Apr 2, 2008

THE GLASS CEILING

Sometimes the words come and sometimes they don’t. sometimes the narrative passages are there and sometimes they aren’t. Just tonight I heard the comment “Michael Chabon was nominated for an Edgar Award because the M.W.A. wants credibility. They want their award to be a literary award”.

Pfui, as a certain cerebral detective used to comment. Much has been made of what is and isn’t on this year’s Edgar Award list. The fact that I did at least 30 “happy dances” while reading the award nominations says a lot. The fact that when people began pointing out who didn’t make the list, I began to question, means perhaps even more. This isn’t about the judges. This year’s Edgar Awards embrace everything I covet within my own little realm of mystery. I know the judges this year are all readers. You can tell from the lists of nominees. But the comment, off hand and uttered amongst true fans, bothers me a little and worries me a lot.

For, and I’m saying this with a straight face, we are snobs!! Reverse snobs and so, therefore worse. Can someone just send me back to a John Hughes movie please. What am I talking about? I’ll give you two instances of recent “Jordan” conversation along with a recent posting thread on 4MA and ask you think about this. Talk about it, blog about it and if you post a response to this blog, this is one time when I will respond (usually I just cut and run)

Time and time again you hear the genre versus literature argument. Time and time again, I myself have said it’s a good two hours but no …. (plug in fav “literary” or “mystery” author here). Frankly I’m bored and a little disappointed in both sides. This is a world where the person who reads 300 books a year is reading the same percentage of published books as the person who reads two, and by that I mean 1% of all published novels. It’s about time we get off our high horses here. Because, for a book to be noted as literary it has to continue to be read. This applies to all novels, no matter how they are originally branded by the marketing departments that release them. Did anyone really imagine we’d still be reading about Holden Caulfield who read the first print run of CATCHER IN THE RYE? That the ophthalmologist billboard in THE GREAT GATSBY would resonate to this day?

And then there are the dry as rice cake classics. To say I was a little disillusioned when finally allowed to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an understatement. Flowers woven , indeed. If you are a reader, you have to read. Not say.. I only read…. Qualifying oneself as a reader takes away from the act of reading. There are voices within words, authors who speak to a volume of readers who may decipher the prose a little differently but no less intelligently. If the words resonate with the readers the work becomes literature. And readers, once you get beyond Lit 101, the world is yours.

And yet we all have reading preferences. The path of origin towards “literary” acknowledgement depends more than ever on critical and financial success. So, if you’re still with me, I now present conversation fragments.
For those of you who don’t already know, I’m disappointed in myself as a reader because I cannot get into THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN. The book, by Michael Chabon, was both a critical and financial success and I cannot get past page 80(and I’m a fan). But a few weeks ago a friend who is also an author (and a Chabon fan) defined my problem. “Ruth, we’re mystery readers, so when reading a mystery we want all of the extraneous detail edited like a “genre” novel. “ At the time I felt better. It’s my weakness. I can embrace it. My friend went on to say if he had turned in the same manuscript and it had been edited by a “genre” editor the novel would have been at least 100 pages shorter. In YIDDISH, mystery wasn’t the plot, it forwarded the plot.

This conversation took place a week before a thread on 4MA (the mystery board) began. Val McDermid’s THE GRAVE TATTOO is one of my top reads ever. I know it will remain so, neither time nor distance is going to alter my opinion. And yet when another reader presented her argument, “I was interested in the Fletcher plot and everything else kind of got in the way” I UNDERSTOOD. But I was disappointed. I remember feeling when I first read Tattoo that the book which embraced several timelines and multiple plotlines was ambitious and well executed. Something not found everyday within the mystery genre. Because in “Mystery” unless an author truly resonates with their reader, all is extraneous. The poster prefaced their entire statement with the caveat, “I would never tell McDermid how to write, she is a great writer.”

These two instances now two weeks in the past, I’ll reflect upon another conversation I was part of. A friend who reads above the 1% a year percentile and remembers everything, said to me, “If we’re going to move beyond this, we cannot do it either. We cannot continue to say the “literary” world needs to recognize Lehane and Pelecanos as “real” writers, and not let people know about the writers within mystery who might not be quite as lofty but who sell the books day in and day out. We have to level the playing field.”

Sound words. My friend was referring to an interview held with yet another (they shall remain nameless) writer. In the course of an interview this writer professed to be “happy” within their niche but “glad” that friends like “Lehane, Pelecanos, (fill in more names at no extra cost)”had moved beyond the genre, creating words that would inspire future generations.”

I agree with the sentiment, but why do we continue to wait for affirmation? The author I paraphrased in the last paragraph is a best seller in their own right, has written some of the most poignant prose of the last 10 years and doesn’t need to be quantifying or qualifying books. Yet we all see a glass ceiling .Hell, we create it.

A ceiling that if we forbid it to exist, would cease to be. In the end it all seems clear. If enough people read it the academics and critics will have to respond, and if nobody reads it? Well, it’s rather like that tree in the woods….

Ruth

12 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

"For, and I’m saying this with a straight face, we are snobs!! Reverse snobs and so, therefore worse."

You're right. On the one hand, I don't like it when people look down their nose at genre. I can even see where the Edgar speculation comes from... but mystery has gotten into the habit of coming off like it's constantly getting up with a bloody nose with something to prove.

We aren't special. This is playground power games, stuff we all saw/experienced as children. You aren't in the popular cliche, so you form your own.

But we haven't stopped there, have we? I raised the question about whether hardboiled/noir novels are better written than cozies because time and again, when I see these lists of "must-read" mysteries, they heavily favour books from some parts of the genre, and ignore others. It doesn't matter that my own reading tastes run dark - that's a taste issue and has no bearing on quality. The best salmon dish in the world may be worth a pretty price to many, but no matter how much they rave I'm never going to order it because I don't like salmon. The point is, we seem to have our own pecking order within the genre. I wonder if we're internalizing that discrimination we feel we've experienced and creating our own hierarchy to make us feel better about ourselves.

It's human nature to categorize things, and to assign value (or a lack of value) to them, usually as a way of making us feel important. In recent months, with the move of Spinetingler to Mystery Bookspot, I've become more aware than ever of just how snobby some of the mystery community is. The mystery community is only just catching on to various things fantasy/sci fi has been doing for years, and we lay claim to it as though we're innovative. If we just cracked our minds open a millimeter there's much we could learn, instead of holding some up as pioneers and patting ourselves on the backs (much to the amusement of people who've been employing various promotional techniques for several years).

And then there's my general amusement over blogs where only authors/industry people merit a responding comment, while readers are ignored. Because my boyfriend is on the fringes of the community I see this all the time. He's scooped major news items, had exclusive articles and interviews with authors and exclusive book excerpts pre-publication, and remains almost completely overlooked by the online mystery community because he's not "in". As amusing as it is to us, I have to say it's also rather pathetic, and just the fact that that type of behaviour exists visibly online isn't a good thing for our genre or community either.

The other thing is the negative trend. Lord knows I can be as critical as anyone... But I have to question if it's a good thing to constantly point fingers at all the things we don't like within the genre. There can be a time and place for it, sure, but we no longer need anyone else to put us down - we're doing it to ourselves, constantly, from author blogs to group blogs to industry blogs.

I'll still rant about bad drivers and general stupidity... but I think where the business is concerned I'm going to stick to talking up the positive on my blog and as much as possible ignoring what I consider negative.

Life's too short. And these arguments are so old.

Donna said...

I don't read many blogs as I just find that I don't have the time - I generally just dip in and out, so I don't see all the politics that Sandra hints at. I'm more of a drive by poster :o) But I have to say that the quickest way for me not to go back to a blog is for it to be negative and moany and whiny. I enjoy blogs that are positive about crime fiction, that talk up good books, that revel in the depth and breadth of the genre.

Like Sandra, I have my own preferences. My favourite books happen to be dark, warped, violent and funny. I don't read that many cosies, but that's personal taste. I don't think they're easier to write, or have less literary merit. They are just not to my nasty evil taste. My dislike of a book everyone else thinks of as "The Best Book Since Sliced Bread" does not make me a bad person who doesn't know her arse from her elbow. There are people I agree with on 9 books out of 10, and then we'll violently disagree on the 10th. I find that fascinating. And fun to discuss.

I love the crime genre in all its forms. I want people to say to me "Hey, I read this great book." Even if I end up not liking it, I am grateful for their enthusiasm and the possibility that I might find a new to me author I will love.

When it comes down to it a good book is a good book, whatever genre or subgenre it's in.

Pepper Smith said...

"Reverse snobs." You don't know how long I've wanted to say that. I'm glad someone did.

Anonymous said...

Val McDermid’s THE GRAVE TATTOO was one of my favorite reads of the past year as well. There are entirely too many literary snobs who turn down their noses at genre fiction. There are many quality books available in genre fiction, well-written and enjoyable. They deserve recognition and readers.

Jacqueline Seewald
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, a romantic suspense mystery
Five Star/Gale

Ruth Jordan said...

From the comments posted and e-mail received, I see that my mispent, dare I say catholic guilt, on this subject is felt by more than a few folk who endorse the mystery genre.

And in the end mystery seems to be special because of the community that surrounds it. We are passionate about those books we manage to find that perhaps are overlooked by major publications. We look for authors we consider "our own" to make it on a bigger stage. And many do.

Not only that, the trend in publishing itself seems to be encouraging writers to write the crime fiction novel in a manner that allows their house to market them to the general readership.

Likewise, publishers are also recognizing the power of the mystery readers buying dollar. Crimespree is receiving titles for review that come from authors we'd never have seen in our review stacks five years ago when we were beginning this magazine. After all, most novels have some mysterious element to them.

Each of us has our own reading preferences, our own tolerance for voice, plot,character and action. Those of us who read a lot have several different and seemingly unrelated favorite authors.
My own reading pattern is a prime example. I adore Pelecanos, but never miss a book by Katherine Hall Page. Umberto Eco is always read, but so is Daniel Woodrell. Vicki Hendricks raw and sleek prose is some of my favorite stuff out there but when the Elizabeth George ARC hits the office, I am out of commission for two days while I make my way through the next 700 pages of her series. And can someone please tell Phil Caputo to write faster.

My choices of favs are wide and varied, as are those of others in our community. And we have a faction of members who are content to read the same authors over and over again. But lets face it. There are a lot of books out there. And if you're loyal (as we all are) it soon becomes impossible to read each release by a favorite author if you keep folding new to you authors onto your own list.

So, in the end if we all work to respect everyones reading choices and listen to others when they discuss why certain books need to be read, we're doing okay......

And sometimes discussing the books you couldn't like with someone who does or visa versa can give you insight into yourself as a reader.

Bill Cameron said...

"And sometimes discussing the books you couldn't like with someone who does or visa versa can give you insight into yourself as a reader."

And furthermore, the conversation is almost always more interesting. Not that there's anything wrong with finding common ground, but spirited and respectful disagreement is often both enlightening and energizing.

Keith said...

I'm reading blogs at the airport, and clicked over here from Sarah Weinman's. Because I like Ruth (hi, Ruth!) I've been sitting here trying to think of how to participate, but without just paraphrasing everything I've already said on the subject.

My brilliant solution is to link to it instead:

Not a paraphrase!

I.J.Parker said...

I also came across from Sarah's blog because I have a fondness for literary discussions. This one is very nice indeed.
"Glass Ceiling"? In the sense that we mystery authors slave away in vain hopes of breaking through to the elysian fields inhabited by literary authors?
I slave away hoping to make enough of a name for myself that my books will sell and allow me to go one writing. And that I can do so without doing violence to my intentions.
As a reader I come from the literary track (with a Ph.D. in English Literature, no less) and when I wore that hat I read for quality, but with the assumption that the stuff had already been judged superb and that therefore my job was to find out what made it so.
I read mysteries for entertainment and nonjudgmentally.
Mostly.
At least until I became an author myself and had to construct for myself new values that would fit the genre. And that is why I like these discussions.
I had problems with the Edgar-nominated novel -- not because it had Banville's fine literary language, but because it did not satisfy as a mystery. I might also have problems with Chabon. I understand that the book involves time travel, and in my personal concept of crime and detective novels the supernatural has no place. It undermines the seriousness of the subject by moving it into another realm.
But both books are very successful sellers, and that proves that not all readers of mystery are alike. Or that we all apply the same criteria.

John McFetridge said...

"... but with the assumption that the stuff had already been judged superb and that therefore my job was to find out what made it so."

Hi Ingrid,
Just wondering, imagine if you applied that sentiment to anything else in the world...

My own take on this is close to Sandra's. It's very much like high school. And that gives me hope because it means things may mature. There's an insecurity about genre fiction that reminds me a lot of teenage insecurities. worrying about what other people think. Someday the genre will be old like me and not give a shit (I know the genre is older than I am, but I'm thinking in 'book years').

Cozy Crime said...

I think i'm like IJ. If a mystery novel has supernatural stuff in it, I tend to lose interest real fast. It just doesn't seem real any more.

Back when I worked in the library people would come in looking for a good book and we'd try to help them find one. It didn't matter to us if it was a mystery or literary or whatever. We just tried to find interesting stories that would apeal to that person's taste.

Daniel Hatadi said...

It's interesting that people mention the supernatural here, as even though it comes down to taste, I'm seeing noses looking down on the genre of horror. I also have the same attitude towards romance, but really, isn't that just down to my personal taste?

I don't see why any genre can't reveal fundamental truths about the human condition or provide entertainment or do some measure of both in the one book. And in terms of the genres outside the realm of reality, all of them can easily hold up a mirror to humanity by removing the mundane details of life and replacing them with something altogether different. And it's this difference that can bring a sharp focus back on to us.

While growing up, it took me a long time to realise that I didn't have to ask my parents if I could do something or go somewhere, I just had to tell them. And that's what mystery or any other genre has to do to prove its legitimacy. By not looking for approval, by just highlighting the great work being done within the genre, by holding subjective awards every year, by generating discussion.

I think we also have to remind ourselves that calling something literary doesn't mean it's better, just different. If literature was all we ever had in the world of books, I probably would have taken up sport. Lucky I didn't.

Thought provoking as always, Ruth.

Josephine Damian said...

I'm afraid this is nothing more than jealousy over money - because the genre writers, especially crime/mystery and romance writers - make more money overall than the more "literary types" and tend to have more supportive groups/organizations/take up more space online and make the bestseller lists more often than the literary types - that's why they take pot shots at us.

Understand what's behind the complaining, then ignore it and move on - that's my philosophy.