I admit it: All of the eleven books and numerous short stories I’ve written and published so far can only really be classified as “crime fiction.” For the most part, crime and mystery is what I grew up reading, so it’s only natural that this is what I most enjoy writing. By any honest definition, I’m a “genre” writer.
Many people in my profession would say I should treat this fact like a dirty little secret. Or, at the very least, I should be discreet about it. Because the word “genre” kills. It kills credibility, it kills book sales, it kills any chance a writer might have of winning the most prestigious literary awards. To some folks, “genre” is just shorthand for “brain candy,” and no amount of reasonable argument on your part will ever change their minds.
Because, let’s face it, a lot of genre fiction is crap. There, I’ve said it.
Ironically, though, I don’t think it’s the general quality of genre writing that haters find so objectionable. It’s the mere fact that genre fiction seeks to entertain more then anything else. The genre author’s great crime is a lack of ambition; we don’t aim high enough. If we were really trying, if we held our art in the proper esteem, we wouldn’t much give a damn how much “fun” our work is to read. What we’d care about is how deeply affected it leaves every reader, how much effort it takes to absorb and properly comprehend. “Real” fiction doesn’t go down easy; it burns and catches in the throat, then sits at the bottom of the belly where, over time, it can be fully digested.
Needless to say, this is a very myopic viewpoint that lumps immensely talented writers like James Lee Burke and Martin Cruz Smith into the same gene pool as Grandy Pike, Jr., author of the Pioneer Spring Water Delivery Guy mystery series, and C.C. Hurpington, the writer behind the Optometrists of America’s Cornea Award-winning thriller, EYE THE JURY. It’s a ludicrous generalization that does insult to the many great writers whose work within genre could easily measure up to that of most authors working outside of it. It’s like saying Count Basie and Lawrence Welk were equally insignificant because they were both just bandleaders.
Still, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to humor those who think there’s a concrete difference between genre fiction and non-genre fiction and concede the point, at least to this extent: As a general rule, genre fiction does indeed tend to be less emotionally wieldy than literary fiction. It reads faster and ends on a more satisfactory note (which is to say, it doesn’t leave the reader seeking out the nearest bridge from which to take a suicidal leap).
So given the above, you’d think that, if genre fiction were to get its fair share of media props anywhere, it would be on the annual “Summer Reading” lists that fans, reviewers and bloggers like to compile at this time of year. Isn’t summer the time for deck chairs, fruity mixed drinks and long naps in the shade? For escaping from all of one’s troubles to pretend, just for a week or two, that all is right with the world? If you can’t dispense with the need for everything you read to be intellectually demanding and edifying in the summer, when can you?
Well, it seems that some literary experts can’t bring themselves to stoop all the way down to genre level even for the brief respite from mainstream fiction that summer vacations offer. I’ve just taken a gander at NPR’s 15 Soaring Summer Reads, compiled by three independent booksellers, no less, and there is nothing remotely resembling a bonafide genre title on the list. The intro pretty much explains the snub:
As days get longer and the sun’s rays get stronger, books that are lighter and brighter stand a better chance of squeezing into packed beach bags and suitcases. But that doesn’t mean summer books need to be weightless.
Ah-ha. Did you get that? It’s okay to celebrate summer by lowering your reading standards to the “lighter” and “brighter” levels, but that “weightless” stuff publishers’ catalogs actually refer to openly as “mysteries” and “thrillers”? Surely there’s no need to take things that far.
It’s a crying shame. Because it’s readers who lose out when booksellers and reviewers blow golden opportunities like this one to relieve them of the misconception that any book centered around a fictional crime can’t possibly be worth their time.
Even during the summer, when they’ve been given a free pass to simply enjoy the act of reading for a change.