being genre-ous

Declan Burke, whose latest book The Big O is being released right about now in the US (we’re so often the last kids on the block to read the best things coming out of Europe, though at least this time the US publisher didn’t decide to change the title) recently hosted the Carnival of the Criminal Minds at his blog, Crime Always Pays. Rather than provide the usual feast of links – something that’s hard to top after Brian Lindenmuth hosted the Carnival – he raised a serious question.

Do blogs have a particular role to play in fostering thoughtful critical discussion of a genre that has been typically neglected by mainstream media? Can we do better than the handful of short plot recaps that stand for book reviews in a book review market that is contracting daily? Can bloggers bring out the best in the genre? He thinks we can.

I believe heart and soul that crime / mystery fiction needs and deserves the kind of widespread, top-to-bottom critical work that would in turn inspire the writers to strive towards ever-higher standards of work.

The genre has not only been neglected by traditional channels, it’s often reviewed by people who are ignorant of the genre, who are shocked, shocked to find good writing. You know this is the case when a reviewer is gobsmacked by a book that “transcends the genre” because it’s well-constructed, has fully-developed characters, and is well-written – in other words, it’s a good work of crime fiction, like a great many books published in this genre. It’s only if you’re assuming James Patterson represents the genre that it’s being transcended. Dec goes on to say –

here’s the thing – crime / mystery fiction is the most popular genre on the planet, it is inarguably the most relevant and important fiction out there, and that’s why I believe it deserves more . . . It deserves the kind of dynamic, rigorous, extensive and constantly evolving critical work that the interweb is perfectly placed to provide, and it deserves to be critiqued, justified and praised not by the kind of commentator who will suggest that a particular novel has (koff) ‘transcended the genre’, but by those who understand that good crime / mystery fiction is simultaneously scourge and balm, panacea and drug, a fiction for the world we live in that is also its truth.


It’s interesting that a number of traditional venues for book criticism are cutting their coverage and trying to make up for it by taking to the web. I’m not sure what that means, other than that they think they can save money on both newsprint and staff. The Monreal Gazette is the latest to shrink their coverage and call it an improvement.

It’s also interesting how defensive people get when a mainstream critic says a book is more than a mystery. Yes, it’s tiresome to hear people who haven’t read much in the genre say something has transcended it – how would you know if you haven’t read much of it? – but Janet Maslin saying Dennis Lehane’s newest book is a big step beyond his crime fiction is not to say his other books are dreck that only idiots would read. She seemed to me to be saying his 700-page epic is ambitious in ways his other books were not. Quite often any perceived critique of the genre is met by bristling anger and assertions that literary fiction is navel-gazing plotless crap that nobody wants to read, anyway. And that’s just as silly as declaring all genre fiction mediocre.

We have the means to celebrate the best in a genre, and we certainly have the motive, as Dec stated it above – it matters to us. Those of us who know the genre best need to give it our best critical shot. I’d say that the critical lens that Dec has turned on Irish crime fiction in his blog posts at The Rap Sheet this week are a fine example.

Or take a look at Material Witness. It’s one of several blogs that, when it comes to traditional book reviewing, easily . . . er, dare I say it? . . . transcend the genre.


2 Responses to being genre-ous

  1. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for this interesting post Barbara with its tantalising links.
    When I studied English literature during the day, reading Agatha Christie at night, it always seemed strange to me that we were studying the works of often penurious writers, when in the real world there were writers who made a good living off their writing.
    The closest we got to crime fiction was Wilkie Collins and I suspect that was only because he was safely dead. However Conan Doyle didn’t make it nor did Edgar Allan Poe.

  2. Declan Burke says:

    Hi Barbara – Much obliged for the links and the kind words, ma’am … I really appreciate it. Cheers, Dec

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