Friday, February 14, 2014

Opinion — Allende Opens Old Wounds: Literary vs. Genre

Isabel Allende and her mystery-writing husband,
William C. Gordon (photo by Lori Barra)

In light of the buzz storm caused by “literary” luminary Isabel Allende and her apparent disdain for crime fiction, it might be time to ask why we care. Is it because she finally wrote one and is using her “literary credentials to sell it? “She also apologizes as if it is some sort of guilty displeasure approached in much the same way a 4-star chef might approach an assignment to boil hot dogs. So frightened she is of feeling merely mortal, Allende now claims she her new book was intended to be a parody of crime fiction. Someone forgot to tell The New York Times, who reviewed it as if it were the real thing. The whole idea she would parody the very kind of fiction she never reads adds a new dimension to her reputation as a “magic realist.”

It’s all right for writers laden with literary awards, Allende included, to undertake what some would categorize as crime fiction. Many have and many have done well. My view is everyone is welcome. If it works, it works.  The proof, however, isn’t in the name or reputation — it’s in the reading.

The following post, comments for new crime  writers who worry about being considered second class is taken from a post that first appeared here in June 2011:

“Because you are a mystery writer, does that mean you are only sort of a writer? I once attended a Private Eye Writers of America annual get-together. In the course of leaving the buffet area, plate in hand, I was invited to sit down with a couple of writers I knew of, more than I knew. They were both seriously credentialed, talented veterans of the genre. Though I suspect I was actually older, I felt a bit junior in their company.
“At some point, one of them asked why I decided to write mysteries. Not particularly used to using words without a keyboard at the tip of my fingers and the ability to edit as I go, I responded by saying: “Because I couldn’t write….” Before I could find the next word, they were laughing. What I had implied, having gone momentarily adrift mentally, was that I believed it took no writing talent to create mysteries — that it is something we do because we cannot write “literary” fiction. Just so it isn’t left there, the rest of the explanation, probably unheard because of the laughter, was that my attempts to write other kinds of novels had been difficult because with so much freedom in the form I wandered about on all sorts of tangents (as I am now). Without some discipline I could write forever but complete nothing. I found that having some rules helped me write. My initial foray into mysteries was to submit to the St. Martin’s Best First Novel Competition. This gave me some guidance and a form. So many words, completed by such and such a date — specific goals. Also, inherent in mysteries, there are expectations, such as creating and solving a puzzle, which is what most novelists do, anyway, “literary” or otherwise.  Also, I liked crime fiction.
“However, despite my long tangent, the point is relatively simple — there is no such thing as a literary novel as a separate art form from the mystery or science fiction novel or any other form. There are books that seem to transcend what preceded them, that take us to new places, show us new things, allow us to think in new ways.
‘Some are so good they will be read for the next thousand years. Many will be acknowledged as “game changers.” Most not. The good ones might even involve a murder or two, or a trip to another galaxy.
Odds are that you and I are not going to create that kind of classic. But it doesn’t mean we are not writers and that we cannot aspire to that goal. And it means that if we truly want to write, and we keep our minds open, we can learn from, but will not be held hostage by, all the noise that surrounds us — including fine writers who occasionally sound like self-inflating Divas.


Teri-on-the-sandbar said...

Some of the best works I've ever read fall into the world of "genre" fiction -- Ray Bradbury's Sci-Fi, Margaret Maron's rustic little mysteries--I can even think of a couple of "romances" that were genuine works of art. Truth is, one could even call 'magical realism' a gimmick!

Ronald Tierney said...

Thanks for the comment.I agree, completely.