Transcending which genre?

David Montgomery— —talked recently about the perennial question of crime versus literary fiction. In this case it was triggered by a Janet Maslin review of the new historical novel by Dennis Lehane, The Given Day, which Maslin describes as a “fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre.”

One has to ask, along with David, just what those confines might be. At least half the books I’ve written have had the phrases “transcends the genre” or “pushing the envelope of crime fiction” tacked onto one of the reviews, and since I’m classified as a crime writer, and my books are never shelved outside of the Mystery sections of bookstores, all that tells me is that I’m writing better novels than are expected by people of my kind.

This condescending note is a thing many of us in the crime fiction community have become accustomed to—Gee, this isn’t half bad!—and I assume Maslin did not intend to be offensive. It’s tough enough to write a review that says precisely what you think, in a short space, on deadline, without boring yourself silly with repetition.

When my husband taught at UC Santa Cruz, he would occasionally be saddled with lecture hall classes, and his student numbers would go up by a factor of ten that quarter. Which was fine, since lectures can be less work than seminars, except that UCSC was committed to the system of narrative evaluations, the theory being that a paragraph from the instructor gave a more accurate picture of that student’s strengths and weaknesses than a mere grade. The system that had been adopted when UCSC had no classrooms that held more than 30 fell apart with classes of 300, and professors like my husband had to write out 300 repetitive paragraphs, trusting that, if anyone ever read the transcript, they would understand that “promising student” meant this was a kid who never handed anything in, that “imaginative” meant they were unable to stay on the subject at hand, and that calling someone “creative” at UCSC meant “complete whacko.”

In the same way, saying a book marketed as a crime novel “transcends the genre” is reviewer shorthand for a book that does a good job at the bigger picture. All crime novels have to follow certain rules—laying out clues for the reader, say, and giving the mystery some kind of resolution—but that does not mean that a crime novel is be limited by those rules.

Nicholas Freeling, a writer not much read these days but well worth seeking out in used bookstores, has a book on writing called Criminal Convictions. In it he says, “The ‘mystery’ genre is trash because badly written; agreed. But also because it trivializes a noble theme.”

Death, justice, and the restoration of order lie at the base of all crime novels (and a lot of novel, period) from darkest noir to frothiest chick-lit. In some novels, those themes are covered over with other concerns: the tantalizing puzzle of intellect, the entertainment of humor. In others, the dark themes act more like the massive supporting cables that anchor a structure to a cliff or seabed, cables that dominate the structure’s appearance and define its very shape and every motion.

When a reviewer describes a book as moving past the confines of the genre, either he or she doesn’t understand crime fiction, or that reviewer is using shorthand for, This is a book whose supporting cables are powerful and always visible.

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  1. LaideeMarjorie on September 29, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    “…and I assume Maslin did not intend to be offensive.”

    But, Laurie, she IS being offensive. Ignorance does not excuse someone who makes their profession by the critical review of literature. I think that you and the rest of the mystery writing community should band together and take her (and the Times) to task. Easier said than done, I realize, when a positive review from the Times can increase sales.

    This attitude from the New York Times also affects their theatre coverage (my other area of special interest) where Ben Brantley can still close a Broadway show (and lose hundreds of people their jobs) because he was in a pissy (or snobby) mood that day.

    Ugh! Critics. The few good ones (James Agee, Brooks Atkinson, Elliot Norton) have gone the way of the doodoo bird.


  2. Pat Floyd on September 30, 2008 at 12:14 am

    I understand the convenience of labeling fiction. The reader, the book seller, and the librarian are served in various ways by such categories–but perhaps not the writer. However, to stereotype the various genres is a disservice to literature and shows a lack of knowledge of the scope of writing in those genres. And being stuck in history is no excuse. Are we, for instance, to identify crime fiction with Mickey Spillane when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been writing long before Spillane?

    I must confess my own ignorance on one score. I’ve encountered fine writing dealing with important issues of life in crime/mystery fiction, science fiction and fantasy, historical fiction, and less easily defined categories. But can the same be said for romance? or is it still identified with the bodice rippers?

  3. nkk1969 on September 30, 2008 at 7:22 am

    (But can the same be said for romance? or is it still identified with the bodice rippers?)

    Interesting question, Pat.

    This is something we’ve discussed at length on another message board. Some series initially classified as romance have more to do with mystery, historical elements, and even sci-fi, but are still shelved in the romance sections. Sure, there are still paperback romance novels that will never be anything but bodice rippers or chick-fic (a subcategory, deemed slightly under chick-lit on the literary ladder). However, sometimes publishers have the idea romance will sell a story more effectively than trying to give the book a more accurate classification.

    Sex happens. Fictional characters have sex just like real people. What defines a story as romance, though? There’s a fair bit of romance (not sex, romance in the true sense of the word) in the Russell series, but one would never put it next to bodice rippers on a shelf to try to sell it. Romance is mostly associated with bad writing and phrases like quivering member. I, for one, don’t think every story with romantic overtones has to be badly written and contain no important issues. There should be excellent writing and deeper subjects, even in brain candy. But, maybe that’s just me. Who knows? (shrug)


  4. ladonna on September 30, 2008 at 9:25 am

    (warning — La Donna wearing her cataloging librarian hat …) Categorizing fiction is a huge issue in libraries (especially public libraries). About 25 years ago there was a move toward categorizing fiction … westerns in this corner, science fiction in that corner, mysteries over there, romances here and so on. The problem became where to draw the line … is this historical fiction or a mystery set in a particular historical period?, science fiction or alternative history or fantasy?, and what do we do about all the different types of mysteries … detective fiction? spy novels? crime fiction? whodunit? Some libraries still practice a certain amount of categorization but it all comes down to a cataloger making a decision based on publishers description, author’s previous works or a really quick glance at the book jacket. With slashed budgets (find out how your public library is funded and then go plague whoever makes the $$$ decisions!!) we have less and less time to make these judgements and are relying more and more on what we call copy cataloging — someone else cataloged it (usually via Library of Congress pre-publication information) and we just take the information and run with it.

    It wasn’t until about 15 years ago (uh-oh she’s launched in to university lecturer mode now!!) that catalog records (again initiated by Library of Congress) began to include subject headings (indicating “about-ness”) for fiction. And it wasn’t until about 2000 that we started to routinely include genre headings (“is-ness” — don’t you just love jargon!!). But again a lot of this is “cataloger’s judgement” and the time available for thorough cataloging.

    Unfortunately there are a lot of patrons/users/clients/readers who will only read certain genres. And if you have a section of books labelled “Mysteries” they never find things that are miscategorized or defy categorization (think Andrew Greeley and Anne Perry to start with).

    Well, I feel better now. Lecture mode off and I’ll get back to cataloging young adult fiction (again … where do you draw the line? argh!!) Better have a cuppa before I get started.

  5. Strawberry Curls on September 30, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Excellent points everyone. This discussion has opened my eyes to the fact that I have dismissed certain genre because I tried them years and years ago and unfortunately found some pretty poor writing and therefore, painting with a broad brush, decided I didn’t like certain types of books. In truth I was too lazy, and later too pressed for time, to find the good writers in these genres.

    Funny, I was just last night trying to explain to someone that the Mary Russell books were not just mysteries (this person doesn’t read mysteries) that they were more about people and issues than any mystery that was woven into the story.

  6. tangential1 on September 30, 2008 at 11:45 am

    I’ve given up reading most of the reviews for a book; especially if they are short reviews. Phrases like “transcends the genre” really are meaningless. My thought is, if the review is going to be less than 100 words and contain meaningless phrases like “transcends the genre,” it’s kind of a waste of my time to read it and I’m better off making a guess about the book based on the jacket synopsis.

    Happily, a not-for-profit independent book review just started up in Sacramento in September. They’ve got reviews for genre fiction as well as non-fiction and “literature,” and all of the reviews are submitted by independent reviewers who aren’t being paid to review. The organizers said that they were inspired to start this new publication because they were disheartened by the disappearing book review sections in the local papers and periodicals. I think the results were much more honest and helpful than anything I’ve seen elsewhere (with the exception of BookSense maybe). Looking forward to next months issue.

  7. Mark W. Tiedemann on October 10, 2008 at 10:09 am

    We’ve been putting up with this in science fiction for decades. In Sven Birkerts’ review of Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx & Crake” a couple years back, he came out and declared that “science fiction will never be Literature with a capital L, because SF privileges premise over character.”

    Nonsense, of course—plenty of so-called Literature with a capital L does that, yet remains unquestionably Literary. Yet there’s the prejudice. I’ve seen it applied in less bald-faced a manner to westerns, romance, war novels, and, yes, mystery. What it seems to me to come down to is a kind of desire not to be “childish” on the part of those who only and ever wish to be taken “seriously.” Too much fun is, somehow, trivial.

    Fortunately, I’m seeing this break down. It seems to be suffering cancer of the pretense.

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