Why are genre writers so desperate to convince? Treat ’em mean keep ’em keen seems to be lost advice. The result is chapter after opening chapter of needy, to which the experienced reader is only going to react with contempt.Readers, asserts Harrison,
know the weakness of your position. They’ve passed the groaning tables at the front of the shop. They’ve heard all your desperate lines.... What else can you show them? Even as they ask they’re walking on by, looking for someone who knows the product but has the dignity not to oversell it.The point has resonance. The commercial genres make for crowded shelves. Some writers are so attached to replicating what most succeeds in the genre (I'm thinking of epic fantasy) that they come only to replicate the experience they believe the reader most wants: the fantastical becomes routine. But other mysteries, like detection, seem to satisfy only in the reiteration of certain stages and tropes: the murder, the investigation, the reveal.
I've been tinkering for a long time with what might be called the fluid boundary between genre fiction and literature. What can you achieve within the bounds of genre, and what are the limits? Can a detective's story also read like a novel? Can a novel enclose a mystery without losing its other qualities? It's important to bear in mind that literary fiction, as defined by an emphasis on complex characterization, on realistic settings and action, on aesthetic language, is itself a genre, with only a marginal claim on preeminence.
What is the writing problem here? If it's a problem with writing to the formula, of adhering too closely to the conventions in the hope that recognition will equal sales in a saturated marketplace, then that's a worthy and valid challenge. But I wonder about the bigger question: I was once asked what happens when the detective becomes "novelistic"? Would the mystery seize to function or capture our interest if, for example, if the detective became a fully rounded character, no longer bound to the principle of investigation? What if, for example, we only cared about Commander Dalgliesh for his poetry?
But I think the question only holds if we valorize some quality of the literary genre as superior to the qualities of other genres, and seek that to the exclusion of others, which leads us into the same formulaic round as before. So Harrison's answer, knowing the product and not overselling it, keeping ourselves open to the challenge of writing well while quietly acknowledging whatever conventions we choose, is at once our answer and our first task.
And so, for what it's worth, here are the first lines of A Hangman for Ghosts:
A woman was shrieking in the cells when the hangman and the surgeon met inside the gate of old Sydney Gaol.