Weasel Vomit and the Whole Genre v. Literary Debate Thing

 By Cornelia Read

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about genre lately.

Here’s a definition of the word from The American Heritage Dictionary:



  • A type or class: “Emaciated famine victims … on television focused a new genre of attention on the continent” (Helen Kitchen).
  • A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content: “his six String Quartets … the most important works in the genre since Beethoven’s” (Time).
  • A realistic style of painting that depicts scenes from everyday life.

French, from Old French, kind, from Latin genus , gener-; see gen- in Indo-European roots

I’ve been thinking a lot about it for the past month or so because my editor is urging me to write my fourth novel as a non-mystery, which is difficult for me to get my head around. Especially since he would like it to be a novel containing my established series characters.

Now, my editor is a very smart guy who’s been in the business a long time, and it’s amazingly wonderful that he’s taking this much interest in my future as a writer, and also too I don’t take anything he suggests lightly, but this is tricky for me on a lot of levels. I’m kind of going through Kubler-Ross-esque emotional stages about it–i.e. fear, confusion, swearing, and belligerence–not necessarily in that order and indeed often simultaneously.

His arguments in favor of me taking this tack are as follows:

  • He thinks my strengths are description, dialogue, and voice.
  • He thinks I pretty much suck at the “procedural stuff” (though he worded it much more kindly) and is concerned because he has to keep pushing me to get more action into my stories and raise the stakes all the time and stuff.
  • He thinks he could position me differently if I wrote a non-genre novel, which would be more likely to be a commercial success.

My first response during our phone call about this was to say, “yeah, but, um… I think my plots actually suck because I suck at plotting… and somehow I don’t think moving AWAY from genre is going to make that better…”

And that is a big part of it for me–I like having a known structure to mess around with. I compare it to writing a sonnet or something: there are rules, and you can stick with them or rebel against them as you so desire, but it’s mostly helpful to know that they’re there whether or not you want to follow them strictly.

But there’s also my feeling that the best writing today is happening in crime fiction–mysteries and thrillers. I’ve often said on panels and stuff that literary fiction lost me in the Eighties. I just couldn’t get behind minimalist New Yorker stories, the whole juiceless scraped-dry-bones minimalist Gordon Lish thing. I want detail, I want passion, I want big fat zaftig stuff about things that actually matter. Most of all, I want resolution. I can’t stand novels that just kind of drift around about vaporous bullshit and then wander out of the room at the end without a point. I am not much of a Proust fan, and Thomas Mann gives me hives.

In fact, I think the closest thing to summing up my idea of what makes great literature is a quote from D.H. Lawrence, even though I think his fiction is kind of dopy, too. He wrote, in his Studies in Classic American Literature:

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral.

But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.

Now that isn’t to say that I think all crime fiction is superior to all “literary” fiction–in fact I agree with Sarah Weinman that the most important distinction we can make among books is to say that there are good ones and bad ones, and everything else really doesn’t matter in the end. But for me what is most essential about writing as an art is happening a lot more these days in genre fiction than outside it.

I do tend to blame that a bit on the MFA model of writing, though some of my best friends have done MFA programs, so it doesn’t all suck. But it just seems as though this rather artificial division between genre and non-genre has sprung up over the last couple of decades, and that the champions of contemporary standards of what has come to define “literature” have done a good deal to squeeze the life out of narrative in general.

When Sarah posted a great piece on her blog about Lev Grossman’s dismissal of Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution as “highbrow fiction being assaulted by low-brow genre,” Laura Lippman wondered:

Who benefits from the debate, that’s what I want to know? Not genre writers. Not readers. So it must be the literary writers who keep beating this dead horse. Such pieces always make me feel as if I’m an ill-behaved dog running amok in the great marble temple of literature….

“Stop her! She’s peeing on the floor! She’s drinking out of the toilet! She won’t play by the rules — except those tired genre conventions that mark her work as second-rate. Ohmigod — she’s humping Nadine Gordimer’s leg. Get her out!

Which prompted me to codify my own feelings on the subject for the first time, as follows:


I think they’re all just pissed off because they’ve turned “literature” into the kind of Filboid-Studge Latin whose precise declensions can only be enforced with Joycean pandy-bats viciously applied to the reader’s tender palms and footsoles,

and meanwhile we’re all having so much goddamn fun over here in Vibrant Street-Italian Vernacular Land it should be illegal.

Okay, I guess that covers the “belligerence” phase of my response to the idea of writing a book in which no murder takes place. Besides which I am loyal to the genre, and the people who write in it, and I’m sick of all of us getting dissed by a bunch of whiny-ass bitches who couldn’t, in my opinion, write their collective way out of a wet house of cheap cards.

(And I should probably also throw in that I can’t stand literary cocktail parties unless they are peopled with crime writers. This just feels like my tribe–as opposed to the last time I was drinking with a roomful of academician poets, back in Syracuse,


who were so humorless I ended up swilling beer in the kitchen with the insurance salesman who lived next door and was actually a pretty interesting dude.)

Also, I just have a perverse fascination with crime generally, and murder in particular. I don’t think there’s any human conundrum more morbidly intriguing than the question of why we kill each other. I want to know what that part of us is, I want to see if there’s any way to keep it from happening. I care deeply about justice, and morality, and what it all means in the end.

I was intending to base the central plot of my fourth book on the murder of a friend of my mother’s about twenty years ago. She went out to get the morning paper at the end of her driveway–in view of about eight other houses on her cul-de-sac–and was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Probably by her ex-husband or her son.

My editor asked why I want to write about baseball bats.

I ran all this by Tana French in an email soon after, because she’s a writer whose work I think is exquisite and extremely literary in the best possible way.

She wrote back:

How the hell do you plot a book without ‘Someone gets killed, someone else finds out whodunit’ to give you a structure? I’m as fond of character and dialogue and all that fancy stuff as the next girl, but without the murder mystery to bookend things, all my books would go on for thousands of pages and never get anywhere much… What does your editor have against the baseball bat?




And that’s where the “fear and confusion” Kubler-Rossity comes into this for me. I mean, I’m not saying I hate all novels in which a murder does not take place (I love Joshilyn Jackson’s work, for instance. Which does tend to be rather dark and have death here and there, but is otherwise not genre). But I don’t know if *I* could come up with a plot that actually went anywhere without the genre form to guide me. I mean, I spent twenty years (off and on) futzing around with a memoir that never gelled into a narrative, despite several hundred pages of typing and thousands of hours of agita on my part.

Plus which, to quote the late, great Brenda Ueland: “There is absolutely no evidence that I could write a good book. It might very well be the most awful weasel vomit.”

And also too, I just think it’s weird to write three books in a series that revolve around murders and then have all the same people just bop hither and yon in the fourth book without any blood spatter whatsoever, you know?

So I don’t actually have any sort of good thumping conclusion to this post, because I haven’t figured this stuff out yet. All of the above is twirling around in my head like those proverbial visions of sugar plums.


Maybe the thing to do is come up with a better mystery plot than I’ve so far managed to do, so that my editor feels more comfortable with my actually *earning* the genre pigeonhole? But everything I’m coming up with so far seems to be brimming with weasel vomit.

Oy. Feh. Vey ist mir.

What say you, ‘Ratis?


41 thoughts on “Weasel Vomit and the Whole Genre v. Literary Debate Thing

  1. Lori Stanley Roeleveld

    I get it but from a different direction. I love the characters from my first (unpublished novel) and want to write them into a sequel but not sure I want there to be more killing. I need a mystery but perhaps not a murder. Something has to happen. I can’t follow a murder mystery with a the same characters picking up their normal lives just eating at diners and talking about the past excitement but do I want to kill another of them off? I get it.

  2. Kaley

    Ultimately, you have to write what you feel comfortable with, but it sounds like your editor is trying to help you grow as a writer by building on what he sees as your strengths. Is it that he wants your next book not to be a mystery or not to have any murder in it? Plenty of books have murder without the mystery element.

    The book could be about other characters’ reactions to the murder, such as how they cope and start to move on (maybe some characters can’t move on initially but have to learn to), or it could be about the build-up to the murder (how the relationship got to the point where one person murdered the other, maybe flipping back and forth between those two characters’ viewpoints).

    These ideas may be lousy (I’m just rambling), but it strikes me that your editor seems to see real promise and potential in your writing abilities and is trying to help you showcase your strengths. I’m guessing he’s not a pretentious literary person since (I’m assuming) he works in the thriller genre as an editor (maybe I’m wrong?) who feels only literary work has any real merit. He’s just trying to build on your strengths.

    Just a non-writer’s 2 cents. Good luck with whatever you decide!

  3. Derek Nikitas


    There was a time recently when I was facing a similar issue with my editor regarding where to go with my next novel, and, thankfully, I think I’m headed even deeper into "genre" territory than I’ve gone before. John Grisham recently said in a UK newspaper that because he writes "genre" novels with plot and constant suspense, he can’t afford to "distract" the reader. He said, ""If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people’s character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted."

    I’m a genre writer through and through, but that kind of single-mindedness irks me. I’d like to do both suspense and complexities of the human soul–what’s more "noir" than that? But I think perhaps there’s very little place for a writer who does both in the "market," so publishers are trying to push us in one direction or another.

    Still, I have a soft spot in my heart for full-on literary writers who are militant about the importance of "literary" writing (or, if you like, pretentious obscure plotless, etc.). And I hardly understand why genre writers are afraid of them, or even annoyed by them. Because–in regards to readership and chances of publication and money–the genre writers are beating the shit out of the literary writers. It’s no contest. It’s a sad contest. People who complain about Dan Brown’s writing and character development–and I’m admittedly one of them–don’t even put the slightest dent in Dan Brown’s sales.

    So no wonder lit writers are so defensive; they’re an increasingly dying breed. Not only that, but they keep getting told, by Gods of Publishing like Grisham, that their natural way of writing is merely "distracting" to the reader.

    Our culture still needs fiction that "understand[s] the complexities of the human soul." Our culture still needs fiction that is difficult, that’s immersive instead of escapist. Does anyone really want to say: "no, sorry, we’re no interested in that anymore?" What would it mean for our culture if we totally abandoned such a huge element of art? Literary writers have good reason to whine, but if we genre writers are annoyed, all we have to do is ignore it. It ain’t like they’re going to suddenly capture the lion’s share of the market or something.

  4. Jan

    Wow ! Send your editor this! Of course he reads this anyway right? This is a wonderful piece and I’m with ya! I happen to like so called ‘literary’ fiction whatever the hell that means. I like good stories, good characters, good descriptions of places, emotions, work that I’ve been to or not. I like good country & western (Gram Parsons), good blues (Bill Stevenson), good regae (your fellow) and opera (Madam Butterfly). I like fish & chips and cordon bleu. I like Jamaican shacks and Scottish castles. Why the f#$%& do I always have to choose? Refuse to choose! There is nothing in what your editor said that can’t be wonderful in a mystery or thriller or whatever they are called (today). If people want proceedure they will find it. If they want good characters they will find it…etc… Enough. I am writing both. Michael Ondaatje wrote nothing but poetry for years and people said he couldn’t switch form (not genre). But he did brilliantly.

  5. JD Rhoades

    I’m adapting a reply I made to a reader a few days ago via e-mail, since this syncs up so well with what we were discussing…

    I’ve always felt that crime fiction is at its best when it’s showing you the places where society is rotten underneath, fraying at the seams, or sometimes coming completely apart. Done well, it really can serve a purpose beyond just pure entertainment.

    However, with some notable exceptions (like Chandler) there’s a certain amount of distaste among crime fiction writers for prose that calls attention to itself and that might, as Grisham noted, distract from the story. On the other extreme, as you describe, there are "literary" writers who seem to be all virtuosity with no story-telling. You mentioned Michael Chabon, who I think manages to bridge that gap beautifully. His THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION is not just a tour de force of great prose; it’s a hell of a good police procedural mystery as well. It’s a balance most writers on either side of the genre/literary debate don’t even try, but when they do, and it works, it’s a beautiful thing.

  6. PK the Bookeemonster

    Some thoughts:
    A. Get a different editor, one who wants to go the direction you want to go. (probably easier said than done, what do I know, I’m a reader)

    B. Become THE EXPERT on plotting. If that’s your weakness, change that.

    C. Try what he suggests and reap the fame and monetary rewards he thinks will occur, THEN write whatever you want.

    D. It’s Saturday, you don’t have to solve the world’s problems today. Leave it for Monday.

  7. Louise Ure

    Cocktail party mates aside, I think you can honor your editor’s request quite easily. Like J.D., what I love about genre fiction (our genre, that is) is the gray areas of life it covers. Your work has always done that. Throw in a baseball bat murder if you like, but don’t make it the central part of your story. I’ve always thought that your books would read just as well without the murder in them, and that’s because you live in that gray zone.

  8. Rae

    It’s a helluva conundrum, Miss C. I wish I had intelligent advice to offer – or even stupid advice 😉

    I just know you’re a great writer, with or without baseball bats. So whatever story you tell will be something I want to read.

  9. Leslie

    From my very limited experience, plotting is much harder than writing. Once I know what happens, what I want to convey in a scene, and what I want to say about the characters, getting something on the page much easier. Not to say I don’t struggle with the writing and need both rewriting and critique, but there is a lot less banging of my forehead on the keyboard and a lot more actual words on the page, aha moments, and exhilaration.

    I find as I devote the time to plot, I discover insights that enrich the characters and as I work on the characters, I gain new perspectives on the story. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way through it, plotting is just a hard slog. I’d love someone to prove me wrong on this point and find an easier way, so if anyone has a great approach please let us all in on the secret! Hearing more detail about how successful writers figure out their plots, brainstorm their outlines, and build their structure might make it easier to get through it.

    I guess misery loves company, it gives me hope of getting through it to hear published authors struggle with my nemesis also!

    And Cornelia, I’ve enjoyed both your current books, eagerly await the third, and would be very disappointed if you abandoned the genre. Your voice, dialog, and description are wonderful… and they all have a place in the genre for the very reasons you wrote about here.

  10. Cornelia Read

    Lori, I get what you’re talking about too… the whole "Cabot Cove Syndrome" thing of there just HAPPENING to be another murder amongst the same people is a little tough to deal with. I guess I’m just not sure if I’m a good enough writer to make things intriguing if my characters are going to diners and stuff without a murder to form a sort of plot spine. I’m so quick to run off down the nearest rabbit-hole of omphaloskepsis that I feel like a need a crime at the tiller to keep me on track.

    Kaley, I am seriously and profoundly blessed to have this man as my editor, and I don’t want to dismiss anything he says without a long hard look at what *I’m* doing, or not doing as the case may be. I do think he’s got my best interests at heart, and is pushing me in ways I’m lucky to get pushed, but at this point in my heart of hearts I think the genre is where I want to be–I just want to do it *better*, if I possibly can. Probably especially as this is the fourth book in a series, and there are some things I want to have my protagonist complete in this particular series arc. I would actually like to write a standalone for book five, if they’ll still have me–more historical espionage based on the life of a WWII spy chick I greatly admire.

    Jan, I’m with you. I think I’d like fish and chips with hollandaise, basically. And nothing amuses me more than a playlist studded with Puccini *and* Hendrix, you know? Even a little Carmen, for good measure. Therein lies the exquisite tension that "makes your mama wanna rock," so to speak.

    Derek, how perfect that you bring up that interview with Grisham. I have a great deal of respect for his success, but even if I could go the direction he has with his writing I don’t think I’d want to. The "distractions" are what I love reading about–the meat of the human condition, as it were. Grisham and Dan Brown will always be able to plot circles around me–thousands of them–but I prefer reading Scott Turow, or Tana, or Lee Child, all of whom make me turn the pages with great relish but also awe me with their insights and wisdom about what might seem like distractions in lesser hands. As to the literary writers–I’m merely annoyed by their dismissal of my neck of the woods as being literarily unworthy. What is this fixation with things having to be pointless if they’re to be taken seriously? There’s a reason Poe was featured at the upper right of that pantheon of poets illustration, above. I think making low-brow/high-brow distinctions merely on the basis of the areas of interest that define genres in broad strokes is stupid.

    Dusty, YES, you nailed this. I think the aims of crime fiction, when done well, have a sort of moral and spiritual weight. These are things we *need* to be talking about, as humans. Questioning… thinking about…. We have to go to the skeevy nether-belly of society both in order to endure and to become what we should be, I think. Where else is that being discussed in any meaningful way these days but in genre lit?

    PK, I love my editor, and I’m grateful he’s seen fit to challenge me to grow as a writer, I just want to make sure I don’t give up what matters most to me. And I’m thinking the same thing about plotting. Maybe that’s what I need to do most in this next book–focus on the thing I’m weakest at and do my best to master it. And thank God it’s Saturday. Now I just have to find the vacuum and attack the dust rhinos before they take over.

    Louise, you gladden my tiny black heart, and thank you. And back at you–your gray zones are amazing, and they make your work absolutely sing and a joy to read.

    Rae, New Hampshire misses you!!!

  11. Catherine Shipton

    I’m going to approach this from another direction. I get the Cabot Cove syndrome, because there are times that I’ve thought to myself, that person could do with Jessica Fletcher befriending them…it’s just that if I take my own life as an example there seems to be a lot of mayhem just stirring on the edges year in year out. It’s not that I live in an area where major crime is happening every minute of every day, but at the same time it sort of is. It was only a small Australian coastal town I grew up in, and I’m still only living 30 minutes away now, up in the hinterland.

    I grew up behind a police station, it then it relocated to two doors up the road. Over the last 30 years there have been lots of strong police work, and some corruption and some really stupid, how the hell did you think you could get away with that level corruption. Ongoing.

    I vaguely remember being a really small child and a bomb killing another child about my age a few streets away. The son of my parents theatre friend’s who always creeped me out went on to rape old women.My first boss’s son committed really hideous murder in the woods where we used to hang out at behind the bowling club…this was in the woods with what we thought was a church club bush altar that we believed was used by the local satanists. Then you have the date rape, and abuse of people I grew up with. Oh and one friend who accelerated through the bank system to become a bank manager very young and then embezzled them, this same friend whose husband was a police man. Twenty years later she is now a lecturer at my local uni in entrepreneurship. There is the boy that used to put me on his shoulders at concerts that later went onto become the greater districts drug lord. If it wasn’t posting at 4am because I can’t sleep I could probably list a lot more crime that’s touched my life. Not dwarfed my life, or consumed it, but really has been part of it.

    It did throw me a little the other day, when my eldest daughter said to me, ‘ I hate state forests.’ I sort of looked at her and asked ‘Why?’ She then listed all the crimes that had gone down in and around the state forest were we live.I can’t remember it all, but here’s some;

    a friend of her’s at highschool whose mum and poodle went missing walking in the state forest (My daughter went on to describe the unease and sorrow she felt about this still)

    the hitch hikers that went missing near there, the gay biker couple that were found shot on a creekbank at the edge of the state forest,

    the time all the roads were closed to catch the guy that had murdered his friend and left him in the state forest…oh he also had a mega weapons cache in the ceiling of the house a little way up the road from where we lived.

    Her best friend at work has just discovered that the friend that never turned up to a party a couple of years ago, the one whose car was found a couple of days later with significant blood on the seats, has been found…in the state forest. This is about 100 metres from where the car had been found and his body is only found 5 years later?

    Anyway point being that if most people look there are dark things going on all the time. Sometimes it’s to your brother or sister, sometimes your best friend, or your parent’s friends son, or your school friends, or someone that just lives near by and is the same age as you…it just depends on your level of attention to what is going on around you. Good stuff happens, bad shit happens…it just happens.

    To me it is often knowing the motivation for why people do the things they do that is the mystery…I mean I know on a surface level, and a little deeper, but it’s in crime fiction that I find the even deeper answers.

  12. Cornelia Read

    Leslie, thank you so much for reading both books, and I totally agree with you about plotting. I can figure out how to describe stuff, and can even think of witty repartee on occasion, but the big picture high concept snap-crackle-pop stuff is extremely hard for me.

    Catherine, I agree with you about the dark stuff that touches one’s life. I could run a similar list of crimes and people affected by crimes that have gone on around me too close for comfort, even though I grew up in a supposedly bucolic tourist town whose famous "quaintness" I found as cloying as being stuck in a Thomas Kinkade painting. There is just something in me that wants to delve into all that darkness and come up with some kind of answers about why it keeps cropping up. And don’t get me started on the serial killings in Yosemite… saw a great presentation on that by George Fong, the FBI agent who was heading up the investigation, and then went to Yosemite two weeks later and found my brother-in-law from Syracuse had booked us all into the hotel at which the killer found the first three victims. And NO ONE up there for the weekend with me wanted to talk about it, which made me kind of nuts. I do indeed think I’ve found my tribe.

  13. BCB

    First of all, I think there’s a big difference between saying someone sucks at procedural stuff and saying they can’t plot effectively. Are you sure you and your editor are talking about the same thing?

    I’m going to go way out on a limb and assume he’s not urging you to write literary fiction, given the reference to commercial success, but that you write in a different genre. And I really don’t think he meant you should suddenly write about butterflies and bunny rabbits. I assume he knows you better than that. Hell, even I know you better than to suggest that.

    Other genres have form. You don’t need to wander aimlessly just because it’s not a mystery. I bet there are two or twelve writers over here who could help you with that. Just saying.

    This struck a chord with me when you said:

    Also, I just have a perverse fascination with crime generally, and murder in particular. I don’t think there’s any human conundrum more morbidly intriguing than the question of why we kill each other. I want to know what that part of us is, I want to see if there’s any way to keep it from happening. I care deeply about justice, and morality, and what it all means in the end.

    So, in order to do that you have to start with a murder and then solve it? I haven’t read your books (yet) but I’m going to trust your editor is correct about your talent for description, dialog and voice. Can you address the things you care deeply about as they pertain to what happens before the murder? Tell the story from the beginning rather than figuring it out afterward? I suspect doing that might require you to go deeper emotionally. I also suspect you’d be awesome at it.

    Write a few thousand words and see where it takes you.

  14. Cornelia Read

    BCB, I don’t actually start with a murder so far in any of the novels to date. In the second one, nobody dies until about page 150. It’s just that my protagonist has difficulty getting off her ass and doing anything but just ruminate about it all that’s the problem, I think. And we did get into the specifics of plotting and genre on the phone. When I wrote him a thank-you email for the conversation, his response was "remember, you don’t have to rely on genre for your structure." He really is a great editor, but I’m just feeling more like the answer for me lies in going more deeply *through* it than around it, you know?

  15. Shannon Esposito

    Not much left to say here, except I think they should make a new genre called "literary mysteries". Why should the market control the writer? Why can’t the writers write what they want and control the market? sigh….I know the answer, just frustrated with the labels.

  16. John McFetridge

    Great post.

    Lots of literary novels have murders (and other crimes) in them – what they often don’t have are arrests or solutions.

    The DH Lawrence quote is terrific because he talks about art being moral. It’s when we bring justice into it that it can become genre (it says, "a mystery," on the cover of my novels, too, but sometimes I think literature gets a bad rap – there is some good liteature being written these days).

    The idea of the story of the woman killed by either her ex-husband or son opens up so many possibilities. Do you really need someone to solve it in order to say all the things about it that you want to say?

  17. Tom

    Cornelia, I doubt you are capable of writing anything boring. First of all, you wouldn’t bother. Your senses seem to be wide-open as you gather experiences, and you’re able to retell the tale without much filtering. I admire that about your work.

    Your editor’s comment sounds very encouraging. By all means, break the conventions that don’t suit you. And if you want to try a ‘Swiss watch’ plot construction, I have no doubt you’ll find a way to do so that stands the norms of plotting on their head. You will astonish yourself, and us.

    BTW, I love the details in your writing – the bespoke shotgun, the Herreshoff treasure at dock, so many more about the people Madeleine sees. Those specifics let me see and feel her world.

  18. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    You have the talent and persistence to succeed at whatever you set your mind to.

    At the end of the day, you have to live, breath and sweat these characters, this story, for a large percentage of your waking – and probably sleeping – hours.

    Write the story you want to devote yourself to, and the rest will surely follow ;-]

  19. Cornelia Read

    Shannon, I agree. Sigh.

    John, I was already thinking about not having my protage solve it, but showing what happened in a flashback at the end. Not sure that will work well, but it’s something I was thinking about for another earlier version of this novel that I’d like to try.

    Tom, thank you. And it was fun getting a free Holland & Holland shotgun and a Herreshoff–at least imaginary ones.

    Zoe and Alafair, have I told you lately that I love you? Thank you both for saying what you did here.

  20. toni mcgee causey

    We could always go use one of these: http://wondermark.com/554/

    But seriously, your writing is stunning. Whatever it is you focus on will be fascinating, because it’s you–I don’t think you could be boring if you tried. They’ll figure out what it is and how to market it when it’s done. (Besides, the market changes constantly.)

  21. Viva

    As usual, I’m late to the party, but I hope not too late to add my two centavos.

    Cornelia, yes, PLEASE write your book your way. Your instincts haven’t failed you yet. Trust them.

    The discrimination against genre fiction annoys me (and you too, I know). Why the stigma with writing crime fiction well? Or more specifically: why can’t writers just write? I know there’s the marketing aspect, but I don’t get it. I go into Barnes and Noble, and all the "crime fiction" is crammed into the same space, regardless of whether it’s cozy, hard-boiled or Michael Chabon.

    The Jessica Fletcher syndrome connects tangentially to Brett Battles ‘stand alone’ post of a couple days ago. What I miss by reading stand alones vs. series is having a living breathing character to hang on to beyond THE END. What I adore about your first two books is I know the protagonist, but the "trappings" are entirely different.

    While I understand your editor’s concern, and the enthusiasm to showcase your impressive talent, it’s imperative to do what feels right to you. In the end, it doesn’t matter what reviewers or readers say if you aren’t proud/happy with your work. There will always be that nagging doubt you didn’t give your all.

    Good writing is good writing. Genre has nothing to do with it. Michael Chambon and Tana French are only two of many examples. So work on your plotting skills if you feel you must, but always, always write for yourself.


  22. Kaye Barley

    late. AGAIN. dang.
    I hope I haven’t missed you with this, Cornelia.
    First – I echo every word Louise said.
    My first reaction after reading your piece today was "WHAT is this editor thinking?!"
    Then I realized he is giving you really really REALLY (i think) great advice. Cornelia – the strengths he mentions are, without a doubt, your uber strengths. Few can match you in these areas. You have this man for a reason, and he’s with you for a reason. You both believe in one another – you’re both experts in your respective "jobs." Go join (even if only temporary) that "other" group for awhile if only to liven them up and insert some REAL life into their lives. Set the world spinning, honey then come back to the tribe. No one – not your writer pals, not your fans – is going to feel you abandoned them. Just view it as spreading your wings.
    p.s. – LOVE the picture of Roman and Marlena!!

  23. Karen Olson

    Have you ever read Stewart O’Nan? Several of his novels have a crime at the center of the story, but it it not the center of the story. Everything around the crime is the center. THE GOOD WIFE, SONGS OF THE MISSING, SNOW ANGELS, these are literary novels with crimes in them. It can be done. And I agree with Louise, I think this would be more your forte anyway.

  24. Ariel

    As you know, I question your editor’s grasp of the market. And I have been meaning to tell you that I just heard an interview on NPR with this guy who wrote a book about a guy who sets out to write a bestseller for the basest, most commercial reasons possible. He reviews all the bestsellers so he can do it. And the first rule is, put a murder in it. I think his fictional book is entitled something like "The Jane Austen Detective Club." Which literally makes me laugh out loud while I’m writing it. I think you need to present your editor with a really kick-ass mystery plot.

    I could be wrong but as my friend Lisa Gomberg always says, "Everyone is entitled to my opinion."
    Love, Ariel

  25. Auntie Knickers

    I would certainly read a book about Madeleine even if there were no murder, but I can’t quite visualize what it would be like or what other "genre" it might fit into — domestic fiction perhaps? (Like Ann Patchett or Beth Gutcheon.) I think so far you’ve avoided "Cabot Cove Syndrome" by (a) having your protagonist move around and (b) the mysteries come naturally to the situations Madeleine is in. And I don’t see anything wrong with your plots either. I am not a writer but I do read 100-200 books a year, and a great many of them are mysteries, so I think I’m part of your target audience.

  26. creatine

    When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton is the story of a Midwest family through the generations narrated by Mac, the son who grew up with Madeline, a sister figure with mental retardation. Madeline was actually Mac’s father’s first wife who was left with the mental capacities of a 7-year-old after a bike accident.

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  28. David Thayer

    Cornelia, Maybe this is one of those moments where you’ve got Mozart banging away at the Paramus Mall and some guy walks past and thinks "this Mozart can play" and pretty soon he’s booked at the Vegas Sands backing up Jerry Lee Lewis to a fight crowd who’ve lost a fortune in frequent flyer miles.
    This is not about genre, it’s about you. Go to Vegas, see what happens.

  29. JT Ellison

    I have to say, I think you should write the book and worry about what it is after. My favorite literary novel that’s really a mystery is The Lovely Bones. No one’s calling that "genre", but it’s got death and rape and crime, etc. I think you could take your inimitable, brilliant style and blow the doors off. I think what your editor is saying is you’ve got such a unique style, he can market it across the boundaries. This is a Very Good Problem to have.

  30. PJ Parrish

    Hi Cornelia,

    Whew. What a dilemma. I read all of this with great interest but here’s the line that really stood out for me:

    "I’m just feeling more like the answer for me lies in going more deeply *through* it than around it, you know?"

    Yeah, I know. You call the genre’s conventions a sonnet. I liken them to classical ballet (only five positions but oh, what an artist can create from that!) I’m thinking your editor is just trying to position you for a wider audience in these tough times; thank God you have someone who cares. But I’m wondering why he’s asking you to subtract from what you do rather than add? Is de-emphasizing plot going to make you a stronger writer? Is jettisoning the genre’s formula going to give you more freedom? Do you rebel against the conventions or do you illuminate them in a dazzling new way? Martha Graham or George Balanchine? You choose.

    Like others have said, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. I’m with you. I think you go more deeply through it, not around it. Especially if you have real talent. If this were easy, any old literary hack could write crime fiction.

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