Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Even Though I Can't Explain It I Already Know How Great It Is

Fifteen years ago my buddy Jim Coudal was staying at The Tropicana and he got on an elevator with some guys who were in Vegas attending a shoe convention. For several floors Jim eavesdropped on their foreign-sounding shop talk--wrap-ups and ten-bennies and knockdowns and books--and finally one of them said to the other, "Oh, that Florsheim 860 is a good shoe. I could sell that shoe even if the heel was on the front."

Ed Champion was at a convention recently. Ed is a litblogger who doesn't normally cover the suspense beat, at least not closely, but he went to Madison last week to observe Bouchercon as an outsider. I think that's what he was doing. Maybe he had another reason for being there, I'm not sure.

Bouchercon, if you don't know, is the annual mystery writers convention and it's basically a social and professional networking opportunity for writers and aspiring writers and hardcore mystery fans. (I explain this because I didn't know what Bouchercon was until I was out on my first book tour and was told by my publisher that I had been booked on a panel.) So Ed flies from San Francisco to Madison and he pokes around a little bit and it doesn't sound like he had much fun. Then at least one person he tries to talk to about "experimental" mystery fiction is inexcusably rude to him, and that plus a conversation he overhears between two strangers in a coffee shop causes him to conclude that Bouchercon is "a colossal joke."

Okay, fine. Ed is making some hasty generalizations and later he begs the question when he tries to use his Madison experience to explain why "the genre isn't taken seriously" and why mystery fans are "pilloried at home" without providing evidence that either of these statements is true. (His only attempt to establish this is to speculate why newspapers don't cover the event, but this isn't an industry convention like BEA, and guild conventions aren't exactly a staple of daily lifestyle sections. The sci-fi and comic cons you hear about are much more fan-oriented than Bouchercon and the only reason the dailies sometimes cover those is to get pics of all the dentists dressed up like jawas.)

But I don't bring this up just to nitpick the logic of Ed's post and I certainly don't bring it up to get people all frothy over his comments. Bouchercon can be great fun (and it's an important venue for building relationships with other authors) but even writers are ambivalent about how many books it sells. In fact Ed's impressions are pretty much what you'd expect. To a person with little or no interest in the subject, any convention probably should seem uncomfortable and pointless. Like a shoe with the heel on the front.

The reason I bring this up is because the question Ed posed to this unnamed and unmannered Bouchercon attendee is an interesting one, and it's too bad Ed didn't get the discussion it deserved. Since the writers and readers who congregate at this site are like a mini-Bouchercon of sorts, I thought I'd bring it up here.

Specifically, Ed wanted to know if there are "any mystery novelists, outside of James Ellroy, who might employ an experimental style?" I talked a little about this in the comments of Ed's post but I'd like to expand on it a little.

Genre distinctions are a primitive version of the algorithm that provides Amazon and Netflix and Tivo recommendations. If you like Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly then you might like John Sandford and Jeffrey Deaver. Or whatever. They can be helpful to certain readers who, for better or worse, want to narrow the field of possibilities for their next read. To qualify as genre a book has to meet a certain set of reader expectations. If it doesn't, then it's probably not a good recommendation for them.

So a writer who does much experimenting with the conventions of genre is probably no longer writing genre. A guy like Mark Danielewski used many horror staples to write HOUSE OF LEAVES, but HOUSE OF LEAVES isn't really a horror novel. David Mitchell riffed on a half-dozen different genres in his brilliant CLOUD ATLAS, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to fans of, say, Patrick O'Brian. Everywhere I go I tout the work of Walker Percy. Each of his later books was a genre novel on the surface--a thriller, a southern gothic romance, a dystopian sci-fi satire--but few would suggest Percy is a genre writer.

Most stores shelve CAST OF SHADOWS in the mystery section but I've gotten an earful from a few mystery fans because my book doesn't have a clearly defined hero and because, in the end, good doesn't necessarily triumph over evil. I like that kind of ambiguity in stories, but I also understand that not everybody does.

Nevertheless, the framework of the mystery is certainly flexible enough that it allows for boundless creativity (and I would even argue that some restrictions are necessary to produce great art, but that's a post for another day). There are plenty of writers who still meet certain expectations of the mystery reader while creating characters and stories and structures that are original and unexpected. Ed mentioned Ellroy. Another poster talked about Pete Dexter. I added John Burdett and Michael Gruber and Henning Mankell--all of whom write series procedurals about police detectives but with a real freshness, I think.

Stephen White has written 14 installments of his bestselling Alan Gregory series, but in his last one, KILL ME, Gregory is only a minor character. That was no doubt a risk for White who must have worried how his longtime fans would react, and while I have no idea how sales were for that book compared to previous ones, I think KILL ME is one of the very best in the series.

Experimental? Not in the way Ed was suggesting, I don't think. But I know it's a good book.

I would bet almost everyone here has read more books within the genre than me. Is there a suspense writer you'd call a real experimenter?


JA Konrath said...

That's a thoughtful and important question, Kevin, that I'm going to ignore and instead talk about cucumbers. Are they a vegetable or a fruit? Or are they one of those legume things? And does it even matter?

Don't you think science has gone to far with all of this "classifying" and "labeling"? Couldn't we just call the cucumber "delicious" and quit worrying about what prehistoric plant it decended from? (My guess: the pickle.)

Sorry you missed B'Con. I had an Alabama Catheter ready and waiting for you.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Hey Joe,

I'm sorry I missed Madison, as well. I am, however, in the process of inventing a drink called an Alabama Catheter, which I will popularize by having famous people drink it on TV (that part is a little fuzzy) and then years from now you'll be able to title a book ALABAMA CATHETER, which I know you desperately want to do. So far all I have is that it's got cranberry juice and you drink it through a straw.

I didn't set out to write a mystery or a thriller or some hybrid of the two. I wanted to tell a story. But I was conscious of the fact that there was a murder on page one and much of the book is concerned with finding out whodunit.

Genre distinctions aren't that valuable for writers, I don't think, but readers and booksellers and librararians and everyone who wants to talk about books will always demand them. And so a writer can't ignore that. You and I both know, Joe, that there's a sizable audience out there made up of people who only read suspense. And these are loyal and coveted readers. Maybe we don't think about that so much when we're writing, but at some point we have to acknowledge it.

It's weird how difficult it is to talk about, though, which might be the reason I posted this in the first place.

Laura said...


Laura Lippman here. We met in Virginia last year.

First -- what _is_ experimentation? It tends to be defined pretty narrowly and, usually, stylistically. But I think one of the more interesting experiments in our field is the genre book that defies expectations, yet somehow manages to satisfy genre fans.

A serial killer novel that turns out not to be a serial killer novel.
Is that "experimental"? I think so, in that it manages to satisfy mystery readers and non-mystery readers alike.

In the past ten years, we've all become more used to interactive media. Here I am, talking to you, and you may reply. Or, perhaps, I read a website and follow a link to another website. I may jump to the website, in fact, before I finish what I'm reading, which isn't at all what the author of the original website intended. Or is it?

As a mystery writer, I've come to understand that the readers put in a lot of work. They're not passive; they're trying to figure things out, trying to sort out what is relevant, which facts are deceptive. And because of that, you can park the answer right in front of them and they won't necessarily see it, and they may even find the answer more surprising than you intended it to be.

There's also the issue of re-reading, going back in the text to check one's memory. Should we write for that person? Is that person "cheating"? No, but it's a vital difference between reading a book and watching a film. (Someone might back up a film on DVD to catch a missed line, but I've never met anyone who goes back several chapters, in mid-viewing, to try to catch a clue.) Do you write for Person A, who reads straight through, or Person B, who goes back?

Often, when literary writers try crime, they think: "Ah, I'll fool them all by writing an ambivalent ending." But, of course, that happens all the time in mainstream mystery fiction. It's the least experimental thing one can do.

Some other picks for "experimental" crime fiction:

John Connolly's "Bad Men," which combines a traditional crime narrative with a ghost/horror story.

"Presumed Innocent," which plays VERY unfair with the reader, and is still immensely satisfying.

"The Butterfly," which is narrated by a man who dies mid-sentence, the book's last line.

"Suspects," by David Thomson, a mystery told through the imagined biographies of characters from many famous films.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for that thoughtful post. THE NIGHT GARDENER is an excellent example that should have occurred to me but didn't. I don't think I've read the others you mentioned but they are going on my list.

And your comments are exactly to point. One of the reasons I like to write (and read) mysteries and thrillers is that the reader DOES come with this set of expectations and the author and reader get to play this game of "I know that you know that I know that you know" which is great fun.

I think that's also why, as you suggest, that excellent writers who haven't read widely in the genre sometimes fail when they try. They don't know what the reader knows and they end up going where many writers have gone before. One of my favorite novelists recently wrote a book with the basic premise and structure of a thriller and in the end I don't think it worked at all. It was obvious he was trying to do something unexpected without a clear idea of what "expected" was. (I won't mention his name because I respect him so much and the book isn't a disaster or anything, but it's a good example of what you're talking about.)

And by the way, I don't think I ever thanked you for going out of your way to introduce yourself in Virginia last year. My book had only been out three weeks and I really didn't know any other writers and certainly no mystery writers and I was feeling pretty overwhelmed at that point. That someone like you whom I'd read and admired made a point to come over and say hi meant a tremendous lot to me then and it still does.

David J. Montgomery said...

I don't think that whether or not a newspaper covers an event has anything to do with its importance. (And I suspect that Ms. L. would agree.)

But for the record, the Sun-Times had a piece on B'con last year, and I covered the conference for the Kansas City Star.

I think the real problem that Ed encountered is that he went to the conference as an outsider, deliberately stayed an outsider, and didn't find the reception very welcoming on that basis.

Although this isn't particularly surprising, it does point out one of the downsides to the closeness that many of the people within the genre share with one another. If you're not part of that, it might feel a little alienating.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Good stuff, Kevin. He just ran into the wrong people. Too bad, because almost all the mystery world people I know are courteous and would talk with a newcomer enthusiastically. He should have grabbed a larger sample.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Indeed, Barb. I mentioned Laura's kindness when my book first came out and there have been dozens of others who have offered support in dozens of ways since. As you and David say, mystery types are incredibly supportive of each other. I could probably write 100K words of acknowledgment at this point

Sarah said...

Another consideration at work is this: what exactly do we mean in terms of experimentation? Is it structural, is it content-based, is it emotional? It's all of the above, of course, but it means that different books within genre qualify for different reasons. THE NIGHT GARDENER is experimental for the reasons Laura states, but it's also the most commercial book Pelecanos has written for the same reasons. I look at something like Joe Meno's THE BOY DETECTIVE FAILS, which is clearly riffing on elements of crime fiction but isn't exactly a crime novel - or is it? Same with Laird Hunt's THE EXQUISITE, which has the trappings of genre but isn't quite contained in such.

Experimentation within genre reminds me a lot of the teeth-gnashing that took place when 12-tone and serialism came about. The idea that composition must be reformed, its elements stripped down because there was something "base" or "wrong" with conventional wisdom. Schoenberg could get away with it because he knew exactly what rules he wanted to break and create, but others that followed made noise. And then such musical endeavors became academic and damn boring.

It also reminds me of the jazz wars. Jazz is the way Louis Armstrong played it. Jazz is big band or bebop. Jazz is free, Ornette Coleman style. Jazz is fusion, where Miles Davis went in the late 60s and 70s. All different, all riffing on the same form, some closely, some very far away, some with greater success than others.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Oh gosh, Sarah, I'm embarrassed that you mention BOY DETECTIVE which I'm reading and loving right now even though it didn't even occur to me to bring it up in this context. I guess that's because I don't think of Joe as a mystery writer at all (although he clearly has affection for the form--see also HOW THE HULA GIRL SINGS and his terrific story in last year's CHICAGO NOIR collection). To my earlier point I think Joe is brilliant but his experimentation is hard to categorize, which, well...

Sarah is also right to point out that this isn't an important question, at all. But it's one that the part of me that sometimes wishes he was still taking classes likes to bat around.