Transcending which genre?
http://www.crimefictionblog.com/2008/09/the-confines-of.html —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.