I spent part of Friday afternoon happily reading the SinC quarterly newsletter. Margaret Maron's essay “Mystery Writers vs. 'Literary' Writers” surprised me and made me think. Her essay was prompted by an article by Francine Prose, in which the author complains about “commercial fiction.” In the following week, a reader complains about the lack of supportive groups for women writers. Really?
First, Prose’s essay is about the imbalance in reviews of fiction by men and women. It seems that men are getting all the reviews. In addition, some consider this justified because women don’t write as well and don’t take on important topics as much as men do. The article was published in June 1998. But I decided Margaret’s ire was justified when I read the whole Prose essay a second time. (“The Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Harpers, June 1998.)
Prose’s essay wasn’t about the decline in literature and why is everyone reading formula fiction to his or her intellectual detriment. Her slap at commercial fiction had nothing whatsoever to do with her topic. It was gratuitous. If commercial fiction has “an autonomous existence” outside the literary world of reviews and contests, why even mention it? And if writers of literary fiction have no organizations to help support women writers, why not? After all, writers in commercial fiction have lots of supportive organizations. Sisters in Crime was founded in 1986 to support women writers, challenge the male-dominated world of book reviews, and protest misogynistic trends in fiction.
The literary versus commercial fiction debate has been going on for a hundred years, and the only point I can see seems to be to give so-called literary fiction writers the opportunity to imply that their work is superior to those of us who write so-called commercial fiction. Prose’s comment had nothing to do with the point of the article, which is the neglect of fiction written by women when it comes to handing out reviews and awards. Prose spends close to nine pages comparing passages by different writers, one male and one female, to challenge as rigorously as possible the idea that anyone can tell a woman’s sentence from a man’s.
I like to read. I like to read lots of things--novels, essays, history, biography, memoirs, poetry, parody, and just about everything else I come across. I go to book signings and readings by all sorts of writers. I almost never say I'm also a writer because I'm there for the writer whose event it is, but sometimes the other writer is someone I know and is welcoming and generous in his or her greeting. Andre Dubus III is one of them. Another, who shall remain nameless, is not. Madam Anonymous has written six novels, so had I when we met. Madam A signed my book, and then said, without prompting, “I don't read crime fiction. It's so crass, don't you think?” Madam A, did you forget that we had dinner together and discussed that I write crime fiction? What sort of person goes out of her way to throw out an insult like that?
Let me answer my own question. Someone who is resentful and jealous. It's hard to believe that someone of Madam A’s stature would be jealous, but I think literary writers carry a certain resentment against other writers. First, so-called commercial writers are clearly having a lot of fun. Our characters can be (and often are) anything we want them to be. They are crazy, wild, funny, dangerous, scary, beyond belief much of the time. Second, if we’re still in the business after one book, we’re earning out our advances and then some. (I sat next to a first-time novelist on a panel who announced that no first-time novelist is ever expected to earn out her advance; I could not let that pass.) Third, readers love our stuff. They love our characters and adopt them as their own. They love our villages and islands and mountain castles and depressed cities and trailer parks. Every mystery writer has encountered the reader who walks up and asks, “But what about Joe's family? Why doesn’t he visit them? Is there trouble there?” (I sometimes worry the reader is so concerned she will follow up with an offer of help.)
Fourth, and the real reason, is that mystery writers know why we write. We’re storytellers. We have not forgotten the point of fiction is to tell a good story, to sweep the reader away into another world where he or she will undergo experiences otherwise beyond their ordinary life. Yes, the reader will experience suspense, romance, fear, and wonder, all those crass human emotions. These are fabulous depths of life that many of us in our need to hold a job and pay the bills never get to experience except through fiction, and if we as writers can get them into a story, we should do so.
In these stories that are so formulaic and offensive to literary writers we are tapping into ancient patterns in how humans see and experience the world. We deal honestly with important questions of justice and character and the consequences of our acts. Readers get to test their principles and dreams against those of another and larger world. And readers of crime fiction are not so easily misled by “literary” prose to give a pass to unscrupulous behavior. We might feel compassion for an officer forced to carry out an execution, but we still know he’s a murderer. The real man of courage is the soldier who refuses.
At the end of her essay Margaret Maron asks the other question prompted by Prose's essay: Why are mystery writers so nice to each other? We help each other build careers. We don't see every other writer as a competitor we have to undermine in order to get ahead. We take criticism from editors and reviewers well for the most part, and offer it humanely in return. Editors have been commenting on this for years, and I think the reason is simple. Mystery writers maintain a certain perspective on their characters and their stories--we create pretty awful people and watch what happens to them. We don't forgive or protect characters who have a bad end coming to them. We don’t use our talents to convince readers that black is white or white is black. Crime fiction requires a high degree of emotional honesty. We don’t fall into the temptation of believing that we’re “important” and therefore readers have to appreciate us. We know what our job is, and we do it.
Those are my theories. What are yours?