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March 15, 2007

Comments

Sandra Ruttan

Excellent insights.

The issue of literary snobbery isn't exclusive to criticisms between genres, however. It's systemic. Crime fiction gets knocked by others, so it develops its own hierarchy. If I had a penny for every time I was told being published by an ezine isn't a "real" publishing credit...

Meanwhile, as column space in newspapers disappears more and more authors and publicists approach us about doing reviews and we simply can't find enough reviewers to take all the books. Even without posting our address I get about double the number of books I've agreed to take in any given week.

Back to the divisions, however, we need less in-fighting (sexism allegations, thriller vs mystery, big publisher vs small publisher, hardcover versus mmpb - the idea that some places won't review mmpb originals is, to me, RIDICULOUS) and more tolerance for what expands the genre. Forget the 'transcend the genre' nonsense - it's about pushing the limits and stretching them out.

The best crime fiction has always, in my opinion, been providing social commentary. TO THE POWER OF THREE looks at friendships, the peer pressure and social hierarchy of high school life, the good intentions of parents that go horribly wrong -these are things that everyone can relate to and understand. This is about life. I could go on and on, but won't.

As far as I'm concerned, anyone who throws out the name Patterson and uses it as a representation of the entire crime fiction genre is only advertising their ignorance. What of Connelly, Rankin, Bruen, Lippman? In a recent trip to the bookstore my husband and I noted that Laura's books were shelved in two places - equal numbers in mystery and equal numbers in the general "fiction and literature" section. Despite my annoyance that some books are put exclusively in fiction and literature (John Rickards, for example) I see what the staff have done in Laura's case as proof that they recognize these books have a wide appeal to genre and non-genre readers alike.

And that's a good thing.

Ingrid (I.J.Parker)

As a writer, all I can do is to write the best damn book I can. The distinction between literary prose and genre fiction is often arbitrary, and while more readers may go for easy consumption (short words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books), there are some left who look for more. I see no reason why a mystery or crime novel cannot also be a literary novel -- in fact, several that I have read are. As David said, there are only good and bad books.

Donna Rifkind

There are no good or bad genres, only good or bad books.

Dave White

Wow, this is one crazy eyed topic, and I'm going to have to think about it before I post my thoughts. However, I really like what you had to say Sarah and look forward to more craziness as people read your post

Dave White

Wow, this is one crazy eyed topic, and I'm going to have to think about it before I post my thoughts. However, I really like what you had to say Sarah and look forward to more craziness as people read your post

ed

To address the question, "Where are the B.R. Myerses and John Leonards and James Woods of our world?": I think we should also ask where the editors are who will cultivate these talents. John Leonard and James Wood were allowed considerable latitude (and were paid more) to find their voices, to deepen their roles as thinkers, and to develop into fantastic literary critics. But today's book review environment is a more disposable medium, with fewer column inches to go around, which must also be spread equitably amongst a broad base of contributors, and fewer guarantees that regular reviewers will have a home. The fresh voices that do persist are the ones who are doggedly devoted to reviewing as an art, and even then, it can be a pretty thankless task.

Sandra's observation above about genre is the kind of naivete I would expect from some leftist disseminating pamphlets on the college quad. As was quite evident by Richard Grayson's report, with rare exception, today's critics take genre about as seriously as a lima bean fan sampling ice cream. There are very FEW critics who treat genre with any kind of literary respect and those who do treat it like a relative you reluctantly say hello to at a family reunion (just look at Dave Itzkoff's sophomoric columns in the NYTBR -- this supposedly the great book reviewing staple), even when an author like Lippmann who breaks out of the box. Sing "Free to Read You and Me" all you want. Critics are not the underpaid bookstore clerks who are stocking merchandise.

I recently approached a newspaper editor (who shall remain unnamed) who informed me that s/he was having difficulty finding reviewers who could treat genre with respect. Of course, there were no guarantee that I could contribute to the pages, because the editor was also dealing with shrinking column inches.

You can hide inside the comfort of your blue blanket all you want. But while YOU may think it's cozy (and I agree that it is), others see a grown adult clutching to a childish item.

David Montgomery

If this Zane fellow has to pull out James Patterson and Danielle Steel in order to put a face on his straw man, he's admitting from the outset that his argument is bullshit.

Cornelia Read

While Zane states there are "many fine genre writers who deserve - and receive - critical attention," he then proceeds to dismiss same in the following sentence as being, "like sitcoms... formulaic and predictable."

It strikes me as rather silly to toss off the names of ANY two authors as being wholly representative of ALL genre writing--whether the names being bandied about are those of Patterson and Steel, Willeford and L'Amour, or Heinlein and Highsmith.

I mean, Melville and Cervantes leave me cold, but I don't wander around proclaiming that my distaste for *their* work proves that the entirety of literary fiction sucks butt.

I'm tempted to close by pointing out that while "all lima beans resemble one another, ice cream comes in a boatload of flavors," but when it comes to this sort of pissing match, I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Sandra Ruttan

Being likened to a leftist is a new one on me (and brings great laughs from all who know me) but the thing is Ed, those who stock the bookstores can do more to actually sell the books than the scant few reviewers who will lower themselves to review genre fiction. There's a woman at an Indigo store in Calgary who loves Ken Bruen and she routinely rotates his books on end displays - this was how I discovered her love of his books. And she moves them in big numbers.

And considering review space is in decline reviews are going to have less and less to do with moving books. Where do we turn then? Hand selling will do far more for authors.

Maybe the simple point is that everyone else gets it, and these elitist reviewers need to get their heads out of their collective ass.

And beyond that, if people within the genre didn't spend so much time nitpicking and instead supported excellence and innovation when they see it it would be good for all authors. We're actually running an article that touches on misperceptions about romance writing this month.

Rating offhand comments on blogs and their merit seems like just another form of the same snobbery.

Colleen

I blogged about Zane's post over at my site today also Sarah. What really annoyed me was his inference that all genre books are formulaic - he made a huge sweeping generalization that said a lot more about him then it did about the books he was referring to.

I don't mind genres, honestly. I like to be able to find SFF all in one area in the bookstore, same with mystery - heck, same with young adult. The problem is that a huge group of critics (and editors) seem to think that reviewing any genre book is a step down in prestige (or dare I say - intelligence) on their part. It's okay for the masses to read these books, but not for the literati (whoever the hell that is) to do the same.

So you're right - to get respect for genre titles across the board, then genre titles must be reviewed critically and responsibly and often. I don't know that I'm a critical enough reviewer honestly - I'm still very much feeling my way with this over at Bookslut - but at least I'm trying. I would like to know though why it is that if you like (or dare I say love) a genre title then you are dismissed as merely a fan, but if a literary title is lauded then it is richly deserved praise.

It seems sometimes that you can't win, not matter how hard you try.

Guyot

What would we do without you?

ed

Okay, Sandra, I'll style you as a Ralph Reed disciple shrieking against sinners at college campuses. Different ideology, same story.

And you haven't addressed what we're talking about. Here's what I wrote: "Critics are not the underpaid bookstore clerks who are stocking merchandise." Let's capitalize that sentence again for emphasis, shall we?

CRITICS ARE NOT THE UNDERPAID BOOKSTORE CLERKS WHO ARE STOCKING MERCHANDISE.

See, that's what Sarah's writing about in the above post. CRITICS. Not BOOKSTORE CLERKS.

Having now established what Sarah's post and this thread is about how there are not many younger critics around to fill the shoes of today's top genre reviewers, can we return to the issue at hand?

I talked with an author recently. I won't reveal his name, since this was off the record. But this was a small book put out by a small press. A review in a major paper (the ONLY review in a major paper) moved 200 copies of the book immediately after it appeared.

So you see -- THAT'S why discussing shrinking review coverage, the future of criticism, and the absence of future voices is important, Sandra. Can your bookstore clerk move 200 books in an afternoon?

Didn't think so.

I'm really not trying to be snobbish or elitist. I'm merely trying to rectify your utter failure at basic reading comprehension.

Cornelia Read

Not to dis you, Ed, but a bookstore clerk who cares about a book can absolutely move 200 copies, sometimes in a single afternoon. This is because bookstore clerks are most often the people who get you invited to sign at their respective stores, and who talk you up with customers so there'll be a good-sized audience attending that signing. They can review you in the store's newsletter or on its website. They can pre-sell you to collectors. They can also single you out as a selection for their store's book clubs and reading groups.

The passion and generosity of dedicated booksellers is absolutely staggering. And they sure as hell ARE underpaid, IM(NotSo)HO.

This isn't to say that reviews and reviewers aren't important to a book's success. Just that booksellers rock.

Rob Gregory Browne

Booksellers DO rock. I had the experience of a bookseller pre-selling a large number of my book simply because he'd read it, loved it and decided to name it his "pick of the month" in his newsletter. You can't ask for better than that.

tod goldberg

The challenge I face when reviewing genre fiction has more to do with what is acceptable in crime & mystery and what is not in other titles. Last year, I reviewed something like 35 books between my regular review column in Las Vegas City Life (where, incidentally, I reviewed a genre title this week: The Collaborator of Bethlehem) and other newspapers and magazines, and I'd say about 33% of them were mystery or crime and while I found a few that were extremely original, most tended to be rehashed cliches. As a writer, I don't want to write that stuff, and as a reader I certainly don't want to read it, either, so when I review crime I say exactly what I feel: If I read about another drunk cop chasing a sadistic Edgar Allen Poe quoting serial killer I'm going to feed my testicles to a Norwegian Roof Rat. Likewise, if I read about a tough as nails cop who has a soft side for autistic kids, or who was in the Nam, or who has absolutely no sense of him or herself apart from the case they are working, again, testicles meet rats. As a reviewer, I feel like it's my job to critique the writing and the plot because that's what I want when people review my books, too. Too often godawful writing is given a pass in the crime genre because the mystery is complex. Shouldn't the people be just as complex? Shouldn't the writing be just as nuanced? Apply the same level of criticism to crime fiction as you do literary fiction and I think a lot of the popular writers of our time would wilt. Maybe I'll review the new Robert Parker novel and say what no one has said in print, but should: Dude, this 28K words long and 25 bucks. Susan Silverman is Alan Alda in drag. Hawk should go to fucking prison. Spenser would have heart disease with all that fucking pasta he makes. And Encyclopedia Brown could solve the crime, and, probably, his cousin Wikipedia Green could probably to do it, too. That I'd pay to see.

Cornelia Read

"You can't ask for better than that" is absolutely right on, RGB. And it's funny to contrast your saying that the bookseller did this "simply because he'd read it" with Zane's snotty dismissal of "books people actually read."

What does he suppose we should be paying attention to, as a culture, "books people DON'T actually read"?

Well, yeah, I guess he is. *Actually.*

Wouldn't it be great if EVERYONE tried talking about the "books we actually LOVE"--the books each of us gets passionate about, for whatever reason--no matter how they're classified?

I'm not planning to hold my breath until the advent of THAT conversation, however.

Reading the notes on that NBCC discussion, it struck me that so many participants seemed surprised that the Library of America had published a volume of Philip K. Dick novels. I wonder if they have any idea that LOA has done two volumes each of Chandler and Hammett, along with two anthologies of American Noir novels?

The LOA website describes its mission as "The need to preserve the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America's best and most significant writing in authoritative editions."

No mention of genre. No mention of who makes it into the canon treehouse before the rope-ladder gets pulled up behind... just "best and most significant."

I love that. Let's hope it's contagious.

Kevin

Why is it every time I hear something from Ed, it always seems to be a condescending diatribe. Don't you have anything better to with your apparently abundant free time than bully people?

Get off your pedestal and try to contribute something that adds value to the discussion.

Daniel Hatadi

Seems like Ed's latched on to only one particular facet of the conversation. There might even be some good points in there if we didn't have to wade through all the flotsam.

Genre Wars indeed.

ed

Corneila: I totally agree with you. No offense at all. Booksellers do indeed rock. But it seems that certain participants here (but not you, Cornelia! great observations from you all around and, believe me, I'm geeking out about the PKD collection too and wondering how this ties into the whole genre vs. mainstream debate!) have failed to read the FIRST comment I left, where I actually addressed the specific points that Sarah had raised, which one would presume was the point of this thread. I am not a bully, but I would be the first to confess that I don't react well when confronted with base stupidity. Apologies.

Colleen

Tod, I think I want to become your stalker.

"Susan Silverman is Alan Alda in drag. Hawk should go to fucking prison. Spenser would have heart disease with all that fucking pasta he makes. And Encyclopedia Brown could solve the crime, and, probably, his cousin Wikipedia Green could probably to do it, too. That I'd pay to see."

I am a huge Spenser fan but you are so right and wouldn't it be grand if someone would finally tell Parker this? Maybe he would knuckle down and write a good Spenser mystery again!

David Thayer

The reason I love noir and crime fiction is that the really good stuff is about class warfare, the root of American noir fiction. Capitalism is dynamic and vicious creating wealth and poverty with equal abandon, huge spaces between the lucky and the disenfranchised. Great noir explores that void from the bottom up while literary fiction frets about the peasant in the courtyard.

Bryon Quertermous

You mean to tell me there's no rehashed cliches in literary fiction??

If I have to read one more ironic book by some 30-something hipster in Brooklyn that references the 70s and comics books, or if I have to read another book about a strong but battered woman over coming social and personal obsticles, or one more autobiographical coming of age novel, or, well you get the idea.

If anything, I think genre fiction is more aware of its cliches and tries (if not always sucessfully) to work with them in fresh ways rather than always trying to "break new ground" in the same old way.

David J. Montgomery

Ed wrote: "there are not many younger critics around to fill the shoes of today's top genre reviewers."

I don't think the problem is a lack of reviewers. The problem is a lack of review space, which affects all kinds of books, genre and otherwise. I think there are enough people who can passionately and competently review crime fiction, if only the outlets were there.

Elaine Flinn

I could learn to love Bryon. And I could add a few more 'types'-but I get into enough trouble as it is.

Bryon Quertermous

That's a lot of learning Elaine. I'll cause more trouble to take the heat off of you.

PJ Parrish

Ed wrote: "there are not many younger critics around to fill the shoes of today's top genre reviewers."

I can only speak to this point from the newspaper perspective (toiled there for 25 years, part of it overseeing the book pages). But one of the big reasons why there is no "new generation" of book reviewers coming up is because chain newspapers are under huge pressure to abandon their locally written features.

Prior to the 90s, newspapers in medium to smaller markets had their own stables of travel writers, food writers, movie, art, dance and music critics -- and book editors -- who all lent a "local" perspective to their jobs. These staff positions are being eliminated and the news holes are being filled by wire or material from the Mother Ship newspapers. (ie the Chicago Tribune, which recently got rid of its Orlando Sentinel book editor and is eyeing others, including the Sun-Sentinel, crime fiction columnist Oline Cogdill's home base.) This consolidation is killing off not only reviewers but a whole secondary layer of coverage -- writers used to be able to count on at least regional attention for their books, but not anymore.

This trend goes hand-in-hand with the death of regional book distributors who used to maintain their own regional bestseller lists, which were once valued as a stepping stone for new authors. These regional sales force folks were also valuable "hand sellers" of local-interest books, and smart authors met and courted them. Now distribution is consolidated in the hands of a couple huge companies (Ingrams, Baker & Taylor) whose sales force is not geared for pushing local talent.

If this keeps up, pretty soon we'll be left with nothing left but USA Today and the New York Times.

Elaine Flinn

Ah, Bryon! A man after my own heart. We should meet for drinks sometime. Wail on.:)

Steve Clackson

Sarah said above "And that's where the real point of this post comes in,which is to wonder where those voices are and why, to be frank, there are so few like me."

This is true it takes only a few minutes of a Google search to see the same small number of reviewers. Dozens of books get missed every week and the only ones picking up some of the slack are bloggers.

But with this I also see another problem surfacing as has been pointed out to me by a growing number of readers and that is friendly reviews and reviewers.
More and more the reviews by bloggers or on Amazon or by some of the e-zines are by friends of the writer and not at arms length enough to be credible as a non-bias book review.
I receive dozens of e-mails asking if I know of reviews for mysteries/crime/suspense etc. that are not by the authors friends or writing groups etc.
Sarah is right to worry or question when the column inches are dropping and papers drop sections, who will be the reviewers and where will they be read? Blogs? Websites? Sadly, I find it to be a diminishing field.

tod goldberg

I don't know, Bryon, reworking cliches still makes them cliches, doesn't it? And I don't think in, say, the romance genre authors are looking at the cliches and wondering how to subvert the model of the "happily ever after" to better effect when they still end up at happily ever after. In crime, the cliche of the drunk cop might rest on truth -- but that doesn't mean we need to read about it every time. Nor does every PI need a sidekick who has some special talent (like, you know, the ability and love of sadistic violence done on "bad" guys) and that doesn't mean reviewers should accept it as a convention of the genre. Look, it's all fiction, irrespective of genre or commercial appeal and I think all books should be held up to a standard of excellence no matter where they are shelved.

Steve Allan

I think the battle of popular fiction versus literary fiction will only be solved through a generational change, and I think we're beginning to see it. The litfic folks accepting writers like Lethem and Chabon, and the earlier acceptance of Vonnegut, is like a crack in their icy reception toward genre fiction. Perhaps this will cause a change from within? However, it is because of the younger generations, who grew up with more exposure to pop culture and developed a fondness for it, that writers on the edge of the various genres are being invited to the palace of litfic. I seriously doubt it is the elder occupants of the palace that are allowing these genre-corrupted writers their respect. As the elders drop dead, the younger generation, and their positive thoughts on genre fiction, take over. Maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part?

I look at this problem as similar to the change of political and social thought. Look at any of the latest polls on opinion of gay marriage. A large portion of this country is against gay marriage. But look at the results closely, especially the breakdown of those who consider themselves Democrat. Overall, Democrats are against gay marriage, perhaps not as much as Republicans, but they do not look favorable upon it. Now, look at the Democrat response by age and you will see a major divide. The older you are, the more you are against gay marriage; BUT the younger you are, the more accepting of gay marriage. Will we see gay marriage as an acceptable institution by a majority of people in the next fifteen years? I doubt. Will be see it in the next 50? If the results of current polls continue, then yes. If you don't like the gay marriage analogy, take the role of women in politics. The 19th Amendment is only about 85 years old, and today we are witnessing the first real potential female candidate for the US Presidency.

One of the fuels of progress is hope.

Shannon Chamberlain

Expanding a bit on a comment above, the best way to knock so-called "literary" fiction off of its ill-deserved pedestal is to promote the idea that it is, simply, another genre, with its own familiar tropes and conventions. Anyone who's read "A Reader's Manifesto" knows that a book by Proulx (or DeLillo or McCarthy) is just as formulaic and obeisant to pre-established tropes and conventions as the most cliched hardboiled detective novel, except that the cliched hardboiled detective novel actually has a plot. And I agree--one more tribute to old comic books by someone in tortoise-shell glasses and a black turtleneck and I may have to blow up Random House. These days my favorite books tend to be crossovers--mysteries beautifully written, often with some sort of academic or intellectual plotline. That's just one girl's opinion, but going back to the original subject, it's important for those fighting the genre wars not to cede any aesthetic high ground to literary fiction. Literary fiction is just as ossified as anything else.

Maxine

Very interesting post, Sarah, as are the pertinent comments (eg Steve Clackson's). Thank you for the kind words about my reviewing, which is nascent and immature compared with yours, that's for sure.
But speaking as a "nascent" crime fiction reviewer, I don't review more for two reasons: (1) only two people/publications ask me to review for them (hence I post the surplus on my blog); and (2) I can't read the books quickly enough to review much more than I am doing.

I review occasionally for the Philadelphia Inquirer, when Frank is good eanough to ask, and for Eurocrime, an excellent website based in England, which I can highly recommend -- see www.eurocrime.co.uk for a great range of reviews, as well as other crimefic resources. However, as the name of the site kind of implies, only books written by Europeans qualify. Please do go and look at this site if you don't know it; I found it a great discovery, in particular the books that feature several reviews, so one can get a variety of perspectives.

This comment is rather long, sorry, but just to say I echo the thoughts of some people here-- books don't need to be gendre-ised, I see many books reviewed in the general sections of publications that could also be classified as crime fiction -- "Little Face" by Sophie Hannah being a recent example. And of course, the crimefic writers who "make it big" also feature in general review sections. (eg Lee Child). If you look at Publishers Weekly brief reviews, for exmaple, they have a mystery section but you'll find plenty of briefs in the general section that could just as easily be in mystery. I hope that book-review sections of publications do continue: if they do, I don't think there is any doubt that good crime fiction will continue to feature in them.

Incidentally, I work for the world's best science journal -- science being another farily "genre" topic I suppose. We have a four-page book review section every week and a couple of supplements each year. We do have a large panel of reviewers, but if we find a good one, we will use him or her over again -- my very long experience does indicate that there aren't that many really good book reviewers. Sarah, you are a shining example of one. So is David Montgomery.

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