Sunday, July 30, 2006

On Experimentation

I recently formed part of a panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I’m not sure that it was an entirely satisfactory experience for all concerned, to be honest. The panel was entitled “Unique Voices”, which might have been part of the problem as I couldn’t quite see what was unique about any of those involved in it. That probably sounds a lot more negative than it is meant to, as each of the writers involved (myself, I hope, included) had something to offer in terms of the quality of their work and their commitment to the genre. No, the problem, as I saw it, was in the description of us as ‘unique’, because we weren’t.

One of us was a lesbian and had a lesbian detective as the central character in a number of her novels. Unique? Um, possibly not. Maybe unusual, but hardly unique either because of her own sexuality or the sexuality of her character unless, of course, one had led a very sheltered existence and lesbians counted as a form of exotic life on a par with rare butterflies and near-extinct birds. Similarly, another panellist was Australian, and hence his unique status will probably have come as something of a surprise to a) other Australian crime writers and b) other Australians.

It was all rather strange. I tried to put my difficulty with the panel into some kind of coherent form, but I don’t think I succeeded very well (which led to the chairman, the wise and tolerant Marcel Berlins, to enquire, rather understandably, as to what I was “bitching” about). In a nutshell, though, I think it could be summarized thus: I felt that it reflected badly on the degree of experimentation in the genre that the rather modest variations that the various panellists were performing in the course of our work could somehow be regarded as ‘unique’. There, I wish I’d managed to put it that simply at the time.

I suppose I feel that, as crime fiction has become more and more a part of the literary mainstream, its popularity has not been matched by a great deal of experimentation. There is, I think, a reluctance to take chances, whether that takes the form of fusing genres to create new hybrids, or experimenting with form or language, or anything that deviates from the rather traditional narrative structures that seem to be the norm in the genre.

I’m not sure who, if anyone, is to blame for this state of affairs, assuming anyone agrees with me. The writers, perhaps, for not pushing themselves? The readers, for favoring sometimes bland mainstream work over more experimental work at the margins, for wanting to be entertained instead of challenged? The publishers, for seeking variations on familiar themes, for favoring the series over the stand-alone, for, to put it simply, giving readers what they want?

Then again, it may be the case that no blame should be ascribed to anyone. Writers write to be published. They want to be reasonably successful in order that they can continue to be published. Readers are a rare enough breed as it is (especially when one considers that a ‘high volume reader’, in trade parlance, is someone who buys five books a year) without criticizing them for wanting to pass their reading time in whatever way happens to please them most, and we should be grateful to those who buy any books at all. And publishers have a duty not only to art (and, cynicism aside, publishers generally feel better about publishing good books than bad books) but to the shareholders and to the bottom line financially. Publishers succeed by selling books, and the more books they sell the more successful they are.

Perhaps I was - and am - playing devil’s advocate to some degree, but there is a part of me that feels crime fiction thrives on a ‘more of the same’ ethos, and that there is a sneaking conservatism at work that is in part a product of the genre’s own ubiquity and success in recent years. (From a personal perspective, I have learned by now merely to shake my head in bemusement and move on when I read criticisms of my work that are based on a belief that even the slightest hint of the supernatural has no part in the mystery genre, as though it should have been preserved in aspic at some point between the birth of Sherlock Holmes and the death of Poirot. The mere fact of my existence seems to cause a great deal of irritation to critics of that stripe, and I have to say that pleases me no end, as I tend to have little time for poor critics who would prefer no experimentation at all to experiments with which they disagree.)

At the closing session of the Harrogate festival, I conducted a public interview with Jeff Deaver, in the course of which he spoke of his recent novel, Garden of Beasts. It is, I think, his best book, but it probably sold less than any book he has written since he found mainstream success, and it crashed and burned in the U.S. It wasn’t because it was a bad book, far from it, but it wasn’t like his other books. He deviated from his own formula, choosing to write a historical thriller set in Nazi Germany instead of a contemporary thriller set in America, and he suffered for it. During the interview, he admitted that the experience had probably made him more reluctant to experiment, and I felt that was a shame. I had enjoyed reading Garden of Beasts and seeing another side to Jeff’s writing. Perhaps, in time, he’’ll reconsider, for it’s important that writers with some commercial clout should take the odd chance, that they should try to introduce a little edge to the mainstream and foster an environment conducive to a little experimentation.

For if they don’t, then who will?

This week John read

The Harsh Cry of the Heron (uncorrected proof) by Lian Hearn

and listened to

All For Nothing, Nothing For All by The Replacements


Sandra Ruttan said...

I'll come at this from a North American perspective, and say off the top there's a bit of generalization here.

But as a Canadian, I had trouble finding an agent because people kept telling me to look in Canada, and the Canadians kept mumbling about, "Can we sell you to the US?" I did an end run around them all and sold to a small US publisher. More Americans read my blog than people from anywhere else. So, I'm not convinced the agents were right.

I think there is a perception that certain books won't sell well. Book set outside the US (therefore rendering Australia as unique) and books that don't feature conventional protagonists. There are, sadly, those that would refuse to try a book just because it features a gay, or lesbian, protagonist.

If there is to be blame, the blame can go on all sides, I think. Perhaps the only way to see change is for people inside this industry to rally around and support the authors that do break through who are doing something truly original.

Shame about Jeffery Deaver's book - must be frustrating.

christian lehmann said...

I am writing from France, I am an author with fifteen books published. Only one ;-) has been bought in the US, none in the UK ;-)
Dark fiction, crime novels, thrillers, whatever we call them, these books used to exist in a ghetto when I was younger ( the 60's and 70's). Now, they are in the mainstream because the publishers, looking at their financial potential, have decided thus. And with this come big sales for those who toe the line. But the sideline is that after a time, things grow stale, and you feel like you're reading the same book over and over again. John, your books were the first to really send a new message ( for me) for a long time in which I'd nearly stopped reading "anglo-saxon thrillers" ;-). Being a mix of the French and the English, I recongnize the mix in you, very much an Englishman, writing America-based fiction. That's unique. Though I do undestrand your discomfort with that adjective.

Ray said...

I find it difficult to believe that Charlie Williams' particularly idiosyncratic Mangel trilogy could not be interpreted as a Unique Voice, John. And I wonder why you didn't include him in your round-up. If you haven't read Williams yet, I suggest you do.

As for experimentation, I have similar concerns (and indeed at times am led to think that the British crime genre is stuck in the fifties), but surely you'll agree that mainstream publishing targets a large audience, and therefore demands mass appeal? Thus resulting in cookiecutter detective thrillers: tick all the boxes and away we go. And that's fine. Because perhaps the mainstream isn't the place for serious experimentation. And I really don't think this is a new thing: check out the vagaries of Mr Willeford's career - or, more recently, Mr Sallis' and Mr Woodrell's. All three have experimented, more so that Deaver's foray into Nazi historical thriller (not that I'm taking anything away from him - I'm sure it's excellent).

Bottom line: 99% of crime novels have been derivative since Year Dot, so I don't think it's necessarily a new phenomenon. And I certainly don't think it's anything to get upset about.

(Christ, how do I know that last line's gonna come back on me in the future?)

stevemosby said...

I don't really see it as a problem either, and certainly don't think anybody either can or should be blamed for anything. Like Ray said, the product gets tailored to the market, and the bottom line is that the mainstream reading public are perfectly happy to read formulaic, derivative and relatively undemanding crime fiction. This whole thing is a business, after all, and there's a huge market for the literary equivalent of fast food. More experimental crime fiction exists (though I think it's hard to pin down exactly what that means), but if the majority of people don't want to buy it (as is their right) then what can you do? Every book finds its niche, and naturally, some are bigger than others. I would humbly say that my first book was experimental; the end result was low sales and, on the rare occasion I get email from a reader, it's fifty-fifty whether they want their money back. Working two jobs and living on spaghetti hoops, formula is starting to look pretty good to me.

I actually went to the "Unique Voices" panel expecting it to be about authors with a distinctive voice (literally) in their novels - a strong and recognisable narrative style - which I think was a fair enough description. It ended up being very entertaining for the audience, but I guess your points would have fitted better in the "What's Wrong with Popular Fiction?" panel the day after.

laura lippman said...


I was going to e-mail you privately, as I try to avoid getting into too many online conversations -- bad for the wrists -- but I couldn't let this go by.

First, publishing even in a mainstream genre such as crime does offer a chance for experimentation. Our numbers are so small, in terms of audience, that we should be able to take risks. Publishers, however, worry -- and rightfully so -- about how to market certain works. And when someone really does experiment with the form, it's either written off as a gimmick or spirited away by the literary genre.

As I see it, there are a few questions here:

Does the marketplace reward experimentation? Seldom.

Are crime writers, as a group, hostile to experimentation? Probably. It is a conservative form, which emphasizes traditional storytelling (beginnings, middle, ends, resolutions). I'm drawn to it because I don't, as a reader, have much of a stomach for the truly experimental. William Gass, IIRC, broke my poor college-age brain. Finnegans Wake has defeated me time and time again. Pynchon, ditto. Madison Smartt Bell's rave for The Keep, in yesterday's NY Times, scared me because he invoked the word "meta." But he also said Jennifer Egan had combined metafiction with traditional storytelling, and that intrigued me.

There are experiments within crime fiction, but they tend to be experiments within the form; we still color inside the lines, but our skies might be red, our grass blue. More calibrations than experiments, playing with small changes and readers' expectations to push and pull the form a little.

Most of the writers I know are, in their heart of hearts, achingly ambitious, very much in the reach-should-exceed-grasp school. Yet there are different types of ambition. Mine, for example, is to disappear from the page, to find a style so transparent that people might forget the book was written and regard it as a found document from an alternative universe. This style was forced on me by my own limitations as a writer. I can't make language do the swoony things that you and Lehane, for example, can do. I can't make English my bitch, if you will. So all I can try to do is burrow further and further inside the heads of the people I write about, and make the stakes . . . smaller. You've taken a full run at evil, a very big subject, and the use of the supernatural seems natural, if you will, because how can evil be explained otherwise? As a writer, I'm more interested in the absence of evil, the good intentions that go so horribly wrong. This probably has something to do with being raised Presbyterian.

Everyone's buzzing about The Night Gardener and rightfully so because
It pretneds to be a serial killer novel to suck the average reader in, and then breaks every promise/convention of such novels.
I think that counts for experimentation. One thing about writing crime is that there is a weird interactive relationship to it, one can use the reader in a sense, count on the readers' expectations, reactions, inferrences to mislead them, even as you parade the killer in front of them and say: This is the killer. It's as if you're a magician and they're trying to find the quarter hidden in your fingers, but the surprise is that nothing is hidden, it's all as you said it was, but not for the reasons it seemed.

But I fear I have fallen into incoherence here. To sum up: No, probably not a lot of experimentation, but no shortage of ambition, at least among some.


John, It's sporting of you put your head in the stock to be pelted with tomatoes for bringing the subject up. Sandra's point about agents in the North American market understates their role as they are both the gatekeepers for new work and small businesses struggling to survive. Laura's observation that crime is a conservative genre is essential to its success. Other than James Sallis there aren't many authors of note pulling crime fiction away from its structural roots.

Maria said...

I used to work in a library. Part of the problem with an author experimenting is that most readers pick up an author for the comfort of getting exactly what they expect.

This is true whether they pick up Evanovich or Clancy. There are readers that love it when an author deviates--I myself am such a reader.

However, that said, I still pick up Evanovich with certain expectations. When I want darker stuff I pick up a different author. Most of it is indeed name association, the famous "branding."

Of course, if an author writes under a different name, there is a different problem: how do the readers ever find a new author? It's such a slow process it almost isn't worth bothering with.

I view this as a marketing issue. Publishers need a marketing plan that allows for "branding" and shall we call it "sub-branding." This could be done with two author names--but the names need to be linked so that readers grasp that "something is different and I'm ready for that" BUT "I trust this author to write well."

The publishers just don't do this for various reasons and this leaves the author stuck in a niche--whichever one that author created in the first place.

It's a shame. I love the different writing of Elizabeth Peters--no matter what name she wrote under, no matter what series, and each of her series is different.

I love paranormal added to mysteries (and Fantasy publishers are more likely to publish such than mystery lines--take "Moon Called" and some of Patricia Briggs other works.)

But as a reader--these things are hard to find.

Steve Hockensmith said...

I've actually been thinking about this issue a lot lately, so it's comforting to discover that I'm not the only one out there wondering, "Is there anywhere to go from here?" For the time being, anyway, I'm a very lucky guy: I make my living writing a mystery series. So I have a healthy respect for reader expectations/the demands of the marketplace/earning out my advance/filthy lucre. I like my job. I don't want to lose it. On the other hand, I'd be pretty damned depressed if writing started to feel like nothing *but* a job. Punch clock, insert character A into plot B, repeat, punch out, go home.

At the moment, I'm reading a book called "Rip It Up and Start Again" by Simon Reynolds. It's a (for me) fascinating look at the bands I found exciting as a kid: the so-called "New Wave" groups that followed in the wake of punk. There was an incredible sense of experimentation and adventure and possibility at the time, and it resulted in some fantastic -- and, yes, commercially successful -- music. (It also resulted in A Flock of Seagulls, so there's a downside to everything.)

But though I've been having fun daydreaming about making some kind of New Wave-ish break from crime fiction tradition -- I could be the David Byrne of the mystery world! Yeah! -- I can't foresee anyone actually, you a crap. As was noted above, the mystery/crime genre is comfort food for the vast majority of readers. They're not interested in experimentation. You don't go to McDonald's to try the new McSushi, right? You go for the Big Mac.

So maybe the best we can do within the genre is make those Big Macs as f-ing plump and juicy as we can -- maybe even sneak some wasabi into the special sauce.

Or maybe we're just waiting for the Sex Pistols of crime to come along and rip things up so we can start again.

What do you say, John? Feel like being Rotten?

-Steve Hockensmith

JT Ellison said...

Wonderful musician James McMurtry once said he got into music because he thought he was an artist. Turns out he was just a beer salesman.
I think this is fitting for our genre as well. Go outside the formula and get your hand slapped. I'm just starting out and I'm already dreaming of being able to write a stand alone.
Am I wrong in thinking that as long as book sellers and publishers must label our work into genres, sub genres, micro genres, experimentation, which is really just expansion of ideas, will fail?
BTW, John, I'd say you are unique. You tell an amazing story, delve into human nature and find something of all of us in your characters. Not many can do it so well.

hrhg said...

Hmm, as a writer who reads some, but not a lot of literary works (especially modern lit, most of which bores me) and who likewise finds the majority of mainstream too formula, I'm going to voice a THANK GOODNESS that you do want to take risks and are encouraging others to do. I would never had bothered with your genre much at all if it had not been for your work.

In fairness to the other opinions expressed here, I will say that I've always been a bit outside the norm that way (and probably in other ways that people are fortunately too kind to point out to me). But writers, don't forget all those readers who would normally fall through the cracks, like me. We need books that challenge us as well and hopefully publishers will recognize that (and maybe someday there will be world peace as well--sigh).

Maybe I'll feel differently if, as a writer, I get more rejections that tell me that I'm not mainstream enough, but I hope not. What's life without a great deal of uncertainty? ;)

Tenbrooks said...

I was at Harrogate and for me the "Unique Voices" panel ranked as a highlight of the overall terrific experience.

Your comments provoked the other writers to slip the leash so real differences of opinion got expressed. In the more predictable sessions--a couple of which actually qualified as boring--there was no genuine exchange of ideas.

Case in point, three different panels addressed novel research-researching a time period, researching a setting and just plain researching. Pretty quickly, I found myself dozing off. The idea of investing a lot of effort figuring out whether a gate somewhere really, truly opens to the left or right strikes me as absurd. Please--what happened to a simple "the gate swung open" or whatever.

(Maybe the "sloppy" label can also be applied to dumping huge undigested chunks of background information into a story, sometimes, God forbid, via dialogue. I got a big kick out of Jeffrey Deaver miming a reader "skipping and skipping" over long expository passages.)

As far as the status of crime writing in the literary community goes---PD James can command the front page of the major review supplements but a bell curve is always tiny at the ends. Talent isn't equally distributed among writers, including those of "literary" novels. Many who are competent to write a detective series or whatever, simply don't have it in them to rise above genre conventions. No shame--pleasing readers and inspiring book sales is a boon to all.

It's quite possible to be a crime writing snob. Crime fiction can stretch to incorporate elements of any other kind and deals with major issues of human experience--emotions of jealousy, rage, pride, greed, addiction to power, desire for revenge etc. and conditions of poverty, abuse, psychosis, heart-breaking choices etc. Murder is fundamentally a more gripping event than, say, a character opening a dishwasher, contemplating the cup array and realizing that he/she isn't all that thrilled with his/her marriage.

As I recall, Shakespeare in his time was considered a creator of vulgar entertainments and Sir Philip Sydney was a literary darling. "MacBeth" vs. "Astrophil and Stella"...hmmmmm.

Olen Steinhauer said...

John, I share your concern about this, and sometimes bring it up on my own blog. It's the inevitable art-industry clash that's important to us if we want to keep paying rent, but can potentially stifle us, thereby getting rid of the reason we've chosen to write fiction in the first place.

I decided to become a writer after reading Joyce's PORTRAIT, and so I entered this genre somewhat apprehensively, wondering if it would allow me to step out of the envelope as much as I wanted.

So I prepared for it. I warned my agent when I got him, then warned my editor, that what they received from me might be unpredictable. I set up a series that allowed me to change main characters, and thus change subgenres, with each book. That's allowed me a certain measure of freedom that, overall, has left me feeling creatively satisfied.

Has it hurt my sales? I think so. Someone who loves one of my books might not like the others, because each is a different type. My actualy writing style isn't so varied, but my plot structures and themes and outcomes (I hope) are. But luckily I'm still being published and am able to eke out a living from it.

The only time I faced a limitation was with the last book, in which I wanted to create a 1000-page magnum opus that was also metafictional (that is, I, as the author, was a main character in the action). I still feel like it could've been a hell of a book, but my editor nixed it after I'd written the first third, and I had to restart it with completely different ambitions.

But honestly, I appreciate the wall my editor suddenly erected. I was forgetting the fact that it would truly have ended up a commercial failure. (Come on...1000 pages???)

What being in this genre teaches me (what Joyce didn't teach me) is that experimentation is completely moot if no one's going to read it. And that, for me, becomes part of the challenge: to challenge people in a way that simultaneously draws them in. If you can achieve that balance, I don't think an understanding publisher will give you any trouble.

Ironically, I think my most sellable work is the one coming out this month, which also happens to be the most experimental. Who'da thunk it?

Steve Allan said...

I've been reading Lolita over the past couple of days, which had led me to wonder if Nabokov's command and manipulation of the language could be translated into a crime novel. Granted, to some degree, Lolita is a crime novel. After all, Humbert Humbert is on trial for murder. But the book is not on the mystery shelves. If an author were to experiment within the mystery genre, I think he/she would have a problem with pleasing both mystery readers and lit fic readers.

Maybe it is time that the crime field to push itself into a new direction, sort of like Science Fiction and Slipstream?

Tim said...

In today's Los Angles Times there is a story about a very successful creative exec at Disney, who was fired, being replaced by a very successful marketing exec. It's all about selling, I guess. Though Hollywood is famous for that.

Something new is veiwed as taboo until someone experiements and then if it sells everyone starts looking for something new and different...but all they really do is copy the original.

I'm not too familiar with small publishers, but I would hope they would at least deal with new directions/voices in fiction.

That said, Mark Twain is still a unique voice to me and he hasn't written anything new in quite a while!

owen said...

I'm interested in this issue since I seem to be in the "experimental" camp. I wrote poetry for many years, and published in the tiny presses where experimental means just short of gibberish. I started writing mysteries because I wanted to communicate something (also because I'm a fan). I wrote what I thought was a mainstream novel. Was surprised to find that I'd written something "outside". What does one have to do to be mainstream in this genre? Am reminded of the poet Ted Berrigan's line, "I wanted to sell out but nobody was buying."

Also, who do you think of as experimantal? Who's cutting edge right now?