Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

GENRE SNOBBERY AMONG THE LITERATI

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It’s hard to know where the war between the genres started. Perhaps it was with Sophocles and Aristophanes. Sophocles, the great tragedian and author of Oedipus Rex, and Aristophanes, a sharp-tongued wit and author of political satires like The Wasps and The Frogs. Of course, Sophocles would tend to be a bit uppity, having written the first classic: “What? Guy wrote a play about frogs? That shit ain’t right!” (Similarly, one can imagine the impresarios of his day: “Listen, baby, this Oedipus dude is gonna put your name in lights. Have you thought about a sequel yet?”)

Will anyone be surprised if I say that Canadians can be awful snobs? As someone who straddles no less than four literary “genres” (CanLit, GayLit, comedy and mystery), I can happily attest to it. I run into that snobbish streak quite frequently and in some pretty surprising places. Recently, while pitching a novel I described as a “literary thriller,” I was told by one figure well placed in the CanLit Ghetto that while she “wouldn’t mind the profits from a Stieg Larsson bestseller” she, yawn, “won’t do genre.” Pitching that same book to a commercial agent (“commercial” being the politically correct term for genre), I was informed that that particular agent hates CanLit. Stuck between a ghetto and a desert. Sigh.

Having worked with many diverse talents in film, stage, television, radio, and print, I think I can fairly say that having the will and the courage to produce a piece of art, no matter how shallow or trivial it may seem to others, deserves respect. At the very least, it deserves not to be ridiculed. Whether it’s Kafka or the Keystone Cops, it’s all worthy. But while Canadians are busy applauding our Group of Sevens or our Glenn Goulds, we forget that having fun is also important.

A friend of mine took up the piano at fifty. I applauded the effort, imagining her sitting in her parlour, caressing the keys in a moment of Chopin-inspired ecstasy. I think anything that brings us closer to an understanding of art is worthwhile. That same friend, who applauds my literary work, was aghast when I showed her my first mystery, The P’town Murders. “Murder mysteries,” she murmured darkly, when I tried to explain what I’d written. “You actually wrote a murder mystery?” It was as if I’d broken the eleventh commandment. “But it’s fun,” I said. “It’s a cross between Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie. “Oh, the “F” word,” she replied, shaking her head. No “F” for her, apparently.

Many have heard of the diatribe written by the acclaimed American man of letters, Edmund Wilson, against the growing popularity of the works of Dame Agatha. In “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” published in The New Yorker in January 1945, Wilson decried the genre as “rubbish.” Detective stories, he railed, ranked “between smoking and crossword puzzles” as a kind of mundane minor vice. What many don’t know, however, is that the following month Wilson retracted his statement, “confessing” that he had since become “addicted” to mystery novels and now felt it necessary to “justify [his] pleasure” on literary grounds. Some of us just read them, of course.

While I’ve occasionally been accused of it, the truth is I disdain snobbery of any sort. Deservedly, noir writing has become an art form, like Art Deco or pop music. It’s annoying how often I have to defend myself as a mystery writer. “What’s literary about it?” people ask. In essence, they are saying, “Why should I read your book?” Whereas when you say you’ve written a literary novel, they automatically applaud your efforts, but don’t necessarily go out and buy a copy.

It works in reverse, too. At a literary festival recently, I sat on a panel of mystery writers discussing the genre. The moderator opened by asking us which writer, dead or alive, we would most like to have a conversation with. “Shakespeare,” I said, to some resentful glares from a couple of the other panellists. Apart from Shakespeare’s unparalleled dramatic abilities and psychological acuity, he also penned some of the finest thrillers: Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III, to name but three.

It didn’t stop there, however. When asked to discuss the writing process, I compared the length of time it took me to write my mysteries as opposed to my literary novels. In fact, the difference can be astounding. I took a decade to write The Honey Locust, my novel about the Bosnian War. A good deal of that time was spent in research, simply because the subject was so complex. On the other hand, I’ve tossed off a first draft of a mystery in less than a month. The reason, I naively declared, was because “the formula is simpler.”

Oh, the outcry!

“Where can I find this formula? Is it on a shelf somewhere?” demanded one cranky curmudgeon in the audience (who turned out to be a veteran American crime novelist, I later discovered.)

“Yes, it’s called a Classic Story Arc,” I replied. "Try Walgreens."

Shakespeare had his formula; I’ve got mine. The other “F” word.

Just because they’re easier for me to write doesn’t mean they’re not as good. I enjoy both equally. And while I may write about trivial things from time to time, it doesn’t mean my writing is trivial. To me, genre is the new frontier. In terms of plot exploitation, of course, it’s been around forever and a day. If prostitution is the oldest profession then murder may well be second, making murder writing a close third. (Look in the Bible, if you want proof: Cain and Abel come to mind, as does King David and that nasty run-in with his friend Uriah over Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.) Still, it doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. What matters is how fresh you make it, and that lies in the subtlety and cleverness with which you adhere to or stray from the “formula.”

That’s called “craft.” Also known as the “C” word.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jeffrey Round

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning writer and director. His most recent novel is The Honey Locust.

Go to Jeffrey Round’s Author Page