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November 03, 2004

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David Montgomery

Interesting piece, Sarah. I find the whole obsession with genre (which I fall prey to as much as anyone else) to be a little silly. I think it's as much a marketing and retailing contruct as anything else. Which isn't to say it doesn't have its place. It does make conversation easier.

By the way, I'm glad to see you mention Laura Lippman's book. If I may be so cheeky as to quote myself, "Every Secret Thing is one of those books that publishers like to say 'transcends the genre,' but in this case it's true." :)

Donna

I hate that bloody phrase :o) For me it DOES have the connotations of surpassing something, going beyond something, being better than it is. The crime genre is bloody brilliant - there's no need for it to be transcended. I do find the term insulting to crime fiction authors - some of whom write the most wonderful fiction imaginable. To say something transcends the genre implies that crime fiction is second class and writers are doing their best to break out of it. Not so. There's nothing wrong with the genre, and everything right with it. There's no reason to transcend something which is already pretty damn brilliant. I prefer the term 'doing exciting things within the genre'; but, of course, that doesn't sound snappy and quotable :o)

Genre labels are amorphous anyway, there's a lot that can be fitted within the boundaries - why does anything need to transcend them? Most really good crime fiction books do a lot more than just tell a straightforward crime story. They talk about society, feelings, culture, psychology, characters. They have passion and heart and soul. A book works or it doesn't. For me, a really really good book doesn't transcend the genre, it's just a really, really good book.

Maybe it's a misapprehension on my part as to what the phrase means, but it's the condescending way it comes across that annoys me. If I ever read a review with the phrase in, I stop reading the review. It won't stop me reading the book, but I might call the reviewer a complete tosser :o)

Whoops - didn't mean you David :o) You're not a complete tosser. Or even remotely a tosser :o)

Donna

jeff

It's a very judgmental & loaded term, & implies something non-genre that constitutes 'real' writing. So right away, someone is deciding what's legit & what's bunk.

Dumas & Dickens were long considered trash writers, just as the first novelists were scorned by poets. Gore Vidal likes to complain that his homosexuality is why he hasn't copped a Nobel, but it's really because he writes 'historical novels' which in certain circles still have a whiff of pulp about them.

Oates' best work in my opinion is her series of historical novels about America, about which she wrote, "Does a serious writer dare concern herself with genre? The formal discipline of genre - that it forces us to a radical re-visioning of the world & the craft of fiction - was the reason I found the project intriguing."

Interestingly, tho, the 3rd in this series, Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) received middling reviews, & the followup, The Crosswicks Horror (a Lovecraftian tale) was shelved & has never been published. So perhaps that's an implicit answer to her question...

For myself, I much prefer fiction to literature.

Dave White

It's funny, I never think of transcending genre meaning it just transcends crime fiction. I think it means something special that rises above everything. Lehane, Connelly, Pelecanos, Lippman, and apparently Rozan have all written wonderful novels that are at the core mystery novels, but they rise above everything, they become bigger than that. I don't know how it works, but it's something... universal. Not everyone is going to read a really good noir novel, but most people will be pulled into an Every Secret Thing (which, halfway through, is brilliant) or a Mystic River. To me it has to address something more than just who killed who or how someone died. It has to be bigger. And that does not, in my mind knock the mystery genre, in fact, I think it would enhance it.

Jeff Golick

Does anyone apart from book publicists and the reviewers who love them even use the phrase "transcending genre?" I think it's often used to sell a book by an author who's been writing in one style and then tries something different, which can throw everyone from editors to shelf-stockers for a loop. I also agree that there is something pejorative in it, stepping on a whole category: "Hey, this one's not like all those others you've been enjoying! It's better. It TRANSCENDS."

Sarah's broader distinction, more or less between great books and merely good books, if I'm reading her right, is also spot-on. The "great" category could include wild new approaches to storytelling, or books that use genre conventions to build a tale that's nevertheless transcendent. Here's where I see a difference between a marketing label and a reader's subjective experience of a book. Is Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED a war novel? I guess so, but to me it goes so far beyond that that any labeling is pointless. And whether he was trying to reach beyond genre or not doesn't really enter into it.

Laura

I'm not crazy about the word "transcends" -- although I recognized it as a profound compliment when applied to EST -- because of the aspect of gravity. What goes up, etc. Plus, I don't think one transcends the genre, which is large and flexible and inclusive, but one's own work. Anyway, whenever I think about transcending, I see lonely little ghosts rising from the landscape of genre fiction and floating forlornly around. Little Caspars who have broken the faith with their brothers, but are still unwanted by the world at large.

Chandler wrote: "The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel. But you never see the average novel. It doesn't get published. The average -- or only slight above average -- detective story does." Chandler was right about the first part, I think, but wrong about the second. Lots of average novels get published. But let's put that aside.

Here's the thing -- detective fiction is judged by its lowest common denominator, the competent whodunit, while literary fiction is judged by its highest-achieving books -- the Pulitzers, the NBAs, etc. When someone writes a thoroughly mediocre novel -- don't make me name names -- no one goes around saying, "Well, so-and-so's book shows the limitations of the literary form.' It's just a failed novel.

(And there's grain of sense here. The average detective novel still gets the job done. The failed literary novel accomplishes nothing.)

What if we thought of detective novels as blondes and literary novels as brunettes? (Remember, I have bi-citizenship in both camps, so I'm playing no favorites.) Not every brunette is Ava Gardner or Elizabeth Taylor, and if the brunettes were trying to claim that, we would laugh heartily and point to, say, Thelma Ritter. And if blondes were judged by the coarsest, most peroxided in the clan and we then produced Marilyn Monroe in our defense, would the brunettes then sneer: "Oh, but she transcends the genre." No, she's just flat-out beautiful. And maybe it's not your kind of beautiful, but that's a matter of personal taste, not a comment on the inherent limitations of blondes.

David Montgomery

Looks like I better not use that phrase again. Sorry, Laura. I take it back. Really! :)

Laura

David -- see "profound compliment" above. I was very flattered. It's lovely on an individual basis. But I'm a team player at heart.

David Montgomery

I know, Laura. I was mainly speaking tongue-in-cheek to some of the others comments.

My intention behind the use of the phrase with regards to EST (and searching through the archives it's the only time I've used it) was that the book transcends crime fiction, not so much in terms of its theme or its scope, but in terms of its potential to reach an audience.

This was a book that, I felt, reached out beyond the traditional readership of the mystery novel, using its subject matter in such a way that people who wouldn't ordinarily read a mystery could read it and find something that really spoke to them. Thus, it transcended the genre.

Of course, I was trying to say a lot in 200 words and had other things I needed to convey, so shorthand is necessary. And I think it made the point.

How that could be perjorative is beyond me.

John

Excellent essay, Sarah, and some excellent follow-up comments, too.

I have more thinking to do about this topic, and will likely come up with more to say, but for now, I looked for synonyms for the word "transcend." Some of them (rise above, go beyond, exceed) seem to apply to what we're saying here. Others (surpass, outdo) do not.

I think the recent standalones (MYSTIC RIVER, EVERY SECRET THING, ABSENT FRIENDS) are perfect examples of authors attempting to rise above, go beyond, exceed, or even enhance the genre -- and write a book that may appeal to readers of other genres.

I know people who've never read, and won't read, mysteries. But after reading MYSTIC RIVER, they started reading Dennis Lehane's other books. And liked them.

I consider myself an avid mystery reader, and I am sorry to say I have yet to read Laura Lippman's series. But after reading EST, I am definitely going to pick them up now that I know I like her writing. (By the way, Laura, I love your blond/brunette analogy).

I don't think Lehane and Lippman and Rozan were trying to surpass or outdo other mystery authors. Seems to me they were trying to expand and test the so-called bounds of traditional mystery fiction. And maybe bring in a few more fans from other genres who wouldn't have otherwise picked up their books based on this thing we call genre.

The word transcend is a marketing word, I think, and it does seem to imply a certain snootiness. I think we're all just talking about growing as writers and writing better books.

Jeff Golick

Yeah, re growing as writers, above. I realize I'm writing as a reader who gets tired of being fed a marketing line, an attempt to sell me something, possibly a bill of goods. From the point of view of a writer (I'll imagine I can adopt at least a facsimile view), it can be a completely different story, one of growing beyond (possibly) self-imposed limits, or of trying to reach new readers, or whatever, in which case the effort actually has the opposite effect on me. In parallel with a comment above, ABSENT FRIENDS was the first Rozan I've read, but I'll now happily check in on the Smith/Chin series.

Of course, I can also imagine a genre writer who feels, down deep, that the genre is beneath his talents -- a self-hater -- which is really about pretension and perception, and perhaps out of this thread's purview.

John Schramm

Good point, Jeff. As a writer myself, I don't feel a ~transcending~ book in me, but who knows. I haven't finished my first mystery yet.

I can imagine writers that look down at the genre because they want to be mainstream, just like we have country singers who become popstars. I didn't want to raise that analogy, but it does fit.

Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, and SJ Rozan, however, absolutely are not that type of writer.

Sally Rale

I recently read DARKNESS PEERING by Alice Blanchard. It was an excellent police procedural, sort of Thomas Harris meets Denis Johnson. But her 2nd book, THE BREATHTAKER which I read next, has a much bigger scope, a higher concept, is very cinematic and a big leap forward I feel. It's a very different book from her first and transcends the mystery thriller genre altogether with a wildly mythic and outrageous premise that is beautifully told. There's strong emotion intelligence in Blanchard's writing.

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