Although it’s a phrase clearly designed to drive people both within and outside the mystery community up the wall, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately. In no small part this is due to the fact that the number of books arriving at my apartment, begging to be reviewed, has increased astronomically in the past few months. And since I can only review five books per months for the column (while talking about other ones I like or dislike here) it means I have to pay even more attention to finding books that have strengths and weaknesses that can be properly dissected.
Why does the term get so many folks riled up? Likely because there’s a whiff of condescension in the idea, that a book is greater than its original constraints. That genre is simply inferior, too limiting for the book in question. What’s wrong with genre fiction? Absolutely nothing at all, of course. If there was, I wouldn’t be here. And since mystery novels get enough of a bad rap, to see a book that would appeal to mystery fans targeted to those who have a snobbish viewpoint is rather disconcerting.
But that assumes that all books are created equal, and that just isn’t so. In other words, genre transcending isn’t just a marketing term or a straw man; it actually happens. But I’ve come to the conclusion that people are asking the wrong questions and arriving at the wrong answers. It’s not about genre vs. “something extra,” only about talent and scope. And some writers have the ability to reach for great heights, and some simply do not.
The last book I finished reading was Kate Atkinson’s CASE HISTORIES, which will be out in the US on November 9. Prior to this, she’d written three fairly acclaimed literary novels, with the first winning the 1995 Whitbread award. Her new book is, I suppose, a detective novel, but it really isn’t. Though there is a detective, Jackson Brodie, who is investigating three separate but possibly intertwined cases, it’s much more than that. There’s more time spent on backstories and emotions, on the ability (or lack) of family members to accept their losses, to move on, and to seek, if not closure, then some kind of resolution that might satisfy their longing for an answer. What Atkinson does is take the trappings of the PI novel structure to answer deeper questions, and succeeds incredibly well at doing so. The characters are not always likeable or appealing, but they are fully-rounded and very human. In short, CASE HISTORIES takes that very idea and reveals what really lies underneath.
I suppose, if Atkinson’s book is reviewed as a crime novel, it could be said to transcend genre. But that’s not what it does, because it’s simply an excellent book. Because of her talent, the way she constructs phrases that infuse warmth and humor in what are inexorably sad situations, she’s conquered her goal, which is to broaden the scope of a structure with inherent constraints. But that’s the bottom line: Atkinson had the talent, the reach and the ability to do that. Many writers do not and simply couldn’t comprehend writing the kind of book she did. Many others could comprehend how to do it but choose to tackle the subject in a completely different fashion. And many more would just give up and move on.
The book I’m reading now is Richard Stark’s NOBODY RUNS FOREVER, the latest adventure featuring Parker, the tough-as-nails noir thief. This has all the elements of a good genre novel: furious pace, prose that keeps the action moving while giving maximum characterization in minimum description, and the rise and fall that leads to the inevitable “gotcha” moment at the end. Stark (really Donald Westlake, for those not in the know) has been writing these kinds of books for more than 40 years. His craftsmanship is superb, the execution near-perfect. But most of all, I believe he’s learned exactly what his limitations are, where his natural voice lies, and what works and what does not. If he tried to write a book like CASE HISTORIES in the way that Atkinson did, it would fail miserably. Instead, if he did so under his real name, it would be some kind of comedy of errors a la Dortmunder. And if Stark handled the reins, Brodie would be a criminally minded type about to have some serious problems dog him throughout the entire book.
So Westlake doesn’t transcend genre. But does that make him any better or worse? Obviously not. And lord knows he’s had the talent and the craft to keep writing as well as long as he has. Many writers, both crime and literary novelists, have a whole lot to learn from him.
I’ve just described two writers doing very different things, and reasonably comfortable with their powers. But occasionally, the fit isn’t so snug, and the writer’s trying to rein in their voice in genre trappings when it’s just bursting to get out. Or the converse, where a writer goes for a bigger, broader novel and discovers that he or she simply doesn’t have the ability to handle bigger questions in the same way they did smaller ones. And then there are those that simply ask the wrong questions but don’t realize it until the book is finished, and then it’s too late to go back and change it.
Writing is all about wanting. Whether to tell a story, to seek answers to questions, to resolve subconscious situations, to explore emotions and feelings, or to get to know different characters and locales. But the thing about wanting is that you can’t always get it, and that many times, you end up getting what you need instead of what you want. So some writers may want to write a certain book, tell the story in a certain way. And discover they can’t do it. Or discover that they do it in a way that’s categorically different than what they intended. And sometimes, the end result is what should have been all along. Other times, it’s just an interesting failure.
And those interesting failures are exactly why I like to read books that exceed their grasp. Though I think I’m in the minority, I put T Jefferson Parker’s CALIFORNIA GIRL into the “exceeds grasp” category. I commend him for wanting to write the great Orange County crime novel. I think a lot of the book is quite excellent, and really does capture the late 60s flavor. But where it fell down, at least for me, was in how the book was structured. The prologue, set in the present, indicates that everything we’re about to read from here on in is essentially flawed. So because of this fact, it affected how I viewed the 1960s-set portion. Even though it was well-told and well-written, Parker didn’t succeed in convincing me to set aside that niggling feeling of deflation. And the epilogue, back in the present, felt rushed. I wanted more time spent on showing how the course of justice was changed, how the characters reacted to the change in events. Basically, Parker got close to writing what he meant to write, but for whatever reason, he didn’t quite get there. I think a lot has to do with his recent change in publishing houses, and working with a new editor. I think he’s a smart enough writer to attune his voice more closely to his material next time around. And so that’s one reason why I’m looking forward to his next book (the other reason is that he’s one of my favorite crime writers and I’ve enjoyed almost all of his backlist.)
As I’ve said in a number of places, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a writer who’d improved with each and every book write something that’s far exceeded the scope of previous works, and succeeded. That’s why S.J. Rozan’s ABSENT FRIENDS was one of my favorite books this year. That’s why I’ve gone on at length about Laura Lippman’s EVERY SECRET THING, or Dennis Lehane’s standalones, or the criminally neglected Martyn Waites in the UK, among others. They had the talent, the ability and the voice to carry off bigger projects and make it work. Such books took longer to write and probably needed an intense amount of struggle, but that’s why they prove successful. Because their natural voice has more breathing room and can emerge more fully than they could in more genre-constrained books. It’s also why there are certain writers who improve with each book but inevitably, I feel they can do more. That’s a reason why, for example, I’m looking forward to Karin Slaughter’s standalone, because the Grant County books, as they are set up, don’t do her writing justice.
But equally satisfying is reading any writer’s true voice. That’s why I love a good noir novel, whether from the past or the present. Get in, do the job quickly, get out. Or a good comic novel, where satire rules the day and gets major points across while making me laugh. Any book that’s done well, where the writer has command of the material and whatever “intangible” that elevates it just a little bit, scores with me. Any writer that knows enough about their voice not to go past a certain point is a writer that’s going to stick around. Not all improvements need to be major ones, after all.
Maybe the problem is that “transcending genre” implies going beyond a group form, when writing is so very individual and comprises a volatile mixture of craft, talent, technique and imagination. That last one, imagination, is the most important thing of all. Some people’s ideas are wide-ranging and barely tamed; others are smaller and require stretching. No person is created equal, and hence no book is created equal. Instead of saying one voice or style is inferior to another’s, why not celebrate those who make the most of what they do while encouraging others to challenge themselves further because they are able to?
In other words, maybe transcending the genre isn’t such a bad thing: so long as we’re clear on what it truly means.