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Thriller Writers: Dionne, Eisler, Lynds and Morrell

by Susan Henderson on October 8, 2008

The big reader in my family was my mother; and from the beginning, I coveted her shelves full of D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O’Conner, James Baldwin. Before I was even aware of the ways writing could be categorized, I was steeping myself in literary fiction, and a love of character and phrasing over plot.

It wasn’t until I was a creative writing major in college that I took my preference for a certain type of book and turned it into an outright prejudice. This was so prevalent in our program that I wonder, now, if we were taught this idea. Suddenly, there was an “us” and “them”. We unpublished literary fiction writers cared about every sentence, every nuance, while they, they cared only about racing toward… racing toward… okay, so none of us had actually read any of these books for which we had such a strong disdain. But we knew one thing: they were hack writers and we were artists.

Two events changed me. The first was clicking on a link to a talk given by thriller writer, David Morrell. The lecture was called, “Why Do You Want To Be a Writer?”, and it spread through the literary fiction community, leaving many of us swooning. Who is this guy? we thought. He wasn’t one of us, and yet, he described the heart of a writer and the process of writing so intimately that I had trouble believing in my “us and them” theory. The second was the joy I felt when a friend had her book published (in fact, it’s out this week). I was so excited for her, I asked for an early copy. An environmental thriller. One of those books from The Other Side. And guess what? I read it, and yes, it was different than anything I’d read before, but absolutely gripping.

Today I want to tackle this divide between literary and genre fiction by introducing you to four exquisitely bright and big-hearted thriller writers. I think you’ll enjoy this discussion, and I hope you’ll continue it in the comments section. Maybe, like me, you’ll have a change of heart.

David Morrell

A few years ago, there was a controversy when Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS was chosen for the Oprah Book Club. He asked for his book to be withdrawn because Oprah’s Book Club was directed toward a mass audience and Franzen felt that his work was part of the high-art segment of literature. I have a Ph.D. from Penn State and for many years was a professor of American literature at the University of Iowa. Naturally I wanted to look at Franzen’s high-art novel. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was a genre novel — specifically, a dysfunctional family novel. This only reinforced in me the believe that all novels ultimately fit into one or more categories. The categories themselves don’t matter as much as how well each novel is written.

The division between high-brow and low-brow shows how much Calvinism and moralism affect many opinion makers. In the early 1900s, the great cultural analyst Van Wyck Brooks bemoaned this influence, pointing out that when a critic refers to a “good” book, that book is frequently slow-paced and difficult to read, something we are encouraged to work at, as if leisure were sinful. For these critics, any novel that gets our hearts pounding should make us suspicious. They refer to thrillers as a “guilty pleasure.”

I personally turn away from the Calvinistic tradition and embrace the all-embracing transcendentalism of British Romantics like Wordsworth, as well as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman in the United States. I welcome diversity and the stimulation of my senses as well as my intellect. One purpose of the International Thriller Writers organization, which Gayle Lynds and I co-founded, is to show that thrillers can be as well-written as any other type of novel, including Franzen’s dysfunctional-family novel, and that the excitement in them makes our lives fuller.

David’s Bio:

David Morrell is the author of FIRST BLOOD, the award-winning novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph.D. in American literature from the Pennsylvania State University and taught in the English department at the University of Iowa until he gave up his tenure to write full time. “The mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions,” as one reviewer described him, Morrell is the co-founder (with Gayle Lynds) of the International Thriller Writers organization. His numerous bestsellers include THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (the basis for a top-rated NBC miniseries broadcast after the Super Bowl), THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE, THE FIFTH PROFESSION, and EXTREME DENIAL (set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives). He is also the author of THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST: A LIFETIME OF LESSONS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING. His latest is THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS, a holiday action thriller. Please visit him at www.davidmorrell.net.

Gayle Lynds

Back in the early 1980s, when I was beginning to write fiction, my mentor was Robert Kirsch, the L.A. Times literary critic. He sent me to the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, explaining it was the child of Robert Frost, the preeminent “literary” workshop in the United States, and he was worried that my primary influence (other than him) was the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, tops at the opposite end of the literature spectrum.

It was true that at the Santa Barbara conference I was getting earfuls from various instructors and fellow students about how pretentious, boring, and navel-gazing so-called literary fiction was. In other words, “literary” writers were full of themselves, and pea green with envy because they made so little, if any money, for their work.

So off to Breadloaf I went, where I got earfuls from various instructors and fellow students about how shallow, repetitious, and needlessly breathless genre fiction was. How writers in the field were lightweight and definitely not serious artists. Worse, they wrote only for money.

Both were – and are – excellent conferences, but the divide was there.

When all of that occurred more than twenty years ago, I was writing and publishing literary short stories. Within a short time because of changes in my personal life I was suddenly writing and publishing male pulp fiction. Today of course I write international espionage novels, which puts me at the heart of what some call non-literary fiction.

What has always bothered me is that both sides aimed – and still aim – poisoned darts at each other. It was utterly silly then, and it still is. We’ve already won the moral war.

As David points out, at our best we combine first-rate writing often better than what’s to be found in “literary” fiction, with dimensioned characters, stories as important and vital as any of the classics, and plots that keep people reading through even content-heavy passages. Among our precursors are Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Each was composing genre fiction during his time. Each was serious about his work, popular with large audiences, and making a living. I’ll bet none of them was embarrassed about it either. And despite all those negatives, they’re now viewed as literary icons.

On the other hand, the “literary” folks are winning the PR war.

Remember when genre fiction was called popular literature? It’s an honorable designation, reflecting the fact that we purposefully want to reach people – regular people. We want large, gregarious, vibrant audiences. To do that, we must be relevant and experiential. We must hit a nerve, say something so intimately entertaining and personally important that readers return to devour more of our books. Is it working? Sure does seem so – they’re voting for us at the cash register.

But that’s helped the literary writers to beat us in public relations – they’ve been calling us writers of commercial fiction, or “commercial writers,” so long now that the phrase is deep in the public’s lexicon. As all of us know, words are powerful. By calling us commercial writers, they’ve inculcated the public with the idea that we do indeed write only for commerce – for money. That there’s no way we can take pride in our work and our contributions, or heaven forbid that our books might be excellent, because of course those qualities are unnecessary for success in the book-buying marketplace. In fact, quality often hinders sales.

As such, prima facie, our books are not worthy to be read.

When was the last time you heard us referred to as writing pop literature? My guess is it’s been years, probably more than a decade. And that’s really our fault. I suspect there’s some sort of Calvinist, Catholic, Jewish, or Midwestern guilt deep within us in which we have a niggling fear they’re right. That our work’s unworthy. Oh, for Pete’s sakes – get over it!

Oprah Winfrey is a smart woman, and she reads a lot, but she has done a disservice to readers. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it’s because the term “commercial fiction” has brainwashed her, too. She trends toward the underdog, which I heartily support. But as such I suspect she views literary fiction as the underdog against a vast conspiracy perpetrated by commercial fiction to destroy our culture. Or, at best, add nothing insightful to it.

One of my great regrets has been to watch the demise of small book clubs across the country. Over and over friends and people I meet while on tour tell me their book clubs have died. Why? Because “we were reading” depressing books, boring books, hard-to-understand books, books “we should” read, books that “are good for us.” It reminds me of castor oil. Often they were Oprah picks.

Have you noticed that sales of Oprah’s book club selections have declined steadily book by book since the first one? I’m glad the sales figures remain large, because I want to do everything I can to support the publishing industry and those who enjoy her choices. Still, a mark of anything successful is that more and more people are attracted to it. Not fewer.

But “fewer” is what is happening to book clubs across the country. When clubs make it a rule that literary fiction will be their only reading choices, people slowly stop reading the books, then they stop attending. Sayonara book club.

At the same time, we’re seeing something similar happening in schools. Instead of a mixture of literary and pop fiction in elementary and high school reading and literature classes, the selections are almost entirely literary – and fewer kids read well, and fewer still read any books as adults.

Literary fiction is an important part of our culture, and it can bring great reading joy. I wish it well. But not at the expense of genre fiction.

If in order to thrive, literary fiction feels it must denigrate us, there is something tragically wrong. And I say to our denigrators what I say to us – get over it. Get a life. Get busy and do something about it as Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and a host of other literary writers have done by creating suspense stories and novels. Even Graham Greene, who for years divided his novels into “real” books and entertainments, at the end of his life decided he had been wrong, that all of his books were just that, books, everything and nothing, not lesser nor greater because of whatever category he or others might choose for them. They were books. Books.

It would be a sorry world if only one form of reading pleasure were available to us. Let us all sit around the campfire and tell tales large and small. Let us respect – and celebrate – each other. Everything else is a waste of time that could be better spent writing the next book. Which is what I am going to do now.

Gayle’s Bio:

New York Times bestseller Gayle Lynds is the award-winning author of eight international espionage novels, including THE LAST SPYMASTER, THE COIL, MASQUERADE, and MESMERIZED, which are published in some 20 countries. Her books have won such awards as “Novel of the Year” (THE LAST SPYMASTER) given by the Military Writers Society of America, and have been People magazine “Page-Turner of the Week” and “Beach Read of the Week.” Publishers Weekly lists her work among the top ten spy novels of all time. BookPage concurs: “Gayle Lynds has joined the deified ranks of spy thriller authors like Robert Ludlum and John le Carre.” With Ludlum, she created the Covert-One series and wrote three of the novels. One of them, THE HADES FACTOR, was a CBS miniseries in April 2006. A member of the Association for Intelligence Officers, she is co-founder and co-president (with David Morrell) of International Thriller Writers, Inc., and is listed in Who’s Who in the World. Born in Nebraska, raised in Iowa, she now lives in Southern California. You can visit her at www.GayleLynds.com.

Karen Dionne

At one of my Backspace conferences, an accomplished literary fiction author participated in a panel discussion on creating living, breathing characters in literary fiction. One of the things she discussed at length was the musicality of words, and the care with which she chooses each one. When I told her that I, too, spend a great deal of time crafting individual sentences even though I write thrillers, I could tell she didn’t believe me.I think this is one of the misconceptions literary fiction authors hold toward thriller authors: that we sacrifice quality for the sake of the story.It’s true, the fast pace in thrillers means there’s little time for lingering descriptions or deeply introspective character development. But that just makes the opportunities more precious. And even in the most intense action scene, the rhythm of the sentences, their length, whether or not a sentence ends on a hard or soft note — all of that matters. It isn’t that we don’t care about elegant language, or that we can’t write anything else; it’s that we choose to write thrillers.

Why? For me, it’s all about tension and pace. Thrillers are noisy. Whether they start with a bang or build to a crescendo, they’re all gripping, exciting, involving. And clearly, I’m not the only one who enjoys reading them, since thrillers dominate the bestseller lists.

Which leads to an area where I think literary fiction authors can learn from thriller authors: commercial appeal.

I’d like to offer Jon Clinch’s literary novel FINN as an example. I’m familiar with this book and its backstory because Jon and I are members of the same writing community, and we share an agent.

FINN opens with the most beautiful description of a dead body I’ve ever read:

Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.

It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily dep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been flouting would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but this far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed a swarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.

A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.

Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.

An alligator gar, eight feet if it’s an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away. The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice. The urgent sunfish eddy. The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.

Reading on, we learn the body “lacks for skin, all of it, from scalp to sole. Nothing remains but sinew and bone and scraps of succulent yellow fat that the crows have not yet torn free.” The chapter finishes with Pap Finn cooking strips of human skin on a blind bootlegger’s campfire.

That opening could well be the opening of a thriller. It grabs the reader, draws them in, sets the tone, raises questions — all the things a good thriller opening does. In fact, when I wrote to Jon and asked if I could quote his novel in the context of this discussion, he told me he was actually thinking in terms of thrillers when he wrote it, and had “set out to see if I could write a book that accomplished many of the things that I’d heard thriller writers talking about, but with my own set of literary tools.”

Jon’s editor at Random House, Will Murphy, says in a preface to the advance reading edition: “Dear Reader: You hold in your hands a major debut and that rarest of beasts — a real work of literature that has big commercial potential.”

When FINN went on submission, 8 publishing houses wanted to buy it. The auction lasted for days, and the winner, Random House, made the book their lead title — not only because FINN is gorgeously written, but because it also tells such a wonderful story, and they believed the novel would sell in great quantities.

“Commercial potential” and “literary fiction” don’t have to be incompatible concepts, and their happy marriage shouldn’t be “rare.” Readers aren’t stupid. They want great stories. Thrillers sell in such large numbers because they deliver. But a beautifully written literary novel that also thrills will be just as well received.

I’ve always felt a little sad about that literary fiction author who didn’t believe I cared about the musicality of my words as much as she did. I don’t know why she couldn’t acknowledge we had that in common, but her close-mindedness hurts her more than it hurt me.

Thriller authors, on the other hand, are incredibly open. We joke that we’re so nice because we get all the meanness out of our systems when we write our novels. Whether that’s true or not, the thriller community is extraordinarily supportive. Those of you who don’t read thrillers won’t know this, but having David, Gayle, and Barry on this panel with me is like having a panel made up of Pulitzer and Booker prize winners with one MFA student. Not only have these accomplished authors made room for me at the table, all of them have made their mark on my debut. They’ve given me endorsements, critiqued the opening chapters, recommended the novel to their own editors — even given the novel its title. No one knows if one day I’ll be as successful as they are, but their acceptance isn’t contingent on that. It’s enough for them that I too, write thrillers.

Karen’s Bio:

Detroit native Karen Dionne dropped out of the University of Michigan in the 1970s and moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness with her husband and infant daughter as part of the back-to-the-land movement. During the next thirty winters, her indoor pursuits included stained glass, weaving, and constructing N-scale model train layouts. Eventually, her creative interests turned to writing. Karen’s short stories have appeared in Bathtub Gin, The Adirondack Review, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine and Thought Magazine. She worked as Senior Fiction Editor for NFG, a print literary journal out of Toronto, Canada, before founding Backspace (www.bksp.org), an Internet-based writers organization with 850 members in a dozen countries. Karen and her husband now live in Detroit’s northern suburbs. FREEZING POINT (Berkley, October 2008) is her first novel. And if you want to see what a cyber launch party looks like, click here: www.freezingpointlaunchparty.com.

Barry Eisler

Susan, thanks for kicking off this great conversation — it’s a privilege to be part of it.

For me, generally speaking, “literary fiction” means stories that are driven primarily by who; “genre fiction” means stories driven primarily by what. In other words, character driven vs plot driven stories. There’s nothing wrong with either; the only problem, I suppose, is when a writer thinks he’s writing one and is actually writing the other.

One reason literary fiction tends to garner greater critical accolades is because writing character-driven stories is harder than writing plot-driven ones. It’s easier to generate interest by creating a ticking bomb scenario than it is to generate interest by creating a vivid person. I agree with David, Gayle, and Karen that there’s also a Listerine element at work here: “if it tastes this bad, it must be good for me.” Which, if you think about it, is a silly way to judge a book, or anything else, for that matter.

How can you tell whether a book is more literary or more genre? One good sign that you’ve read something more on the genre end of the continuum is forgetability. If the pages were flying by while you were reading it, but shortly after finishing you’re no longer thinking of the book and its feeling doesn’t linger, it was probably more genre than literary. If you remember the characters, though, if they still seem real to you long after you’ve finished the book, if you can instantly recollect the feeling of the book just by thinking about it, if the book stays with you… I’d call that more literary.

It should be obvious at this point that the best books are both genre and literary: you can’t stop reading while you’re in the book, and you can’t stop thinking about it when you’re through. There’s plenty of fiction out there that fits the bill, but it’s classified as genre more often than as literary. Genre aspects tend to eclipse literary aspects when it comes to classifying a book because the genre aspects are more obvious. For example, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River succeeded perfectly as both genre and as literary fiction, but it’s more widely known as genre because the mental and marketing category “crime” is easier shorthand than “vivid characters; convoluted, Greek tragedy personal history; haunting sense of place.” If I were Dennis, I wouldn’t mind being known more as genre than as literary. A rose by any other name smells as sweet — but genre sells better.

By now, you’ve probably guessed that what I respond to as a reader is both, and not one or the other. I can’t get through books that are boring but supposed to be good for me. But a page-turner without substance doesn’t do it for me, either. Actually, if there’s no substance, I won’t be turning the pages — we’re back to boring, just without the “it’ll be good for you” promise to get you through.

As for my own books, I like to think they succeed as both genre and literary — at least, that’s what I aim for. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I just write the stories that interest me, and try to write them in as powerful a way as I can.

As far as sales and marketing goes, though, again, it’s great to be known as a thriller writer.

Barry’s Bio:

After graduating from Cornell Law School, Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center. Eisler’s thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous “Best Of” lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. The first book in Eisler’s assassin John Rain series, RAIN FALL, has been made into a movie starring Gary Oldman that will be released by Sony Pictures in April 2009. To learn more, please visit www.barryeisler.com.

*

I’m grateful to David, Gayle, Karen, and Barry for kicking off this important conversation, and I hope you’ll check out their links. By the way, that David Morrell talk that inspired me so much was a shortened version of the first chapter in THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST: A LIFETIME OF LESSONS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING. I’m buying it right this second.

Now, for the rest of you, let’s hear your thoughts! And tell me this, is James Dickey’s Deliverance literary fiction or thriller? Why or why not?

{ 64 comments… read them below or add one }

darbylarson October 8, 2008 at 12:58 am

I don’t hang around literary people so I’m never engaged in the us vs. them thing (except online). I gravitate toward literary, or something else. Anything where what’s happening doesn’t feel contrived. I like fiction, not stories. I don’t know where that came from. Probably I got to a point where I’d seen the same plots done too many times. I wanted to see things other than plots. Enter postmodernism, surrealism. From Lynds up there… ‘Remember when genre fiction was called popular literature? It’s an honorable designation, reflecting the fact that we purposefully want to reach people – regular people.’ I think that nails the distinction in readership. I don’t like the idea of being regular though. This bothers me in political speeches too. All the average folk out there. Who wants to be that?

There might be something to say for who’s it being written for. I think genre might be writing for others much more than literary. For me, I’m always thinking, what can I do to make what I’m writing stand out to me (ie. an unregular person)? I don’t want to write for regular people. Regular people want, I don’t know, regular things. I want to write for geniuses. I want Albert Einstein to sit in my living room and wait impatiently for the first draft of my novel. And watching his eyes as he reads it will mean more to me than the eyes of the sheep peeking in the window, their wads of money.

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kategray October 8, 2008 at 8:37 am

I can remember having arguments with my AP English teacher in high school about the things she put on our syllabus. Sometimes, it was not even an argument; she had us keep journals about what we were supposed to be reading, and I always let my displeasure come through when it was something exceptionally boring. Ethan Frome and A Tale of Two Cities spring to mind as the ones that nearly did me in as a reader. I tried in vain to read the Dickens, night after night, as my eyes would close, snap open, and I’d find that I was starting over at the beginning of a passage I’d already gone through a dozen times. I could not retain any of it. Another, touchier, book was Native Son. I actually spoke to her about it, that it probably was not the Richard Wright that should be delivered to a group of teenagers. She thought I was being a coward. Oh well.

Like you, Susan, my mother’s bookshelves were crammed with literary allsorts. She’d had a period of Russian lit affairs, loved Shakespeare (as I do), but she also loved quick reads. Her own mother was notorious (before she lost her sight to diabetes) for having a book going in every room of the house. We trade authors back and forth, and while they’re “genre”, they are all gorgeous. Dorothy Sayers, with her reluctant nobleman. Ellis Peters, who could create such vivid landscapes and twisted people. Sharyn McCrumb, who makes me cry with her lyrical looks at Appalachia (my favorite is The Ghost Riders). In turn, I have gotten my mother into Steven Saylor, who has utterly recreated ancient Rome, and Sharan Newman, whose heroine walks such a tenuous line in medieval France, and Laurie R. King’s two equally excellent crime series. I tried to get her to read Bernard Cornwell’s excellent Sharpe series or his Arthurian trilogy, but alas, she has a real love of mystery.

I personally don’t make much distinction. I love Hemingway (more now that I never have to write a paper on his works ever again) and his “semi-autobiographical” works, Banana Yoshimoto’s snapshots of human nature, Thomas Kenneally’s mournful ode to Asmara, Eritrea, and Peter Hoeg’s broken heroine in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (another book straddling the two worlds, probably). I also have my guilty loves like Harry Potter (in whose world I would gladly reside), Elizabeth Peters’ frothy forays into Victorian Egypt (who couldn’t love Amelia Peabody?), as well as Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia series, which they wrote playing “The Letter Game”. In the end, my real criteria must be that, I am immediately drawn into the world the author has created, and that the writing isn’t reminiscent of George Lucas’ stilted dialogues.

Beyond that, I truly believe that there are folks out there who have missed reading some really great things, because they have a bias one way or the other. You have to be willing to take a plunge and try something new, whether it’s reading something a little hard like Ngugi, or crossing the commercial stream to read Martha Grimes. To be honest, the only thing that bores me is rigid thinkers.

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LaurenBaratzLogsted October 8, 2008 at 9:35 am

Great thoughts, everyone. In response, I’ll quote – why not? – myself from a blog I did over on Red Room yesterday about things you don’t realize before you’re published:

The genre wars. You wrote a book! Oops, we’ve been down this road before. Still… You wrote a book! You should be so proud! (Actually, you really should be proud. Some 81% of respondents in a NYT poll said they had a book in them, and yet how many of those 81% ever go the distance? So good on ya.) But will the world let you be proud? Turns out, there’s a discernible pecking order in publishing: literary trumps commercial; adult trumps YA; front list trumps midlist; everything trumps Chick-Lit. So unless you’re a front list literary author of adult fiction – and even then, since there are reverse snobs all over the place too – there will always be someone who looks down on you for what you write. Hopefully, though, you will never turn into the sort of person who looks down on others. The truth is, no matter what you’re writing, it takes something that we might as well call “talent,” for lack of a better word, to string together 50K-100K in such a fashion that publishers will want to publish and readers will want to buy. So take pride in your accomplishment and to hell with those who would seek to take your joy away.

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jeremyduns October 8, 2008 at 10:26 am

Very interesting essays – thanks. For a great analysis of the thriller genre, looking at a large number of authors, I really recommend this site: http://www.jottings.ca/john/thriller_pref.html

Darby, to address your points:

Imagine you’re in a restaurant, and there are a group of people sitting around the table with you having a good time. You tell a joke. Do you tell a joke that you know only you and perhaps one other person at the table will understand? Or do you tell a joke, and tell it in a way that will hopefully get as many people around the table to laugh? I would apply the same to story-telling. I think genre writers – or those who are labelled that – want to tell stories that as many people as possible will want to read. I’m *not* interested in writing for a select few geniuses who can appreciate the true talent of my wondrous prose! I want to create stories that are so well crafted that millions of people around the world are thrilled, frightened, awed, and desperate to keep reading until the end. This was the genius, as has been mentioned above, of Shakespeare, Dickens and others. They weren’t writing for a small cachet of eggheads who might understand what they were trying to pull off: they realised that the best stories are the ones that touch us all.

I read lots of fiction, but I distinguish them on their quality, not category. Many thrillers are contrived and formulaic, but many are extremely well written, innovative and have something to say about the human condition. Similarly, many literary novels are self-indulgent and boring, but many are also extremely well written, innovative and have something to say about the human condition.

If a genre novel is brilliant, it is no longer classed as genre. Brave New World and 1984, for instance, are rarely described as science fiction. There’s nothing about any type of story than prohibits the creation of great literature. I think Geoffrey Household, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Elleston Trevor and Joseph Hone are/were all great writers, and all are worthy of study and discussion at university level. In fact, one of my dissertations for my degree in English literature was partially on le Carré’s work.

When I submitted the first chapter of my Cold War-set spy thriller to a writer’s group a few years ago, one of the other members of the group – a published novelist – scribbled a note at the top of page three. ‘Good – why are you writing in genre?’

My answer is: Because I love the genre I’m writing, and because I think I have some interesting stories to tell.

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TishCohen October 8, 2008 at 10:37 am

I was lucky enought to hear David Morrell’s talk at the Backspace conference last year. I know I wasn’t the only one in the crowded room having an AHA moment. Morrell is a master and made me realize every story I tell is informed in some way by a particular incident in my childhood. It was a fascinating realization that changed my writing. I don’t think there’s a writer alive who couldn’t learn from him.

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AnnVossPeterson October 8, 2008 at 11:50 am

I used to write literary short stories, and now I write romantic suspense novels. This is how I define the difference between literary and genre fiction:

Literary fiction seeks to portray an aspect or aspects of the world as it is. It is an observation of character and human relationships. It is thought of as “art” in much the same way as a painting or sculpture (a representation of the world/”truth” through the artist’s eye).

Genre fiction seeks to give readers a framework to understand the world as it is, whether that framework be justice or love or judgement (good vs. evil) or whatever. It is the descendant of epic poetry, morality tales, mythology and the like. It is part of the human race’s quest to understand the world and pass down that understanding through storytelling.

To argue that one has more value than the other begs the question, what specific -values- are you talking about?

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darbylarson October 8, 2008 at 12:17 pm

‘Imagine you’re in a restaurant, (imainging) and there are a group of people sitting around the table with you having a good time (this is rare). You tell a joke (this is extremely rare). Do you tell a joke that you know only you and perhaps one other person at the table will understand (probably, but that’s why I wouldn’t tell it, I’d sit and just keep it to myself. I agree with what you are saying, and it is a good distinction, but yeah, I’m that person who can’t stand that anyone could tell the same joke twice. It’s not an audience I’m looking to connect to on some grand, and ultimately diluted scale, it’s one person on a hightened scale)? Or do you tell a joke, and tell it in a way that will hopefully get as many people around the table to laugh (no, because inside I wouldn’t be really laughing with them, I’d feel bad because I told a joke I didn’t really find funny. I wouldn’t be connecting with them, I’d just be deceiving them)? I would apply the same to story-telling. I think genre writers – or those who are labelled that – want to tell stories that as many people as possible will want to read (okay). I’m *not* interested in writing for a select few geniuses who can appreciate the true talent of my wondrous prose! (You’re saying this in a way that makes it seem self-aggrandizing, but it’s not that I feel I write wonderous prose and only a genius is able to get it, but I don’t see anything wrong with striving to connect deeply with a person I have respect for, and not just as many people as possible. I don’t want to be friends the whole world, I just want a few buddies.)’

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Aurelio October 8, 2008 at 1:02 pm

My problem with some (definitely not all) literary fiction is that it can get lost in its creator’s solipsism. Like the grandparents who gush over photos of their grandkids, or the pet owner who kisses their little Fifi on the mouth, there are things which may have great personal meaning that leave the rest of us flat (or even repulsed.) They need to ask themselves, why should others care about what I’m writing? Or, will this mean as much to others it does to me?

One time I heard a woman explain, while weeping real tears of joy, that when she didn’t know what to do with her life, a plane flew overhead right then, and she just knew that she was meant to be a flight attendant. For her, it was a truly heartfelt epiphany that significantly changed her life, but all I could think was how many billions of flight attendants there would be in the world if we all took her story as deeply to heart? She could write this tale up in the lushest prose and it would still feel empty or even comical to the reader.

Science teaches us to label and categorize in order to understand the world around us, but science also demands vigilant updating and an open mind. Anyone who has observed botany since the advent of DNA knows of what I write; plant taxonomy had to be almost completely reorganized.

Labels can end up in ridiculous places too. Many people now mistakenly label Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” as fantasy and even children’s literature, but anyone who actually reads it will see it is biting and bawdy social satire, and definitely NOT meant for children.

As David Morrell plainly states above, “The categories themselves don’t matter as much as how well each novel is written.”

Finding our unique moments of universal truth and translating them into language others can understand – that is the task for all of us, no matter what we write.

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basilsands October 8, 2008 at 1:37 pm

The first writers conference I attended was, I quickly discovered, a literary artists conference. The only thriller types out of the couple hundred people there were myself and one Sci-Fi author. We ended up staying together the whole time, more for mutual protection than anything else.

It seemed that every person there had a head bigger than my house, and always talked with one eyebrow cocked up and a condescending smirk, especially after they found out that I wrote thrillers. The only redeeming thing for me in their eyes was that I perform and give them away free as podcasts, which they apparently translated as a socialist experiment in artistic freedom. That redemption was quickly lost though when I explained it was actually just an audience building marketing strategy so that when I land a publisher I have a 10,000 plus readership already.

What truly disturbed me though was the writing exercises done at some of the workshops. They were weird at best, sick feeling “I gotta take a shower” creepy at worst.

For example. On the second day of the conference we were tasked with taking a faerie tale and rewriting in our own style. I took Goldilocks, made her an outcast from her family. She was homeless, and searching for shelter. On a miserable rainy day she finds the bears house open, and steamy porridge on the table and desperately desires the warmth. I leave her in the foyer hungry, staring. It was like a movie trailer. I performed it for the whole audience doing a, if I may brag, rather good baritone impression of Sean Connery for the voice. Ooh’s and awes, they liked it, but I think mostly for the performance.

The next few people that get up place their faerie tale characters (Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White) almost to a person into some sort of sexually perverse state involving molestation, rape, incest etc. They made the stories little more than pornographic retellings that me feel ill. The crowd erupted in delightful cheers and whoops and hollers of approval. I considered calling my friend in the State Troopers and turning in the lot, because they seemed like paedophiles.

I wanted to find my wife and kids, who were elsewhere at the hotel, and quickly escape this sick group. I did keep an eye on, for the purpose of totally avoiding, two of the authors who I am certain should be locked in prison because their tales seemed more like they were recounting some past event.

Anyway, I hope that not all literary types are that way. The couple of professors I met there who reviewed my work told me that it was unequivocally poorly done. I needed to rework the whole thing because it was so full of errors and read like cheap pulp fiction. That, after 10,000 listeners to the audio version of it at my website said they rather liked it.

Whose advice will I take on my thrillers? Not the literary crowd that’s for sure.

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Hey, everyone, very interesting discussion so far! When I’ve met my writing goal for the day, I’ll come back to comment individually. Seems like a thread I’m seeing here is how much it stings when someone invalidates whatever our world view happens to be. As a writer, you spend months or years telling a story that you are absolutely driven to tell. So when someone calls that story trite or boring or narcissistic or whatever, it strikes at the very center of you. Anyway, I’ll be back later, and again, thanks for all the comments so far. Really appreciate hearing the different points of view!

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basilsands October 8, 2008 at 3:04 pm

I like telling stories. Especially stories that make groups of people suddenly get quiet and think it’s real life unfolding in front of them. Especially especially if they are willing to drop a few quid, dollars, rubles, francs, marks, or yen on the table at anytime in the process.

Yeah…I’m a literary mercenary …bang 😉

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TishCohen October 8, 2008 at 3:12 pm

One thing I’ve definitely felt since my first book came out last year is that many writers assume a book that is humorous cannot possibly have literary merit. And I allowed this to make me almost apologize for my book. Then, early last February, my editor called to tell me the book had been shortlisted for the Commonwealth prize and, to her knowledge, was the only humorous book to ever have achieved this. Of course I was thrilled, of course I wept, but most of all I was ashamed of myself. I’d let myself feel embarrassed because of someone else’s narrow point of view.

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billiehinton October 8, 2008 at 3:37 pm

I think all good fiction has elements of mystery, suspense, and “thrill” – literary fiction often has these elements internal to the characters, while the genre novel tends to have them externally.

The big break-out novel, imo, has these elements both internal and external to the characters, so intricately woven together it’s almost impossible to figure out what the book IS, categorically speaking.

Great topic!

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Laura_Benedict October 8, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Susan–What a brilliant post! You couldn’t have picked four better representatives of –dare I say–popular fiction of the well-written thriller variety. I feel privileged to have a good acquaintance with two of them, share an editor with another, and a dear friendship with the fourth.

My husband Pinckney is (if I do say so myself) one of the best and oft-anthologized short story writers of our generation, came out of the Iowa Writers Workshop, had Joyce Carol Oates as a mentor and has taught writing for over twenty years. I knew nothing of literature when I met him, then promptly turned into a lit snob. I struggled for almost twenty years to turn myself into a literary writer, but I lacked the workshop training–and I confess that I now feel lucky that I did. Pinckney and I both agree that most of the tendentious twaddle that passses for literature these days is as dull as it is because grad students are being taught that 1) to strive for popular success is bad, wrong, evil, and a betrayal of their “art” and 2) that any story that includes a plot that moves beyond the kitchen table is not a valid story. Here are young people who–thanks to good films, intricate role-playing games, and, of course, books–come into writing programs with a fairly sophisticated understanding of narrative, but are told that their experiences of storytelling aren’t valid and that they must adhere to some rigid notion of what “good” writing is supposed to be. How funny that the academic radicals of yesterday have become the literary fogies of today. I could tell you stories of several writers who came out of well-respected workshops who are widely disdained in their alma maters because they had the temerity to become successful YA, women’s fiction, science fiction and thriller writers.

As I’ve gotten to know more and more writers outside the lit world, I’ve come to understand why so many popular fiction writers are, well, popular. Nearly all of them work at writing as a craft, rather than an art. They create their own apprenticeships by reading what they want to write, finding writers who will teach them what they want to write, and then doing it–and working obsessively hard at it. Sometimes it makes for a rather thin sort of prose because they haven’t read widely in all genres–particularly non-fiction and literature written back when even so-called hack writers were better-educated as to language and form than our contemporary grad students. A story has to have substance to back it up. But what they do have is a good story to tell. And we all want a good story! I’d like to say, too, that mystery and suspense writers are just as generous and supportive as Karen says. (I also have several generous and supportive friends in the lit world–but sometimes one gets a sense that the literary/academic pie is a small one and folks are rather afraid to share.)

There are several contemporary writers who tell thrilling stories beautifully: Daniel Woodrell, Laura Lippman, William Gay, debut writer Amy McKinnon, Charlie Huston, Neil Gaiman, and, of course, Joyce Carol Oates. (I could go on, but I’ll stop there!)

As marketing books becomes more and more democratic–i.e. writer-driven–I think we’ll see whole new generations of writers telling more and more stories in unique, amazing ways. There’s room for everyone.

In the end, at our house we want to read and write well-told, surprising, moving, and thought-provoking stories. To bore the reader is the biggest crime a writer can commit!

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aimeepalooza October 8, 2008 at 4:25 pm

To answer your question…I have no clue.
But, I really enjoyed this conversation. Being a hobby writer, I’ve never taken the time to decide or even think about what type of writer I want to be. Judging from the conversation I know I tend to enjoy literary fiction. But much of it fits into some sort of genre. sorry, I’m chewing this over as I write. I think bottom line, I love beautiful stories with beautiful words that entertain me. And, I don’t really care where they fit on a store shelf.

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darbylarson October 8, 2008 at 4:39 pm

I like writing fiction. No speaking! No stories! I think I was never ‘told’ stories as a child, and that’s why. I experience through visual text, not sound. Sometimes my wife tries to read from something, a newspaper or something, outloud and I have to say, stop, give me the thing so I can just read it. I don’t want to be the center of attention. I want to sit outside the circle and write a story on a piece of paper and not sign it and slip it into the middle of the circle then walk away.

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basilsands October 8, 2008 at 5:03 pm

Ah…that makes sense then. Your background seems to explain your preferences. While I too wasn’t really told stories in the traditional sense, I was an insomniac with an early bed time as a child. Therefore I tended to lie awake in bed listening to my parents watching TV and having to create the images in my head based on what I heard. When their shows were boring, or they chose not to watch TV I had to totally imagine the stories. At age eight I had a whole season worth of extra Million Dollar Man episodes in my head, most of which costarred me of course.

To each their own goal, and for each their own reason for reaching, striving and fighting towards that goal.

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SirJohn October 8, 2008 at 5:30 pm

First, I’ll have to thank Karen for posting about this fantastic site on MWA. I met her at a backspace convention two years ago and will have to say that it was one of the best conferences I ever attended. I read only thrillers and can not imagine reading anything less. I do add a thread of romance through my stories that I hope adds an additional degree of interest I hope I never come to the point that I have to write in a literary form to hear how great I am and with words that bore my reader. So, I guess I will have to say — long life thrillers.

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Jeremy, your question about telling a joke at a restaurant and Darby’s answer to it are fascinating. I’m thinking on this quite a bit, just this back and forth between the two of you, and I’ll gather my thoughts Friday when I do my wrap up. Glad to have you here!

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Maybe your next story will feature an insomniac. Welcome, Basil!

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 8:51 pm

I remember loving Native Son when I was a teenager. I also remember hating Hemingway as a teenager but loving him later. It’s funny how even the same book on the same person can elicit different responses at different times.

Is this the Ngugi you mean? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngugi_wa_Thiong%27o

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 8:54 pm

Yeah, we writers have to figure out how to do the joy and gratitude thing better. Between feeling rejected and torn down, and rejecting and tearing down others, we are sucking the life out of this business. Great to see you, Lauren. I love your blog over at RedRoom!

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 8:58 pm

I think I’m going to have more to say about him when I do my wrap on Friday. I caught the video of that speech, and I was absolutely buzzed afterward.

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Wow. Now I really appreciate seeing your definition of the two genres. I wonder if others want to take a stab at their own definitions. Very helpful and telling! Thanks for being here, Ann!

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:03 pm

Hee. That’s a great opening! And it’s awfully good to keep in mind why I think someone else might be absorbed in something just because I am. What I try to remind myself is that description must always be moving the story forward, so if a character stops and describes the wallpaper for an entire paragraph, there better be some good payoff for that later.

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:05 pm

You might have just ended up at a bad conference. Don’t let them turn you off of all the literary writers. Like your Goldilocks story!

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:09 pm

Did you see the NYer Festival interview with Alice Munro? (Myfanwy, did you have the link?) She talked about how people would come up to her and say they saw her story in the NYer, and then there would be this awkward pause where she felt she owed them an apology.

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:09 pm

Well said, Billie!

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:14 pm

Well, I don’t know why we can’t link Pinckney here: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-url/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books&field-author=Pinckney%20Benedict

Laura, have you noticed any difference between your writing processes, or the work of finding agents and publishers, or marketing your books? And I’m with you about not boring the reader.

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:16 pm

I don’t know if there’s a real big difference between a hobby writer and those of us who write it down as our profession when we fill out forms. In my mind, a writer is someone who needs to write, even though there are not a lot of logical reasons to continue doing so.

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SusanHenderson October 8, 2008 at 9:18 pm

Glad to have you here, Sir! Let me link MWA while I’m at it: http://www.mysterywriters.org/

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pbrock October 8, 2008 at 11:36 pm

DARBY! What strikes me in your responses is that you TELL A STORY. A very interesting story, that everyone here finds fascinating. I udnerstand envisioning a smaller audience– I think it’s fair to say that many literary and especially “experimental” writers do that. But the idea that you don’t like stories I find strangely incoherent. Every day you wake up and talk to your wife, you tell a story. Storytelling has nothing to do with what your childhood was like- it’s like, you know, what caveman drew on walls. It’s why language (here’s some evolutionary science for you, try reading Narratives of Human Evolution by Misia Landau, who was unfortunately coopted by wierd right wingers, but I studied with the woman- she’s not) exist, sort of like why we stand up straight instead of walk on all fours.

That said, there is nothing wrong with having a particular interest in the chidlren of modernism’s way of writing (non-narrative) but you yourself admitted to having many phases in your short life. Who knows what you’ll think ten years from now? And so, why be adamant? Be humble to your past, and your future. Good stuff is good stuff.

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darbylarson October 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

PAULA! I know I know. I always like using the fiction vs. story distinction though. Probably you are right (you are following me all over the internet!), there is some storyness in my brain that gets stuck to qtips when I clean my ears, but speaking nonbinarily, (ie. fuzzily), when I think of a ‘story’ I think of a plot. When I think of ‘fiction’ I think of just something made up. A story can be fictive, but so much more can be fictive too, I think. Stories are there, but I don’t want to see it as that. I don’t say anymore, here is the character and here is the thing they are doing and here is their arc and here is there subtlety and here are their quirks and see the adventures they get into and see how much ‘depth’ they have. Enough! Just give me a Dali painting to stare at for a few months and I’m good. (The more you follow me around the internet, the more you will see how hypocritical I actually am! (thanks, though))

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Laura_Benedict October 9, 2008 at 12:13 am

We’ve both had our agents forever and our agents approach very different editors. Pinckney has been publishing individual stories rather than books for the past fourteen years, plus a film and other things–he’ll have a collection of his stories out in the next year or so. It will be interesting to see how it gets marketed. When he published his books with Nan Talese, she put him in a tiny car with Elizabeth Dewberry and a “When Harry Met Sally” soundtrack on cassette and sent them driving around the south for six weeks. I don’t see that happening again. As a relatively new author, my marketing budget is very slim. Though I was on the road for seven weeks with my first novel and will be touring for this next one for a couple of weeks in January.

Pinckney approaches his work asymptotically–by which I mean that he’s into so many things that don’t necessarily look like traditional writing. He’s just done his first graphic short story and he’s become very good at designing these amazing models on Second Life. Then he’ll surprise me with a short story, or do one that someone commissions. I never see his work in progress. I think his stories spring from his brow fully formed! I’m much more workmanlike. I constantly feel torn between home and writing and promotion responsibilities. Because I’m in a very different place in my career, I spend a lot of time networking online (probably more than I should) and on the phone. But when I’m deep into a novel we tend to eat out a lot and wear wrinkled clothes!

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kategray October 9, 2008 at 7:51 am

Why, yes it is. I still have my high school copy of his Matigari up in my bookcase.

This topic, by the way, has me fascinated – if not a little freaked out – about this hierarchy of genre vs. literary fiction

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LaurenBaratzLogsted October 9, 2008 at 9:25 am

Laura, great comments. One time I posted a blog on MySpace about bad writing school advice and your husband paid me the honor of stopping by to comment. What a lively exchange that was! I felt privileged.

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LaurenBaratzLogsted October 9, 2008 at 9:30 am

I’ll take a stab! And I’ll make my usual controversial comment on the subject: “genre” is any work that can be slotted into a particular category by virtue of its adherence to certain conventions; “literary” is merely the default category for anything that can’t be conveniently slotted. This is why some work designated “literary” is amazing (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) while some is simply crap (fill in the blank). Of course there is some crossover, e.g. when we call a work “a literary thriller” or “a literary romance” etc, meaning that the beauty of the writing transcends the genre even while adhering to the conventions.

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LaurenBaratzLogsted October 9, 2008 at 9:34 am

Thanks, Susan! As you approach your own big pub date, hold onto that joy!

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Aurelio October 9, 2008 at 10:43 am

It seems all of the arts have gone through a similar phase of purposely neglecting their audience for the sake of creating “legitimate” art. But, if art is to exist in any significant way, it needs to communicate – it’s the whole point. And all the great masters were commercial artists in their field, or at least that was the goal. The “starving artists” like Van Gogh didn’t set out to starve on purpose.

I think the danger comes when a writer’s primary goal is to become a commodity rather than a communicator. With the publishing world increasingly corporate-owned, this is heightened. This environment tends to push things to extremes, with agents, editors, and writers rebelling by pushing for more deliberately non-commercial works, and corporations pushing for the pre-packaged, pre-sold, celebrity driven, who-cares-about-content-as-long-as-it-sells bottom line crap.

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aimeepalooza October 9, 2008 at 10:45 am

Well, that makes me smile! I guess maybe I should say, I haven’t thought of these questions because I don’t see myself as a writer. I’ve never had to imagine where my novel would fit on a shelf. And because I live in a world of sci-fi youth lit, Oprah book club books, how to manuals, and was raised by a woman with an addiction to romance novels, I’ve never been selective. A book with beautiful words is all I really need to feel satisfied. Novels are just like food to me. As long as the food is tasty and fills me, I’m happy no matter the number of stars on the restaurant or the price of the meal.

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jessicaK October 9, 2008 at 1:49 pm

Susan, this is a stupendous post. Thank you. The old snobbery divide between literary and genre hits a nerve in me for sure. David, Gayle, Karen, Barry, you sum up the parts of this divide beautifully. In the end, snobbery hurts us all. It reinforces stupidity. It creates pain.

As a fiction editor at Agni, we publish “literary fiction” and I’m proud of what we publish, but let’s face it, most of the writers in Agni are not on the NY Times Bestseller list. Many of the thriller writers I interviewed for the Big Thrill e-zine last year are. And my point is? This lack of financial reward for many literary novels and certainly for poetry creates hardship and that’s where some of the trouble lies.

Coming from the “literary” side, I’ve had to face my own prejudices about thrillers vs literary. I thank Backspace for helping me with this. As part of this writing forum, I’ve learned that writers of all genres care about the same things: from craft to marketing to persisting. We all want to write well. And I thank my freelance job, which gave me a chance to interview a lot of thriller writers. I learned we all have the same passion for craft, for writing well. (How silly that I didn’t know that from the start.)

I think writers owe it to each other to honor the best of what each type of writing offers. We don’t need to put each other down. Other people do that already.

Boring. Slow. Navel watching. These disparaging words are typically linked to “literary” fiction and I have to tell you, it burns my skin. I’m tired of it. People say literary means belly watching. I don’t agree with that. Sounds like they are describing a bad book. As others have pointed out here—the best books seize you. You want to know what’s going to happen next. (Tolstoy, Doestoevsky, Austin, Clinch—they all do this.) I look for that in stories for Agni. How do you define boring? What makes you want to know what’s coming next? That’s another part of the writing divide worth exploring.

As someone who supposedly writes literary fiction, I find myself using that word very, very, very, very cautiously these days. It seems “literary” keeps getting lost and beat up in dark alleys. I don’t want to follow her there. I’m not sure who the thugs are or why they feel “literary” needs a kick in the chest. But I’m bothered by this name calling from both “sides.” It’s shallow. And it hurts.

At the same time, it galls me when people assume that a book isn’t art just because it’s making a pile of money. What’s that all about? (Jealousy….recognize that word?) It’s wrong to judge a work disparagingly just because it sells well or not. That’s one way to judge a book, not the only way.

I love what Graham Greene finally said: I write books. Can I steal that phrase? It’s a great bridge across this dangerous writers’ divide. What if we all just said: I write books? Then what?
Jessica Keener

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jonclinch October 9, 2008 at 2:17 pm

I spent a great many years doing that most devilishly commercial of all commercial work: Advertising. And the most important thing I learned about that world came from an old creative director of mine, who said, “People don’t read ads. They read things that are interesting to them, some of which happen to be ads.”

So it is with books, at least from the writer’s perspective. Regardless of what genre we choose to work within—and I count literary fiction as a genre, because why not?—our first obligation is to connect with the reader. To be interesting, as my old boss would have had it.

Our tools tend to be different. The avenues we take into the consciousness of our readers—the head, the heart, the viscera—tend to be varied. But all of those tools and all of those avenues are available to all of us, all the time. And the more diligently we practice our craft, the more deeply we pursue our art, the more widely we read and study the work of others both inside and outside our usual spheres, the more readily those tools will come to hand.

Enough. I gotta get back to work.

Thanks for the shout-out, Karen.

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jonclinch October 9, 2008 at 2:20 pm

Great post, Jessica.

The Graham Greene quote reminded me of a day I stayed home sick from high school to watch bluegrass-newgrass-acidgrass-whatevergrass great John Hartford on the Phil Donahue show. Donahue asked him what he called the stuff that he and his band had just played.

Hartford’s answer: “Music.”

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass October 9, 2008 at 4:03 pm

Bravo, Susan. This is quickly becoming the most valuable LitPark discussion yet. I’ve just spent the morning reading these personal essays with tremendous satisfaction, as if an itch in one of those hard-to-reach places has been satisfied.

Character, plot and prose are the HOLY TRINITY OF FICTION. Not all novels are good literature, though, lacking in one or more of the three elements of the trinity. When all three of the elements are embodied in a novel, it won’t matter whether it’s romance, mystery, thriller, or sci-fi; it’s literature.

Which is why such works as Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, du Maurier’s REBECCA, anything by AUSTEN, and GORKY PARK by Martin Cruz Smith and many others of similiar ilk are considered classics despite their reliance on themes such as aliens from another planet, love, betrayal, mystery and romance.

It’s not about us and them, it’s about we.

We are writers. Writers need readers. Readers have preferences. Not everyone will like what you or I write, but some will. There’s a market out there for all of us.

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Laura_Benedict October 9, 2008 at 4:57 pm

“I think writers owe it to each other to honor the best of what each type of writing offers. We don’t need to put each other down. Other people do that already.”

Nicely said, Jessica!

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SusanHenderson October 9, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Wow to these new comments! Schools were closed today for Yom Kippur, so my kids were home. I’ll catch up tomorrow with individual comments. My Friday Wrap will be later than usual, too. But I’m thinking about all of these comments here and am so grateful to you guys for such a full discussion!

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Roy_LaPlante October 10, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Wow! This is a great discussion. Thanks, Karen, for telling us about this at the ITW Debuts forum. It is so great to see writers I’ve admired talking about this subject. And the responses all have me nodding my head going, “Yeah.” I totally agree that Americans have a Calvinistic attitude that makes people think escape reading is indulgent. Isn’t the whole idea of fiction to get lost in an author-created world? I’d like to second Tish Cohen’s comment on humor. Humor is looked down upon as less important than “serious” stuff because having fun is supposedly for kids, not for responsible adults. And I’ll go one further that might even test this group — romance. I think our society’s disdain for tender feminine values makes it shove romance books into a back kitchen. Yes, there are many badly written ones, but I’ve also read some pretty bad suspense and literary novels. There are good writers in every genre. Let’s hear it for plurality and writers respecting each other and our differences.

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Thank you for this, Jess.

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 7:54 pm

Good to have you here.

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Love hearing these definitions. Thanks for this!

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 7:57 pm

I love your idea of keeping the focus on *communicating.*

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 8:01 pm

I love this peek behind the curtain!

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Jon! Good to see you here!

I second you on connecting with the reader because if you’re not writing to connect then you’re writing a journal entry.

Please tell me you’re writing the next book cuz I can’t wait!

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 8:10 pm

Great examples. I think the best books are those that straddle genres. We have much to learn from each other!

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SusanHenderson October 10, 2008 at 8:12 pm

Welcome Roy! Thanks for bringing up humor and romance. My thinking is, Disdain has got to go. There’s enough of it in politics for us to create more of it here with our colleagues.

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jonclinch October 11, 2008 at 9:40 am

“Please tell me you’re writing the next book…”

Thanks, S.

The next one’s on my editor’s desk, awaiting an offer. It’s called Extremity, and it’s my usual lightweight fluff. Plus I’m just now finishing up another project — entirely different in tone and even genre — which we’ll go public with soon. You heard it here first…

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Hernan October 11, 2008 at 11:34 am

I came to this link via the MWA and am fascinated by Susan’s topic. By way of background, my father-in-law was a thriller writer (with a finance bent) and did quite well for himself in this genre, kicking it off with winning an Edgar for his first book. I helped him edit and research his books over the years which exposed me to his thinking process in approaching his craft. This summer I finished my first novel; yes a thriller with an international politics and financial angle. I’m a banker by day, but the process of writing a thriller was the most fun I’ve ever had. I recently signed up with an agent I respect a great deal and am excited about this next stage of the long and hopeful march to publication. However, there was a comment I heard from several others in publishing over the summer, which has gnawed at me and relates to Susan’s question. The comment was that the thriller genre has been doing poorly as of late, and that publishers are instead more apt to take on literary fiction and even more so, non-fiction, before embarking on launching new thrillers writers. I attended my first MWA Conference and ThrillerFest this year and find it hard to reconcile this comment about the thriller genre alongside the enthusiasm of those crowds. I am curious as to what others are really seeing out there.

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Hyperbolyst October 12, 2008 at 8:46 am

There’s but one sliver of literary fiction that publishers are, indeed, prepared (at times) to take a big, risky position on, and that’s the literary debut by a fresh-faced newcomer that publishers feel has crossover (commercial) appeal. The real issue, regardless of genre/category, is an author’s sales track, the (usually) damning fingerprints left behind at the scene of a criminally disappointing prior publication. Booksellers buy an author’s next book based almost entirely upon the success of the previous; so if that book performed poorly, this one will be taken in even smaller numbers–and so begins the horrible downward spiral that defines so many authors’ careers, because the fewer copies a store takes, the less visibility that title will have, and the fewer it’ll sell. A debut novelist thus is equipped with a phenomenal one-time advantage: no sales track! And so it is that we read, occasionally, about the seemingly astronomical sums that (rarely, but dramatically) get thrown at debut novelists–because, for publishers, this represents opportunity minus a key institutional obstacle…Though it should be pointed out that what they really mean by “literary”–as JessicaK so smartly observes elsewhere in this thread–is itself a study in relativism, because most of what mainstream publishers package as “literary” might more precisely be described as “literate”… To your original question, Hernan: thrillers remain a very attractive and potentially lucrative segment of the publishing industry, especially for a debut writer (like yourself). It’s true that lots more thrillers fail than succeed–such is the reality of the business, regardless of what sort of books you write–but, as every bestseller list shows, there’s a huge and steady appetite for those kinds of books.

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SusanHenderson October 12, 2008 at 9:59 am

Welcome! And congratulations on finishing your novel and landing an agent! I haven’t heard anything about the market being poor for thrillers. In fact, the bestseller list would prove otherwise. But I don’t know that it matters. If the market suddenly wanted humorous romance novels, I think you’d still be compelled to write financial thrillers, right?

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SusanHenderson October 12, 2008 at 10:02 am

Good (but totally depressing) point about authors being weighed down by the poor sales of a previous book. All of these hurdles just reinforce the point many folks have made here in the comments that writers get rejected and beat up enough by the business. The last thing we want to do is beat each other up.

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5speener0 October 15, 2008 at 9:27 am

WONDERFUL and most appropriate response! Thanks for sharing that…and for staying home from school on that day!

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SusanHenderson October 15, 2008 at 2:55 pm

You guys may be interested in how this topic has been picked up by Joe Moore over at ITW Big Thrill site: http://www.thrillerwriters.org/news/

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ridleyfoxfan November 18, 2009 at 6:39 am

I loved the post with Barry Eisler. I’ve read all of his books and I think that he’s a very talented author. Fault Line, his stand-alone from the Rain series, is a superb fresh start.

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SusanHenderson November 18, 2009 at 7:54 am

He’s a compelling writer and a generous man. It was good to have him here. And you, too. Thanks for stopping by!

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