by J.D. Rhoades
Back when I was in college (UNC-Chapel Hill), I took some classes in the creative writing curriculum. At the time, I was writing short stories in the genres I loved: science fiction and mystery. My professor was rather sniffy about genre fiction. Mystery, he claimed, was a lesser form of writing because it relied on puzzles and on “tricking” the reader. But he reserved his special scorn for science fiction. Sci-fi, he claimed, could not be real literature, depending as it did on gimmicks and deus ex machina. But, I protested, what about Kurt Vonnegut? What are Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle if not science fiction? He just smiled indulgently and told me that Vonnegut wasn’t really a science fiction writer, he just used the conventions of the genre in literary fiction.
I could have strangled the man. Some days, I’m amazed that I didn’t.
It’s an old and irritating prejudice: genre fiction can’t possibly be real literature. If it’s good enough to be real literature, it’s not genre fiction. I was pondering this recently while reading a book lent to me by a friend, Tim O’Brien’s 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.
By any measure, this is a mystery story: Kathy Wade, the wife of failed Senatorial candidate John Wade, has disappeared from the cabin where the couple went to regroup after the collapse of the campaign. Did he kill her? Did she run off? Did she die by accident? As the story unfolds, the crimes of Wade’s past come to light. It’s a riveting book, gripping from the first page to the last. It’s brilliantly and evocatively written. And, as I said, clearly a mystery, or, to be even more accurate, crime fiction. Yet in none of the reviews or accolades I’ve read for this book is it referred to as such. That, I suppose, would make it less literary. Less serious.
As Nero Wolfe would say, Pfui.
Another book I’ve read and loved recently is Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing, which I got for Christmas.
Like In the Lake of the Woods, The Most Dangerous Thing deals with the repercussions of an old crime that casts a long and blighted shadow down through the lives of five childhood friends. It’s a fantastic book, filled with complicated and realistic (and seriously screwed up) characters. The prose is simply stunning. I’d put this book up against any so-called ‘literary’ fiction you’d care to name.
Laura, bless her, is unapologetic about calling her books crime fiction. And yet, inevitably, some reviewer has to come along and claim that her work, or some other other work of crime fiction, or sf, or romance “transcends genre”, because it’s well-written, as if being good disqualifies it from being genre.
These works don’t transcend genre; they show us how good the genre can be. They do that because the authors realize that, at their heart, these are stories not about crimes, but about the people affected by them. It’s not the mystery that pulls us in, it’s the people. It’s not the mysteries that bring us back to series characters like Casey Jones, Robin Hudson, Simon Shaw, et. al.; it’s the characters themselves, and often the supporting cast.
Don’t get me wrong, plot is important. But plot alone without characters you care about is…well, it’s exactly the sort of crap that my professor looked down on. And characters without plot…well, it’s exactly the sort of crap that all to often passes for literary fiction these days.
Tell us, if you would, about some books you’ve read that weren’t called mysteries—but should have been. Or some books that you think, in the words of critic Oline Cogdill, don’t “transcend” the genre, but instead elevate it.