Thursday, 17 April 2008

Death and taxes

Overcast, mild, highs 12

I've finally resigned myself to the fact there is no such thing as a weather forecast here in London. For a Canadian that's the same as living without gravity, or Tim Horton's Double double.

The day starts out one way, by the time I'm dresses appropriately it's changed, then changed again - by lunch it's hailing or snowing or brilliant sunshine. And I'm in my long undies.

Having great fun at the Suzanne Beecher DearReader forum. Some readers are loving The Cruelest Month, some loathing it. Because it's in the fiction club some are just annoyed it's there. Some are very kind and persevering even though it wouldn't be their natural selection.

Here's a quite lengthly response I made to a reader (Doris) who seemed annoyed a mystery had snuck into their fiction club. She admitted she might be just a little grumpy because of her taxes.

Hi Doris,

Death and taxes I guess really don`t mix, but they do seem inevitable in your life right now. Sorry you`re not enjoying the book. I hesitated about responding to you. Partly because it seemed your comments were directed more generally, and partly because my feelings were hurt, I realize now. Then, after sleeping on it, I realized I`m a grown woman and agreed to respond to messages, not simply the ones I want to answer.

I also realized you hit on a subject that has become quite a discussion within the mystery and crime writing community and that`s the very issue of community. Of belonging. Of exlusion and definition. It`s a sort of literary nationalism, with all the comfort and danger associated with nationalism.

What is crime fiction. Is it any different that literary fiction, or fiction generally. I must say my question mark icon has just disappeared, so the lack of punctuation isn`t intentional.

Many mystery writers these days are growing less and less comfortable with the label, when it is used to marginalize the writing. For instance, many mysteries are reviewed (if at all) in their own section of the books page, and not on the `reviews`page with the rest of the writers. There`s growing discontent with that, and questioning why. There`s also a growing sense that good writing is good writing. And there`s a lot of it about. Indeed many so-called literary fiction people are writing mysteries - John Blanville, Margaret Atwood, even Shakespeare. To define (and often dismiss) a book as simply a mystery is to do a diservice to the book and the writer.

The genre of `mystery` was created as a marketing tool, and a very successful one too. We`ve certainly benefited by it. But it`s not meant to stratify the quality of writing.

I had dinner this past autumn with the head of Hachette Livres Australia and he described being on a commission charged with coming up with a direction for support for Australian culture, including the publishing industry. They were given a series of questions to answer. One was `Define Literary Fiction`.Now, this is a man who publishes almost exclusively literary fiction. The committee decided to tackle the difficult questions first, and so left the easy, the obvious one to the end - the literary fiction question. But when they got to it, they found it was in fact the most difficult of them all. Everyone thought it was obvious, how could they not know it. But struggle as they might, fight as they might, they couldn`t come up with a satisfactory definition.He said it revolutionized his view of so-called genre fiction.

Having said all this, there is also a lot of not so great mystery writing out there. Superficial, formulaic - relying on blood rather than feelings. But even those have found happy readers.

The sense in publishing seems to be (and one I adhere to) that for a book to `break-out`it needs to be recognized beyond the borders of it`s genre on the understanding that a good mystery is a good book, and good writing transcends boundaries. Traditional mystery readers picking up and discovering À Thousand Splendid Suns` for example. So I was thrilled when Suzanne chose to put a book she knows perfectly well is a classic mystery into your fiction club. Not to `slip one by`you but to introduce you to a book you might not naturally pick up. I`m very grateful to her for that.

The series has received starred reviews from the Kirkus, Publisher`s weekly, the London Times, the Scotsman, the Sydney Morning Herald. And the Gamache series has been described as `literary mysteries`- I believe because they rely as heavily on character as on mystery, and while it`s possible to read them as comforting cozies, there are deeper layers.

I realize some people will dislike the books. They certainly aren`t for everyone. But I also know they belong in this club, as surely as many works of fiction belong in the mystery club. Happily lines are being blurred.

Still, Doris, I`m very grateful for your comments and for making me look at my own fears and insecurities, my issues of belonging, and legitimacy. And probably my own jealousy that at least your taxes are close to done!

Be well - and know that I do understand.


And on that gabby note I'll leave you, except to say Doris wrote this morning the loveliest response, saying she'd done some more research and plans to read the series, starting with the first book. Isn't that remarkable? (the question mark is back!)


Elizabeth said...

I'm so glad you have addressed the mystery genre issue. For years, I avoided reading Dick Francis' books because I thought of him as a writer of mere "thrillers". Then I happened to listen to Simon Preble reading "Reflex" (because there was nothing else left to borrow at my local library) and I woke up to the fact that here was an author with a keen understanding of how human beings grow and change. His novels "Enquiry", "Blood Sport" and Flying Finish" are among my favourites. I especially like the fact that most of his novels are not murder mysteries. The situations he writes about are much more commonplace. Good fiction of any type causes you to think about yourself and the world in new ways.

Hilary said...

Dear Louise
I meant to write this to you a while ago, when it struck me, but your blog subject today brings it to the fore again. About six months into writing a mystery novel, I sat down to read "Still Life" for the second time. I read it through in a day and a long night. Knowing more about what it took to write a novel than I did the first time I read Still Life, I was paralyzed by your skill -- and literary accomplishment.I was ready to give up -- briefly -- but I was also inspired, and was back at the keyboard within 24 hours, newly energized, knocked out by your writing -- by its craft, yes, for it is clever, wise and funny. And by your art -- the layers of meaning that raise it beyond the strict genre classification into a literary accomplishment, no doubt at all.
Like a lighthouse in the night, you have helped guide me to harbour, showing where the rocks are, and where I must steer to bring it home. I tip my hat (and I'm afraid my boat) to your literary work. I can't hope to achieve what you have, but I think now that I can paddle to shore.

Louise Penny Author said...

Dear Elizabeth,

I agree about dick Francis - and anyone who reads marjorie Allingham or Josephine Tey know that sense too. I'm so glad you've been converted by 'the dark side'!


Louise Penny Author said...

Dear Hilary,

I sit here in the tiny English village of Eye and am so deeply moved by what you say. Thank you. Thank you. Especially about inspiring. If your book is even a tenth as good as your email you have a hit. What a way you have with words.
I also know that feeling of reading something that I connect to and admire, and feel cowed - intimidated. that's why, still, when writing I stay away for the most part from my own genre. I don't want to be too influenced,. or discouraged! So I'm impressed that you are way more mature and generous that I - here in Eye.

Thank you, Hilary.