Saturday, December 27, 2014

Yes, But is it Art?

by Jeffrey Deaver 
(International bestselling author)

Writers love to fight.

About style, about politics, about editors, about publishers, about whether a comma must appear before "that" or "which." (It's the latter, by the way.)

About using words like "former" and "latter."

But nobody's more involved in the conflict than thriller and mystery writers. Fantasy and science fiction writers seem to get a pass on the question, but we crime writers are constantly disparaged as hacks, as sell-outs, as writers of "that stuff." Why don't we write real books?

Well, I thought I'd weigh in on the subject. And I decided that the best way to do so was to give you some guiding principles that I keep in mind in writing my thrillers.

Principle one: It's valid to accept that there is a difference between literary fiction and genre, or popular, commercial, fiction. In fact, it's helpful to understand that difference; I'll even go so far as to say that it's vital to make sure the difference exists.

What is that difference? I define it in terms not of style or subject matter or length but of the author's purpose. Literary works of fiction have as their goal to rearrange perceptions, to challenge readers intellectually, politically and morally, to make them question assumptions, to educate, to explain the world.

Genre works of fiction exist to entertain, to amuse, to thrill, to divert. Of course these goals are not--and should not--be exclusive. The best literary fiction seeks to achieve what I described above but has elements that make for a good thriller--sharp dialog, conscientious plotting, conflict, concrete imagery, a dynamic story. The best genre fiction has elements of the literary--psychological, political and social insight, depth of character, a distinctive and unique style.

Principal two: It's invalid to judge a written work based solely on that difference.

Being a recovering attorney I will now cleverly prove this principle through irrefutable logic. Recently watching the University of North Carolina Tarheels, my team, lose to Maryland--a travesty I'll get over eventually--I had the following meal: a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, cheddar cheese and mustard, accompanied by a Chimay Belgian ale. Okay, when the game went into overtime, two Chimay ales. I had, if you will, a genre meal.

Two days later I took a date to a darkly lit, upscale restaurant in Chapel Hill and had lobster bisque with truffle foam, coq au vin (pheasant not chicken, an interesting variation) and a 2002 Vosne-Rominee red wine. A literary meal, again if you will.

Which was better? Neither of course. Each was exactly what I wanted at the time and served its purpose perfectly. In the first instance, I had a delightful meal watching an exciting sports event (involving corrupt and incompetent referees, by the way.) In the second my friend and I had a subtle culinary experience that lasted several hours in a delightful restaurant.

Each was appropriate to the circumstance. There are times when I grab a Saul Bellow novel--Bellow a Nobel laureate--or a book of poems by Richard Wilbur or Wallace Stevens. There are times when I read Michael Connolly or Ian Rankin or Agatha Christie.

To disparage a literary work simply because  its goal is to entertain is intellectually dishonest and, in fact, obscures.

Principal Three: There is only one valid criterion by which to evaluate a work o fiction, and it's this: does the writer successfully achieve his or her goal, whatever that goal may be?

Was my sandwich during the game the best I could make, or did I use tasteless Kraft cheese and Wonderbread?

In the writing of one of my thrillers, do I work hard to find original themes, do I keep the plot moving quickly, do I use sharp dialog that reflects actual speech, do I spend months creating twists that will surprise and delight the reader? Or do I rely on cliches, retreads of set-pieces from bad made-for-TV movies and dull prose?

The worth of a work of fiction, and our sole criterion for criticism, lies not in the author's goal but in the skill of execution.

And if I may expand on the topic a bit: What is the key to successful execution of one's work? Which brings us to:

Principal four: Whether you are a literary or genre author, or a critic or a writer of nonfiction, you write not for yourself but for your audience. Short-order cook or chef at a three-Michelinstar restaurant, it's all about the customers.

Works of fiction fail not because they are not "literary" but because their creators lose touch with their readers' needs and expectations.

I know . . . already I can hear the rumblings of sell-out. But understand, I'm not speaking of lowering the bar, pandering to simple-minds and the base side of popular culture (No Wonderbread is our motto.) Readers, like diners, deserve quality, in all endeavors.

And what do we authors get out of the deal? Our pleasure must come not from ego or self-indulgence but from the joy in meeting the challenge of writing a work of fiction that moves another human being--whether it involves helping someone see the world differently or enlivening a tedious airplane journey.

That's what this magical process is all about.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press.)


Richard Mabry said...

Probably one of the best explanations of literary vs. genre fiction I've seen. Thanks for sharing.

Marja said...

Excellent post, and well said. If I can entertain even one reader with my genre fiction, I'm happy. Thank you!
Marja McGraw

Susan Oleksiw said...

Excellent discussion. I agree with Richard, above--one of the best discussion of this topic i've come across.

Marilyn Levinson said...