Recently, over a thousand crime fiction writers, readers, editors, publishers, and critics descended on Raleigh, North Carolina for the worldwide mystery genre convention known as Bouchercon. Every day, panels were held to discuss the writing and marketing processes behind the books you see in bookstores. Every day, writers gathered to talk shop, swap stories, compare themselves to others, tout their works on panels, and try to make new contacts that might further their careers. Guests of honor were celebrated and authors were available to sign their books for anyone kind enough to ask.
But as is the case in our industry itself, there was a missing piece to Bouchercon: where was the celebration of the writing itself? Because, you know, it really ought to be about the writing. Somewhere along the way, the writing itself has ended up in last place, an afterthought to marketing and sales. And what we do when we gather together reflects that.
Yes, publishers need to sell books. Yes, to write a bestseller you probably need to deliver certain elements that readers expect. But the crime genre encompasses a lot of different viewpoints and writing styles and it is impossible to pigeonhole every book into a neat slot. What I want to know is why we even try. Instead of rushing to label every book, why not honor the writing and the author voice that went into it first?
Thalia Press tried to do just that that on Thursday evening, the second night of the convention. Thanks to the owners of The Berkeley Café in downtown Raleigh, we were able to secure a relaxed space and put the word out that a People’s Reading would be held. Any writer was welcome to come and read from his or her book; any reader was welcome to come and read from a favorite work. We had no idea if anyone would come. We knew that at least three members of the Thalia Press Authors Co-op would be there: me, Lisa McClendon, and Kate Flora. But beyond that, well — let’s just say it was a leap of faith that caused some of us to have a few beers before the event even began. Maybe everyone would be too busy comparing advances or swapping gossip to attend? Maybe they would consider it too boring to hear a bunch of authors read? Maybe the last thing authors wanted to do was hear other authors read? And it’s kind of sad that these were even possibilities because, well, because isn’t that what writing is supposed to be all about in the end: the voice, the book, the experience?
Lise and I arrived at the reading at 6:00 PM to find a group of people already there, people willing to skip the opening ceremonies and the scramble for free food for the chance to hear books. Even more miraculous, many of them were readers, with writers scattered among them willing to read their books and let their voices be heard. It was a simple setup: a microphone in the corner, a spotlight on the reader, an invitation to read out loud while a bar full of people drank beer, sometimes talked above you, listened or didn’t listen, but nonetheless were there for one reason only: to hear the writing.
Kevin Burton Smith started the reading off with a wonderful example of how voice can define a story. He was soon followed by JD Rhodes, who damn near stole the show with his Elmore Leonard-meets-Jacqueline Susann novel entitled Ice Chest, coming out in February. Dusty’s southern accent floated out over the hubbub of the bar and the story he was telling captivated everyone lucky enough to be within hearing distance. As he was reading, lo and behold, still more readers and writers arrived. One-by-one, people took the stage to share their latest book: Michele Dorsey, Brian Thiem, Edith Maxwell, Brenda Buchanan. If I have forgotten anyone, please identify yourself in the comments section and I will make sure you are added to this wonderful list. Cat Warren, author of the best-selling What the Dog Knows, read a section from her nonfiction work that elicited question after question from an audience curious to know about scent dogs. Eventually, Lise, Kate, and I all read from our group novel, Beat Slay Love. And a fan, Sandi Loper, stood up to read from a book by one of her favorite authors — Trey R. Barker — persuading Trey to take the microphone and tell us more about his desert noir series, books I am now thoroughly enjoying reading. In the end, while the jazz band up after us waited in the wings to take center stage, nearly three hour’s worth of readings flew by, spanning the range of subgenres in the crime fiction field. The authors who read came from all over as well – and all of them were listened to.
It wasn’t a fancy concept. All we needed was a clean, well lighted place, a bartender, and a microphone. All we needed were writers brave enough to take the stage and read from their work, and readers willing to sit still and listen. We got all that and more. We got a taste of the richness of our genre, a look at its diversity, and the chance to hear writers we had never met before and may never have heard of, if not for this gathering. For once, it was all about the writing and it was really, truly quite cool.
I am sorry that the business side of crime fiction has taken over so many hearts and minds in crime fiction. So many of us are authors who now write in hopes of catching the latest wave and snagging a big fat advance, regardless of the quality of our work or whether it contributes anything original to our genre. Virtually all editors today now base their decision on whether to buy or not solely on how many copies they think they can sell. And the agents? Well, the agents have always been about the sale. It’s just that, every now and then, I wish one of them would stand up and say, “It ought to be about the writing, at least a little.”
It was great to talk shop at Bouchercon. It was great to meet new friends. And it was beyond great to touch base with old ones. But in all the days that followed, and all the things that happened, it was the simple, unadorned act of listening to words that Thursday night that I will remember best. Because this is why I became a writer in the first place: the lure of the voice, the ability of words to transport me to some place new, the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. In the end, it’s all about the writing – and, honestly, it ought to be about the writing all the damn time.