Showing posts with label literary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literary. Show all posts

06 February 2020

Favorite Places


I have written before about atmosphere and setting. No surprise: there are not all that many topics in writing. That mystery writers have favorite venues is one of the obvious and most enjoyable facets of the genre. Many fans have had their views of California shaped by Golden State mystery mavens from Margaret Millar to Raymond Chandler and our own Paul Marks, while Carl Hiaasen has put his stamp on South Florida, as Anne Cleeves’ has put hers on Shetland and the multitude of northern noir writers on Scandinavia and Scotland. Frenchwoman Fred Vargas, currently making Paris dangerous, also includes the Pyrenees, which take up a good deal of psychic space within the capacious mind of her Commissaire Adamsberg.

I have my favorite places, too, but thinking about the topic, I realized that I have only rarely set mystery novels in them. My first detective, Anna Peters, hung out in Washington, D.C., a consequence of her remote inspiration in the Watergate hearings. At the time of the scandal, I was convinced on that some underpaid secretary knew a whole lot she wasn’t saying. I devised such a secretary and moved her to an oil company.
Anna Peters' early environment

When Anna proved modestly popular, her speciality, white collar crime, kept her in big cities with only the occasional side trip to the sort of rural setting I really prefer. She had a visit to St. Andrews, Scotland, one of the world’s great good places, and got to Patagonia, Arizona, a favorite birding location, as well as to Trier, a shabby and historic burg whose Roman ruins caught my eye. But, basically, Anna was stuck in urban life – or well-heeled suburbs.

My second series character, Francis Bacon, the Anglo-Irish painter and bon vivant, was the urban man par excellence, and his city was London, whose light and ambiance encouraged good work. A serious asthmatic, he loathed the country and all its works. Animals made him sick and he thoroughly disliked them – despite the fact that two of his finest paintings depict a screaming baboon and a mastiff. He also did a fine African landscape, complete with elephant, but that did not reconcile him to any place without sidewalks.
Soho, Francis' favorite venue

This inexplicable distaste for the natural world and its more attractive inhabitants was, along with his tin ear for music, the hardest thing  about turning the real Bacon into my character. His rather gaudy sex life, his alcoholism, his genius were the merest bumps in the road compared to constructing a man who hated and feared dogs and found the rural landscape boring.

Perhaps in retaliation, my version of Bacon was frequently in difficulty in rural areas – no doubt confirming all his prejudices. He wound up on camel back in the wilds of Morocco, drove in terror down vertiginous French roads, and effected a rescue on horseback in Germany. His trials and tribulations culminated at a real English country house, his absolute least favorite venue, in his last (and final) outing, Mornings in London.

My own favorite landscape – the rolling woods and farmland of New York state and New England – have been reserved for stand alone, mostly contemporary, novels. Night Bus was set in a fictional town that drew from our village and the one next to it, while Voices went right back to my hometown in Dutchess County, where I am happy to say, the landscape of roughly fifty years earlier was waiting for me.
nearby rail to trail conversion

And that brings me to one of the great pleasures of favorite and familiar landscapes and, indeed, of memory, which I can best illustrate with reference to the climax of Night Bus, which required a lonely cabin in the Adirondacks. I was in such a cabin only once, when I was 18, but unbeknownst to me, the neurons, which had forgotten so much else, remembered exactly what I needed, right down to how the water supply turned on. It was one of the weirdly satisfying moments in my writing life.

It is not often that the pulp fiction writer channels Proust, but the French master of memory was absolutely right about recapturing the past. He wrote that memory, in awakening the past, frees it and the remembering mind for a moment from time. Proust mentions sounds and, that most evocative and primitive of senses, smell, as triggering memory. It is the sound and smell and sight of our favorite places that so often bring us what we need as writers, not only the momentary setting but the weight and flavor of the past.

Do you have favorite literary places as either writer or reader?
Not all favorite places wind up in print

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize


The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.



15 September 2012

The Washed and the Unwashed


by John M. Floyd


Literary fiction, genre fiction.  What are the differences?

I realize we've already made trips to this well many times, but I think it's a fascinating topic.  Talking about fiction and what makes it good or interesting is always fascinating, to me.  As for the importance of the literary/genre issue, I'm honestly not sure how useful the whole argument is, except maybe to those of us who try to write for publication.  Anyone who hopes to regularly sell short fiction to magazines or novels to book publishers should have a fair understanding of the difference between literary and genre, because--after all--most markets' guidelines include phrases like "no genre submissions" or "literary fiction only" or "genre stories welcome."  In order to get past the gatekeeper, we need to be able to accurately categorize our work.  Or at least know how editors/agents/publishers might categorize it.

"Okay, then," says the beginning writer, or the hopelessly bored dinner companion, "what IS the difference between literary and genre?"

Food for thought, or guilty pleasure?

Some have said literary fiction is an Oprah's Book Club pick and genre fiction is a "beach read."  (It's hard to argue with that.)  Others say lit fic is what you find in The New Yorker and gen fic is what you find in EQMMAsimov's, etc.  (Can you spell cop-out?)  I once read someplace that literary stories are good for you and genre stories just taste good.  (I like that one.)  My wife says literary stories are what she watches on TV and genre shows are what I watch.  (As usual, she's right.)  The clearest definition I've heard, although it's wrong, is that genre fiction is mystery, Western, sci-fi, romance, and horror, and that lit fic is everything else.

I've even heard some rude folks say that literary fiction is for those who want to be challenged mentally, and that genre fiction should be read only by the mentally challenged.  Others, just as rude and not to be outdone, say that reading too much lit fic can make you mentally challenged.

In my short-story classes, I tell students that so-called literary works deal mainly with relationships, emotions, and "the meaning of life," while genre works deal mostly with action, excitement, and adventure.  An extreme example of a literary story might be Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River."  It's a short piece about a guy who hikes into a pine forest, pitches a tent beside a river, spends the night, and fishes for trout, and that's it.  There's no plot, no conflict, nothing except one character doing a lot of thinking and (hopefully) making the reader think as well, about implied but never-mentioned subjects like war and rehabilitation.  I think the opposite extreme, the ultimate genre story, is a tale someone told me in high school called "The Hook."  You've all heard it: (1) a teenaged boy and girl go out parking despite warnings that a deranged killer with a prosthetic hook is on the loose, (2) they think they hear someone sneaking around outside their car while they're necking, (3) they bug out for the dugout, screaming and spraying gravel, (4) they later decide they overreacted and probably really didn't hear anything, and (5) when they get to the girl's house and the boy walks around the car to open her door for her, there's a hook hanging from the passenger-side door handle.  No deep meanings there, no profound messages, no disillusioned or dying or suicidal characters.  The whole story is plot--a twist-ending plot designed to scare the hell out of you--and the characters are there only to carry out the storyline.  And it works.

Straddling the fence

Sometimes the difference between literary and genre is obvious: The Grapes of Wrath on one end of the field, let's say, and a Rambo movie on the other.  But sometimes, as is true of most things in this life, the lines can get a little blurry.

James Lee Burke's mystery novel Cimarron Rose is considered by some to be both genre fiction and literary, mainly because of his use of elegant, descriptive language; the crime novels Mystic River and The Silence of the Lambs combine the categories because of the strength and depth of their characters; and classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane are a mix of lit and genre mostly because of the life lessons that they teach.  Scout Finch and Bobby Starrett both undergo extreme changes in the way they look at life and their fellow man, and many consider this process of "becoming a different person during the course of the story" to be the single most important gauge of whether a piece of fiction belongs on the literary side of the courtroom.

Lucky with critics, unlucky at love

One thing you can count on: the critics will like you if you succeed at writing lit fic, and the public will adore you if you succeed at writing gen fic.  There's a reason that genre fiction is also called "commercial" fiction and "popular" fiction: it sells.  Stephen King once said, and I'm paraphrasing, that if you specialize in writing literary fiction there's a good chance you might find yourself sitting down with your family one night to an Alpo-and-noodles casserole.

Does that mean that all of us who actually want to earn something (rather than just learn something) should try to write only genre fiction?  Of course not.  I think you must write the kind of stories and novels that you most enjoy reading, and feel comfortable writing.  If you try to do otherwise . . . well, you'll probably fail.

It's sometimes not even safe to try to write in more than one genre.  Some can do it effectively (Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb with her romances and mysteries, Loren Estleman with his mysteries and Westerns, etc.), but it's not easy.  I don't know either of those authors, but I would bet my iPad that both of them enjoy reading the two genres they've chosen to write in.  And my hat's really off to those who can successfully write both literary novels and genre novels.  There are many, but Larry McMurtry and Ed McBain/Evan Hunter come first to (my) mind.

More opinions

The oft-stated view that literary fiction is character-driven and genre fiction is plot-driven is correct, I think, but it's an oversimplification. To be successful, both categories need engaging plots and interesting characters.  But I do agree that in lit fic the characters are probably more important than whatever it is they're doing, and in gen fic what they're doing is more important than who they are.  I love to quote Stephen King, and I often find myself thinking about his observation of lit vs. genre.  "Literary fiction," King once said in an interview, "is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  Genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

Here's another quote that I wrote down in a notebook long ago--I think it's attributed to Bill Stephens: "The characters in literary fiction spend so much time thinking, they never get around to doing anything.  They constantly are confronted with deep issues of: Who am I?  Why am I here?  What should I do?  Where am I going?  Why can I not love/be loved? . . . and a myriad of other 'Woe is me' considerations.  There just is no time left to do much."

Alas, there is also no time left to do much in this column.  Let me say, however, that I am primarily a genre reader and a genre writer.  I admit it.  I do occasionally read and enjoy literary works, I appreciate the effort and talent that it took to write them (I've actually sold some stories to literary journals--even a blind hog can root up an acorn now and then), and I understand that many folks prefer to always read and write that kind of fiction.  As Seinfeld would say, "There's nothing wrong with that."

But, God help me, I usually prefer to wallow among the unwashed.  I simply LOVE stories like Die HardJawsPsycho, and The Big Lebowski.  And I love the goosebumps I get when I think of "The Hook."


I still remember the childlike excitement I felt a couple years ago when I heard about an upcoming movie called Cowboys and Aliens, featuring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.  Good grief, I thought--James Bond and Indiana Jones, teaming up to fight it out with E.T.'s evil cousins?  How could that not be fun?

Sorry, Mom.  Maybe one of these days I'll grow up …