With every story and novel, I learn something new about writing.
I guess that’s yet another reason (like I needed another) that I love writing. You are never done learning something. Today’s lesson, however, was interesting.
What do you do to balance genre and literary in one story?
Wait, what? That can be done? Absolutely, but it’s the tightest of ropes.
How I know it can be done
Once upon a time, when I was in grad school, I had to write a 20 page paper on a topic of my choice. The paper was a study in mystery fiction and whether there was a difference between genre and literary fiction.
This was a topic that was pretty interesting to think about but what a brain buster to write about when it came down to the research. See, mystery is a genre that is easy to write in, well, genre. That means that it is very plot heavy and that moves the story. It also means that it can be predictable because it has to follow certain rules. Literary fiction, however, follows different rules, not so much the rules of the kind of stories or novels it’s about. It’s heavy on the characterization and it aims to be art.
Can a mystery be both literary and genre. You betcha!
Look at Walter Mosley and Frederick Busch. Both can be considered literary for the beauty in the writing but their novels are very much genre in that it follows the rules of the mystery novel.
So, what are the rules?
The rules of the mystery genre, I feel, are known to the world. But Raymond Chandler was kind enough to write them down so that we all could glean from it. In “The Simple Art of Murder”, Chandler drops all kinds of knowledge and is sometimes sarcastic about it. One sentence stands out to me as I re-read it recently:
The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway. The detection of quality in writing is difficult enough even for those who make a career of the job, without paying too much attention to the matter of advance sales.
I don’t know about the audiences in his time but in our time, I’d like to give the reader some credit. Readers now are savvy and they know good writing, and for them good writing is what entertains them, what speaks to them, something that is good for their soul.
But, I get it. At the end of the day, the only one who really cares about the strength of the writing — whether that metaphor is on point or if that diction is correct — is the writer.
So, if the writer is worried about the quality of writing, then that quality is what makes the novel timeless.
Hemingway says somewhere that the good writer competes only with the dead. The good detective story writer (there must after all be a few) competes not only with all the unburied dead but with all the hosts of the living as well. And on almost equal terms; for it is one of the qualities of this kind of writing that the thing that makes people read it never goes out of style.
That’s a characteristic of literary writing, at least that’s what literary writers aim for. They want to write in a way that audiences years, decades, centuries from now can still read and appreciate their work. It’s a way for writers to live forever, to become immortal. For that to happen, not only does the writing have to be impeccable but it also has to touch (and comment) on a fundamental truth of humanity, which is another thing literary writing aims to do.
Then what about the genre rules?
If the writer is the only person who deeply cares for the quality of writing (according to the homie Chandler) then what about the genre aspect of the mystery/detective novel.
That belongs to the reader. Every bit of it. That is how they can relate and be entertained by the story. They know that if there is a gun in a scene, it will be used. They know by a certain time in the novel, there will be a murder, maybe two. They know there will be clues. They know that at the end, the right people will get what they deserve. And above all, they know their hero is a flawed, hot mess of a detective that is a (wo)man of honor who “talks as the man of his age talks, this is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for shame, and a contempt for pettiness.”
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.
How did this help me?
I think all this Chandler knowledge is going to help me most during the revision process of the latest Jennie Manning story I’m working on. There will be parts when my literary writing training is going to work best. But I also think there will be parts where my love of storytelling and of mysteries will serve me best.
After all this, I think the biggest lesson is that there is balance, like all things, and that at the end I just need to write the best story I can write.
So, that’s what I’ll do…and I’ll make the writing pretty, too.