Thursday, November 06, 2008


It strikes me that, as time goes on, the gap between these ‘weekly’ columns grows longer and longer. It’s not deliberate, I hasten to add; instead, it’s simply the case that I find I have less and less to say that I haven’t said already, and the time in which I have to say it grows shorter and shorter. There are books and stories to write (and books and stories to read), and I realize that some of those who glance at these occasional pieces might well feel the same way. I don’t want to waste their time with thoughts jotted down simply for the sake of it...

I’m writing this in an Italian restaurant in Portland, Maine. I’ve retreated to the city to finish revising THE LOVERS, as there are few distractions here, and I find it easier to slip into a routine in which writing and rewriting take up the bulk of my day. But, prior to arriving here, I spent a week doing a number of literary festivals in Canada, and it was an enlightening, if sometimes frustrating, experience.

For the most part, mystery writers tend to spend most of their time with other mystery writers. There are dedicated mystery conventions during which we can consort with like-minded souls, and even when we do venture into the more rarified atmosphere of literary festivals, we tend to be corralled with our own kind, which is unfortunate and reflects a tendency among festival organizers to assume that a) mystery fiction is of no interest to anyone other than hardcore devotees; and b) that mystery authors have nothing to add to larger discussions of literature and writing, due to general ignorance of anything beyond mystery fiction, and a lack of interest in anything other than who was murdered, and how.

Thus, the Canadian experience, although very pleasant in many ways (almost without exception, everyone involved in organizing these Candian festivals was unfailingly kind, polite and well-read, and I have rarely been treated better anywhere as a writer), also proved to be remarkably disheartening in others, if revealing of an attitude towards mystery writers and mystery fiction that some of us had hoped was largely a thing of the past.

1) At a literary salon – I know, I know, but I’d agreed to attend, and I am, if nothing else, a man of my word, most of the time - I listen as a young Canadian writer expresses the view that mystery fiction has no business being nominated for literary prizes on the grounds that, well, it just sells too many copies, and therefore mystery writers have no need of the acclaim and the (often modest) financial rewards that accompany such prizes. When I point out to him that such an argument would also exclude, say, Salman Rusdie from consideration for the Booker Prize, he smirks and responds: “But Rusdie wasn’t nominated for the Booker Prize this year…”

And everyone in the room laughs.

2) A fellow Irish author enquires how I go about constructing a mystery narrative, given that it requires the farming out of information at certain intervals. I reply that I don’t plan it at all, and instead the revelations in question occur in part both naturally in the course of the initial draft and are also subject to revision during the process of rewriting as the heart of the narrative gradually reveals itself. I make the point that it is no different from the way in which a literary author approaches a book, and note the fact that his own most recent novel depends upon a series of revelations about an act of startling violence that has occurred many years in the past, so the difference between our texts is hardly as significant as he might believe. He doesn’t even answer, but simply turns around and walks away, as if appalled that I might suggest any degree of commonality between us.

3) A British novelist, a first-time author, admits that he has never, until recently, read a mystery novel, but having read one he now understands the appeal of the genre. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, he suggests. It’s about excitement, and nothing more. He doesn’t tell the audience which particular mystery novel he has read, or why he considers it representative of a
genre of which, by his own admission, he knows nothing.

4) A young American novelist, one whom I can only hope was drunk at the time, commences a spectacularly ignorant attack on genre fiction. Even allowing for any possible intake of alcohol, she is quite stunningly rude. Her basic argument, if I understand it correctly, is that mystery fiction works according to a basic template: in her immortal words, “something happens ...”

Once I have managed to lock my jaw back into place, I try to follow her argument to its logical conclusion. If the criticism of mystery fiction is that something happens, then the defence of her particular brand of literary fiction must be that nothing happens. I try to recall the last time I enjoyed a narrative in which nothing happened, and, eventually, admit failure. Even Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (a play of which it was famously remarked that nothing happens – twice) is full of incident, and that is as close as I can get to an apparently uneventful narrative that works.

Before I can raise this point, an individual involved at the highest level with the organization of the festival in question intervenes. He is someone whom I rather like, but as I listen to what he has to say I have to make a conscious effort to separate the individual from his words. He posits that mystery fiction is inferior to literary fiction because literary writers “hone” their work. They fret about it, reworking it time and time again, whereas genre writers simply churn out novels. With each book, literary writers are forced to reinvent the wheel, discarding all that went before in favor of an entirely new construct. They are original, while genre writers are essentially imitative.

Eventually, I just give up and go to bed. Life, I feel, is far too short, and I've heard so much of this before. The tension between literary and genre fiction, however spurious those labels may be, will continue not only long after I go to bed on such occasions, but probably long after I'm dead, too.

Which brings us back to Maine, and an Italian restaurant. Today, I have spent seven hours working on the draft of THE LOVERS. I will do the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. To give myself a break, I have begun writing something else, but my concentration upon this second book is not complete. Even when I am not working on THE LOVERS, it seems to occupy the bulk of my time. I am now on my sixth start-to-finish draft of the book. Before it reaches my publishers, I anticipate that I will have gone through it twice more. Even after it reaches them, I will act upon the suggestions of both my British and American editors (two more drafts); I will read the copy edited manuscript, and make changes there (one draft); and I will make the final changes to the typeset work, even if I have to pay for the resetting of the alterations myself, when it is eventually presented to me (the final draft).

I make that twelve drafts. By any stretch of the imagination, I think that counts as honing my work, and I will do so beset by all of the doubts about its worth that, I assume, trouble my literary colleagues. I manage to fit all of these drafts into one year (the original starting point for that unfortunate discussion about the value of genre v literary fiction) because, quite frankly, I work hard. I come from a journalistic background, and I believe that art and craft are not mutually exclusive. One works at one’s craft, and one hopes that, along the way, art may possibly emerge. Even if it does not, one can still take pride in the fact that one has done one’s best.

So to hell with all of the rest. When THE LOVERS eventually appears, I will know that I have done my best, despite its inevitable flaws. And I will learn from those mistakes, and I will apply what I have learned to what I do next. I know that I value what I do as much as any literary writers, and I put my heart and soul into it, just as much as they do.

And besides, I’ll probably sell more copies than most of those writers will anyway, even if it does render me ineligible for prizes in the new world order being planned by Canadians . . .

This week John read

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

and listened to

Still Crooked by Crooked Still
Shrink by The Notwist
Cardinology by Ryan Adams


kibitzer said...

John, I met you once in Australia and said something similar but it's worth repeating. I like your books so much because they are thoughtful, thought-provoking, uncommonly poetic, tightly plotted and, quite simply, a joy to read. If that doesn't qualify as "literary" I don't know what does.

Yossarian said...

Aah, you sound a little peeved, John! Quite justifiably too! The people you mentioned sound, frankly, like a bunch of snobbish arses not fit to stand in your shadow.
I wouldn't waste time worrying about them. As you say, you'll probably outsell them all and they're only jealous and bitter, I'm sure!
We, the fans, know exactly how much time and effort you put into your books and that shines through in the quality of them every time.
WE appreciate it greatly!
As someone famously once said, "Don't let the buggers grind you down!".
Keep on trucking and I'm sure the "The Lovers" is going to be amazing!

Mark P.

"The John!" said...

I just read your blog. I enjoed it, as usual. But then I realized that only literary blogs, and there fastidious planning and honing, ar worth my time. Therefore I've dedided to secretly look down my nose at your blog. Well, maybe not so secretly. Can't wait for The Lovers. I hope the only Irishman in Maine eating Italian food is doing well. ~ John Hubbard

Laure Eve said...

Exactly. F*** 'em.

Maine has always appealed, i bet it's really pretty right now. Keep well, see you next time you're in the UK.

TomH said...

I identify strongly with a character named Yossarian... and leave it at that.
You're anecdotes are always enjoyable John, and much anticipated.
Opinion of certain citizens critiquing from well inside the upper hemisphere also seems spot on.
Pity is that mystery writing has always been frowned upon by literary 'experts' of every size and shape. It's as though the dialectic of ‘bas’ intellectualism destroys brain cells at a rapid rate.

TomH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reader said...

have encountered inferior piddle in all genres of fiction and when I've
encountered it with very well known/established writers, it is
generally when they have closed themselves off from the input of
editors and friends. In the mystery genre recently, I have read two
very well established, successful authors who have allowed crime scenes
to be compromised in unrealistic manners for the sake of their
"creative, I no longer need to be edited because I am now such a big
shot big bucks producer" self indulgent attitudes. I have also read
halfway thru "serious" non mystery genre work that has me wondering
what kind of drugs the publishing powers that be were doing when they
agreed to publish such pseudo intellectual, non entertaining crap. I
suspect that these comments are based on frustration/jealousy of the
mystery genre success in general. Next time that you are in an Italian
restaurant, raise a glass of red wine and toast those mystery/thriller
genre critics with "Affunculo!" (But not too loudly, and be sure that
anyone in the vicinity who may speak Italian
is aware that this expletive toast is not directed at them!)

Mary said...

John, It is so disheartening to hear of your experience in Canada (and other places). I honestly don't understand why there even needs to be this divide over literary vs. genre or who 'hones' their work.
In the end of the day shouldn't the divide be good vs. bad writing. Honestly this snobbery based on 'literary' fiction being 'superior' is showing the speaker's own ignorance in my opinion.
I do not read 'mystery' books, but i read yours, not because they are a specific 'genre' but due to the fact that as Kibitzer says they are thoughtful, imaginative, a joy to read and i simply really like them.

I read across a number of genres and enjoy - historical fiction, literary fiction(which is a genre in itself if you consider a genre to be "a loose set of criteria for a category of composition") Fantasy, science fiction etc.

the common denominator for all the books i've enjoyed is that they are all well written, thought provoking and 'alive'.
This should be what a novel is judged by not by its 'genre'

I'll jump off my soapbox now
and just say i enjoy reading the blog! :)

Peter Rozovsky said...

Good god, I am embarrassed for those ignorant bastards in my native country. May their books sell nine copies each (even if they don't deserve the sales increase).
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

John McFetridge said...

Sometimes I think we really should just say, "Fuck them," and stop going to their "literary festivals," and stop nominating their "literary" novels for our crime fiction awards and just let them fade away.

But that seems rude.

For me, good writing = insight.

I guess that's what people have been saying by, "thought provoking." Though I do also like it when "something happens," and I'm still old fashioned enough to like it when characters, "want something."

Matt Hilton Author said...

Hi John,
sadly I missed speaking to you in Baltimore, but I made a point of watching the conversation you did with Mark Billingham, which was a highlight for me. I've often stated to people that if anyone in our genre should be recognised for the power and beauty of their writing it should be you. When all is said and done, these people are jealous. They'd love to have the sales genre writers achieve, and that's what it's all down to.In the meantime, keep doing what you do best. Your books are excellent, and always first on my must read list.
By the way, apparently we share an editor at Hodder. I look forward to making your acquaintance one day.
best wishes

Josephine Damian said...

There's good books and bad books, and fuck the labels.

John: Heard you met a mutual friend - Stuart Neville. You and me are among the lucky few to have read THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST.

Keith Rawson said...

Dennis Lehane put it best about a month back when he appeared at the Poisoned Pen. Most writer's don't think of themselves as mystery writers, or SF writers or literary, they are simply writers who all essentially go through the same process no matter what they are writing. To most, including myself, the only thing that matters--whether reading or writing--is if the material is sustaining your attention.

Linda L. Richards said...

Great post, John!

I still think Chandler said it best in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder" in 1944:

"As for 'literature of expression' and 'literature of escape' -- this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds."

Thomas said...

Hi John, I very much agree with your points. I've been involved in some of the very same discussions and it seems that the people who want to push aside genre or even mainstream novels on the basis of their success really does literature in general a disservice because it suggests that for a work to be considered literature no one should read it or want to read it. This is, of course, silly. Books are made to be read. An unreadable book is a very sad thing indeed, regardless of how many awards it might win or how long its writer took to type it. Keep up the good and interesting work.

normski-beat said...

Someone once told me, only a little unkindly, that 'literary fiction' are like some of the 'classics' have them on your shelf for show, but rarely read them.

I normally only buy paperbacks, but your books John, are one of the few authors I rate highly enough to get the hardback, because I can't stand waiting any longer!

Ole Henrik Skjelstad said...

To put it simple: I am qualified for Mensa membership and despite my "superiority" I cannot help myself from loving your books even though they are "simple" mystery fiction. Well, to be honest; most of the time I do not feel especially clever, but I have over the years read extensively and I know when my eyes are resting upon a masterpiece. I discovered your authorship in July when me and my family had a vacation on Lanzarote. I was out of books and had to find something to read. Since then I have devoured all your books and I am anticipating The Lovers with a certain degree of impatience. But, take your time! I know my waiting will be generously rewarded. My personal favorite is Black Angel, and I am especially found of the passage where you very precicely depict God's grace. I am very glad that your talent regularly produces books that are a joy to read, contrary to many of those written by the so called literary elite. If my English is a bit unprecise my only excuse is that I am not a native speaker.

Bindu said...

You know, when I read this blog post, I was sort of annoyed. I just got back from a 4 month trip to Asia, where I found your books in every corner of the world. Even in the hotel trade shelves and the second hand book shops, in which a book's presence means that it is relished and much anticipated, given that it is going to add weight to backpacks that are already sob inducingly heavy.

I guess, though, that like all of us, you are not immune from the doubts that creep in and make you think that - despite the knowledge that you are patently an extremely bright, thoughtful, well educated and accomplished author - you should be subject to the opinions of other people (including those who have never even read your books!)

Well, suck it up, Mr. Connolly. Unlike the rest of us, you are talented enough to create worlds. Books that most of your readers look forward to buying in hard copy, because those characters are so real that in some way we want to know that they are still here, and still OK.

You are smart enough to write those books. You should be smart enough to ignore jealous, inconsequential and self-absorbed eejits when a failure to do so is a little insulting to those of us who love your writing.

Yaho said...

I'm sorry some of my Canadian fellows are so shallow when it comes to crime fiction, but I'm sure there as many similar types in the U.S., in Europe and everywhere else on the planet. And I'm sure you sell enough copies of your books here to not worry about a few dumb pseudo-intellectuals. A majority of Canadians read crime fiction and if we're stupid because of that, well I ain't gonna lose any sleep over it.
The sales tell the tale.