A Fan’s Notes

Oh boy, the literary fiction versus crime fiction debate has come around again.

Was the sarcasm evident above?

Is it just me, or are we having this discussion even more often now? Whatever one thinks about crime fiction — the best, all-purpose label, encompassing more than “thriller” or “mystery” or “whodunit”* — nothing is more formulaic than the semi-annual thumbsuckers on the genre, which require that 1) someone point out that crime fiction is popular (yes) 2) that it is formulaic (some, not all) 3) that it is a conservative form that breaks the world in order to re-order it, granting readers the illusion of control missing in daily life (true dat**, most of the time) 4) that it is ultimately inferior to literary fiction because if a crime novel is really good, it can’t be a crime novel.

And don’t forget the always present subtext: If you make a lot of money writing, you can’t ask for anything else, greedy guts.

Let’s insert Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, into the formula. (It’s a book I admired, although I found it far from perfect.) It was popularly, wildly so. Was it formulaic? Well, it followed a traditional three-act structure in which characters were presented with mounting challenges and conflicts, relationships were torn asunder, people died — and then — the world was re-orderd. Number four obviously doesn’t apply. The most experimental aspect to Freedom was the use of an autobiography, written in the third person, about which I won’t say more because it would be a spoiler of sorts. It also, for me, was the novel’s weakest point.

The latest go-round was started by Philip Hensher, a writer whose (Man Booker nominated) The Northern Clemency I have been meaning to read for quite some time. Still do, am keener to read it in some ways, but my copy is in New Orleans and I’m in Baltimore. The “hook” is the latest longlist for the Booker prize, which includes some crime novels and whose jury is headed by a crime novelist, Stella Rimington. Steve Mosby, a crime writer I admire and like, has been facilitating the discussion on his blog, The Left Room. Reading there, I jumped to a link he posted from the Guardian, where something jumped out at me from the comments section, an assertion that Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum is undeniably better than Case Histories, the first novel in her Jackson Brodie series. This (so far) quartet of novels is a singular achievement in crime fiction.

Oh really? Well, I happen to have the inside track on what Atkinson thinks about her work. Click here, and pardon the fact that it’s a lot of me, and not a lot of her. She did me a tremendous favor by helping me put together this q-and-a for Amazon.

I love all of Atkinson’s work. She is one of the rare literary writers who has opened her heart and head to crime fiction and, in doing so, enriched it. Most literary writers go slumming, thinking it’s a way to make money. But it’s hard to do good work in a genre that you don’t respect.

For years, I had an ongoing argument with someone about whether the creators of South Park actually liked musicals. My antagonist said they clearly disdained them; I said their parodies were too good, revealing a knowledge borne of affection. I think The Book of Mormon has set the record straight on this, but just in case, give this a listen.

I appreciate the fact that younger, more energetic folks such as Steve are willing to stay in the fray and think it’s rather flattering that he’s been called a “wanker” by Hensher. Me, I am just too Lily Von Schtupp’ed out.

*When Peter Falk died, I saw a very smart journalist make a very dumb mistake, describing my beloved Columbo as a television whodunit in which viewers already knew who did it. Um, that’s a police procedural, which also falls under the umbrella of crime fiction.

**I have special dispensation to use “true dat” at a super-sized ironic level that almost no one else can achieve. Ditto, aiiiiiight and shorty.

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21 thoughts on “A Fan’s Notes

  1. Wonderful blog post! No wonder I love your books so much. Also had a great time with the imbedded links in this post. Now “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” and “The Book of Mormon” are on my “to-do” list.

  2. Laura, thanks for the links, and the introduction to a writer-new-to-me. Thanks also for participating in the MWA panel that I watched on the recently-arrived DVD collection from the 2011 Edgar Week symposium. I’m enjoying listening to all of you.

  3. If the discussion is coming around more often, its a good thing (IMHO) because I think genre fiction gains ground with each round in the bout.
    Of course, I’m still bitter that the Baltimore County Public LIbrary would not carry Nancy Drew books when I was a kid (decades and decades ago) and I had to spend my very limited allowance to buy them. It wasn’t even a matter for discussion then-just an automatic “No” from the librarian. Earlier, the same narrow collection development principles were applied to adult collections as well. There is good fiction and bad fiction and some fiction follows certain conventions and thus fits into certain genres but the answer to “Is it good?” is unrelated to the “Is it genre fiction?”
    On the other hand, what do I know? I always thought that Pride & Prejudice was a romance.

    • The small-town Texas library where I grew up, and where my mother was and is the director, had a run of Stratemeyer Syndicate books-the library was started with donations, and took what they could get. However, mother always discouraged me from reading them, saying they were formulaic junk (she was right about the formulaic, for sure) and there were lots of better things around. The result of this advice is that at age 54 I’ve never read a Nancy Drew, read one Happy Hollisters and maybe one Hardy Boys, and have lots of other favorites in my juvie arsenal that I still go back and read (Just So Stories, anyone?). Having a librarian who said “no” to Stratemeyer isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  4. Hopefully this is still on topic. If you haven’t seen this on-line interview with author Will Lavender, you might also find this interesting.
    Last question: “Put another way, what will it take for programs like a one we used to go to to trust that Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and others are, as we say, estimable of regard and reading?”
    For full article: http://www.bestnovels.org/p=857

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