic land (Sci-Fi). Even Shakespeare could be genre. MID SUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: A dream world, fairies (sounds like…gasp…fantasy). or MACBETH: Murder, betrayal, plots to kill someone in charge (Thriller perhaps?).

    I’ve actually used these arguments on a few literary snobs and they had to really reach to come up with a response >:-]

  13. Zoë Sharp

    We’re back to the old ‘there’s good writing and there’s bad writing, and everything else is just a flavour’

    I do feel there’s a lot of Emperor’s New Clothes about novels of all descriptions. Just because something’s impenetratable, that doesn’t necessarily make it clever.

    And the best insults are from people who – when you tell them you’re a writer – say “Oh, I don’t read.” Like that’s something to be proud of.

    Let’s face it, though. Some people are just downright rude. Possibly, they are rude to a writer doing a signing in a bookstore (I’m thinking of your “I don’t read those trashy books” story, Allison) because they’re insecure enough to know, on some subconscious level, that anyone who has a public face is unlikely to be quite so rude back to them.

  14. Allison Brennan

    Zoe, when I was on the Levy bus tour I was sitting next to Chip St. Clair who had written a memoir (his father was one of America’s Most Wanted and Chip turned him in) and it was near his hometown. He speaks to a lot of schools, and one of the teachers had assigned his book as extra credit reading, so we had a bunch of students come by. Chip was cross-selling a couple of us to the moms and said to one, “We have something for everyone here, historical romance” and gestured to Sophia Nash on his right, “and suspense” and gestured to me on his left.

    The mom–with her three daughters–looked at us with one of those trite smiles and said, “I don’t read. I’m too busy.” To say that–in front of her kids!!!–I wanted to slap her. But I refrained.

  15. Terri

    **But at least I don’t walk up to that neighbor and say, gee, you’re a good looking woman, how long do you think you’ll be dressing like a circus performer?**

    Haha…that made me laugh! You know I’ve yet to have anyone look down their nose at me because of what I write, which would be romance. Of course I don’t usually hang out with the literary literates. I guess it pays to be lower class. ;-P

  16. Zoë Sharp

    I think the best reaction I ever had to what I write was from the paramilitary evangelist who mugged us at Baltimore airport on the way back from Bouchercon last year.

    She didn’t actually *say* anything, but the pained look on her face was of someone who’s managed to eat something that smelled and tasted bad, while simultaneously stepping in something bad, both at the same moment.

    She then proceeded to tell us, in excruciating detail, all about the book she’d written about the miracle of her life, whilst displaying staggering amounts of avarice and pride, with a side order of vanity.

    And the worst thing? We were too damned polite to tell her to go take a very long walk off a very short pier.

    Still makes my blood pressure rise, just thinking about it …

  17. Rob Gregory Browne

    Zoe, you were WAY too polite. I’m afraid I would have just walked away. But then I’m not usually in a good mood in airports, especially when I’m going home.

    And Allison, that slap would’ve been sooooo rewarding.

  18. J.D. Rhoades

    I’ve actually used these arguments on a few literary snobs and they had to really reach to come up with a response >:-]”

    They can make the reach. I had a creative writing teacher in college who opined that all science fiction was trash. When I pointed out that Kurt Vonnegut wrote science fiction, he smiled condescendingly (he was good at that) and informed me that Vonnegut didn’t write sf, he just used science fiction “techniques” in literary fiction. I wish I’d hit him, I really do.

  19. JN

    As an avid devourer of ‘genre’ and ‘popular’ fiction I also get annoyed with these types of comments. It infuriates me that there are still people in our world who think they can dictate what others should read (think, wear, say, do – a dark path). But when I’m feeling intellectual, rather than aggravated, I enjoy pointing out to these people the ‘classic’ authors who, in their day, were considered horrible, populist, pulp writing hacks (or plagiarists – Shakespeare anyone?). Then again – the snobs can say anything they like as long as the pantheon of fabulous writers here and elsewhere in the ‘trashy’ lit world keep doing what they’re doing for poor unenlightened peasants like me who can’t get enough! Keep up the great work all.

  20. Cornelia Read

    I’m really down with the “there are good books, and there are bad books” thing, across all genres. And literary fiction is no less a genre, for me–perhaps the only one in which Sturgeon’s Law should be upped to “99.44 percent of everything is crap,” these days.

  21. Fran

    I point out to the folks who snidely observe they only read “litrachure”, that to satisfy the intelligent and analytical minds of their readers, mystery writers have to be wicked intelligent and do serious research.

    They smile and walk away, and then they see Michael Chabon and suddenly need to re-think.

    Makes me cranky.

    Which is not to diss Michael Chabon, who’s a sweetie. But darn it!

  22. M.J. Rose

    I totally sympathize Rob, I remember meeting a “highbrow literary writer” as she called herself one day who said to me — “Your book is so much better than the other stuff in your genre why aren’t you a bigger bestseller?”

    I wound up getting to know her a little and she only got worse with time, she is the master of the nasty compliment.

    Life is to short for any of this crap. Write what you love and screw everyone.

  23. pooks

    Many years ago I saw Bryant Gumbel interview Mary Higgins Clark on The Today Show. (Yes, that many years ago.)

    He asked her if she ever wanted to write a “real” novel.

    I’d been asked that myself, and only kept from answering with blistering snark because I was at my husband’s company Christmas party and had to play nice. Seeing that even Ms. Clark could be confronted with such arrogance made me feel both better and worse.

    At lease we’re in good company.


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