“I’m looking for a mystery,” my agent said.
That was the last thing I expected to hear. When I met David a little over two years ago, I was so struck with his Oxford-educated, sweater-vest-wearing persona that I’d wondered if my literary novel would be literary enough. But now he was not only looking for a mystery, but was also – I’ll spare you the precise language involved – highly dissatisfied with the ones coming across his desk.
“I could write a mystery,” I said.
It’s not just David and I. The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage. Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.
What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a miniscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?
Here’s my take on what’s happening – which, granted, is worth exactly as much as you’re currently paying for it.
Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observation of upper class angst.
But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout.
And as one part of the industry rises, another falls. Magazines and newspapers are dying faster than fruit flies, to the dismay of many writers who counted on nonfiction to supplement their incomes. Advances are lower than they used to be, multi-book deals are becoming as quaint as hoop skirts, and, thanks partially to the rise of ebooks, the author payout per book sale is shrinking. A lot of writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. But those of us who write full-time are scrambling to find additional streams of income just to survive.
Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed – “a horror novel that has no real place among the ten that have come before it” – under the name Chase Novak. He’s taken it to a new mystery imprint, Mulholland Books at Little Brown, and says the genre jump was entirely his idea. “In fact,” he says, “my agent was surprised when I sent her the first forty pages.”
“Creative people switch genres all the time,” says Miriam Parker, Spencer’s publicist at Mulholland, who started at Grand Central and has worked with a broad spectrum of writers. Her fellow publicist Crystal Patriarche agrees. “Writers just want to write,” she says, noting that quite a few members of her primarily female client list have shifted genres during the time she’s worked with them, often combining mainstream with romance or mystery. “They evolve through stages throughout their careers.”
Still, it’s hard to think of very many writers – save possibly Stephen King – who have moved from genre to literary. The floor seems to slope the other way, and Patriarche concedes that sometimes the difference isn’t so much in what the author has written as in how the publisher opts to describe it. “I’ve seen literary books blurbed as something like ‘the thinking woman’s beach read,’” she says. “And that’s a sign that the publisher is trying to appeal to consumers who are more mainstream. In this aspect the change is more industry-driven than author-driven.”
Ergo, the case of Dawn Tripp who clicked onto her Amazon page shortly after the publication of her novel Game of Secrets (Random House) only to learn that she’d written a thriller. “One reviewer called it ‘a page turning thriller,’ and another called it ‘a literary thriller told through a poet’s eye,’” says Tripp. “The tag ‘thriller’ surprised me. Although Game of Secrets has a mystery at the heart of it – an unsolved murder played out through a Scrabble game – it does not unfold in a linear way.”
Caroline Leavitt, whose Pictures of You has also been described as a literary thriller, started her career with a different publisher years ago. “My first two literary books were reviewed great but didn’t sell,” she recalls, “and then my publisher called me in and said ‘It’s time to go commercial with your third, so let’s all sit down and hammer out a plot.’” Leavitt followed the outline, “but with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach” and, predictably, the resultant book flopped on both the critical and commercial level. When her publisher didn’t think Pictures of You was commercial enough, she went to Algonquin, a place she describes as an Edenic paradise for writers, and now, after eight books, she has a New York Times best seller.
Even though Leavitt claims she isn’t entirely sure what a literary thriller is, she’ll take it. “A good book is a good book,” she says. “I’ve decided that genre is strictly a marketing tool.” Tripp is equally sanguine. “I don’t balk at the term ‘thriller,’” she says. “I don’t think in terms of genre. I write what moves me.”
While some writers find the genre shift has been almost sprung upon them, others are happy to produce books which are consciously designed to be commercial. Once they get the hang of genre – which can be a steep learning curve as they give themselves a crash course in learning how to plot – they end up having fun with the idea.
“There’s something about writing as Chase Novak that allows me to tell this story in a style that is leaner and more in service to propulsive story,” says Spencer. He took care to choose a style that innately appealed to him as a reader; although he’d never liked fantasy or adventure, “the possibility of horror rearing its head at any moment is something that I give a great deal of thought to while driving my car, taking a walk, or trying to fall asleep. My mother recently said to me ‘When you were little, you were always convinced that Dad and I wanted to kill you.’”
The key to a successful transition is that the writer chooses a genre they enjoy reading, with which he instinctively clicks. I’ve had a blast writing my historical mystery. Not only did the extensive research into Victorian England bring me back to my happy days in journalism, but I bought a bunch of mysteries and read them like a student, breaking apart the plots, analyzing movements through geographic space and time, using note cards to track multiple characters across a layered and detailed literary landscape. Only someone who’s never tried to do this would declare it easier than literary writing, or the books which result less worthy of respect. There’s a big difference between selling and selling out.
Of course, there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.”
So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre.
“You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller’ but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller? The problem is we don’t have names for these books, so we call them by the old names, even when the terms don’t fit.” But like any good publicist, she’s prepared to find the opportunity in the midst of the crisis. “It’s hard to get publicity for any book these days, especially one that’s hard to label, but a book that straddles genres can actually be an opportunity for a publicist to open it up to the readership of both genres.”
“More than ever the market requires publicists to approach all books on an individual basis,” says Parker. “I always ask myself ‘Who is the audience for this book and what’s the most effective way to target that audience?’ It can be fun, like when I was at Grand Central and we were bringing out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We created a great video trailer, which was widely viewed and shared, and built an active Facebook community around book.”
It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing.
In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”
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