Thursday, February 12, 2015

When did "crime writer" become a bad thing?

Fair warning: I’m tired, cranky and fighting a cold. Buckle up.

Topic sentence: Being a crime writer is not lesser-than nor is it easier-than any other kind of writing. If you think that, you’re being elitist/a snob/wrong. 

Real talk: I’m not even going to link to the story that spurred this blog post because it involves a writer I really, really like and it’s not about that specific story - but a few moments over the last few years that make this more than a one-off thing. It is a trend, even!

Why is it cool for writers to slag on genre writing? Or to distance themselves from crime fiction because they perceive it as a lower/easier/less “important” form?

It’s not. No argument shall be brokered there. It just isn’t. Read books by Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Daniel Woodrell, Megan Abbott, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, James Ellroy, etc. (you get the picture). Tell me that’s not literature or literary or writer-ly. If you don’t think it is, then hey, you’re wrong. That’s it.

You know what argument does matter? The only argument that should matter? Good vs. bad. Is the book good? Did it make you think? Did it turn you on? Did it make you mad? Did it surprise you? Did it force your brain to move in a different way? Did you put that book down and sigh because the last thing you wanted to do was take a break from reading it? That’s good. The rest is organizational and labeling that exists as a guide not a hierarchy. One is not better than the other.

If you think you’re slumming by writing “genre” fiction, or you think you can make it rain from the advance you get from cranking out that easy, commercial crime novel so you can focus on more “important” stuff...well, good luck.

I’m not trying to be the great equalizer here. Mainly because I don’t need to be: writing is hard, no matter what kind of fiction you’re putting together, however you choose to label or describe it. Also, by implying that one type of writing is harder/better/cooler than another, you’re feeding the trolls. You’re adding bricks to the genre walls that keep different voices apart and constrict the process. To me, genre is a guide - a suggestion that these other books might be like this one. Not as a ranking system. If you’re using it as the latter, you’re doing it wrong.

Allow me a moment of hippie philosophy: We’re all in this together. We’re all pouring our souls into the work we put out, and those that aren’t tend to fade away quickly. Writers have a hard enough time trying to rise above genre labels or expectations - why make it harder?


Janet O'Kane said...

Well said! I just wish it didn't need to be said.

Jay Stringer said...

Heh, I just blogged on this topic kinda from the other side. Well, not quite, but in a, "who cares what they think," approach.

Now it looks like we're feuding.

YYAAASSSSSS LITERARY FEUD!!!!! I always wanted one.


"‘Literary’ is not a bad word. Or, it shouldn’t be. Sometimes, sure, reviews are using it in a condescending way, but often times they’re using it as praise. They’re using it as a short-cut to praise a writer for doing something good. each time we shout about it, each time we sneer or moan or snark, we put some distance between us and ‘literary.’ There’s something aspirational to the idea of literature. I aim for it every time I start out with a blank page, and I don’t hide that, or apologise for it.

And the other people? The ones we think we’re railing against? The people who assume there is no art or literature in genre, that comics can’t be amazing and that comedians are the bottom of the rung? Fuck ‘em. Put the joke back on them. If they don’t know where to look for good art, that’s not our problem and, frankly, I don’t need their approval. Neither do you."

Unknown said...

I met Dennis Lehane when I was first starting to publish, and I asked him about the whole genre v. literary thing and he said to me: "Only amateurs and new writers care about this. Writers write. Period."

After he said that, I stopped caring about the whole argument, because it's pointless.

Kristi said...

Thanks, Keith. I'm going to remember this.
And Alex, I'm up in arms about this today. I just get sick of MY FRIENDS who are writers looking down on me. Or my friends who are readers. I need to not give a shit. I vow to not give a shit anymore. : ) Okay, then. Moving on ....

Kristi said...

PS Jay, how did I not know about Stringerville? Off to read your post.

Alex Segura said...


Actually, I think we're on the same page. I don't think crime or literary are bad words - but they can be used negatively. I'm just saying we shouldn't.

Keith: Lehane is on point, and now I feel sheepish for living his statement by being a relative newbie writing about it...but I stand by the post.

Thanks for the comments, all!

John McFetridge said...

Crime writer became a bad thing the first time someone said it was about restoring order, or finding justice or offering some kind of closure.

Pretty much the opposite of, "Did it force your brain to move in a different way?"

Rick Ollerman said...

I like John's comment. I've read too many books. Now I have to find where my brain has gone. Seriously, I really like this.

Alex Segura said...

I like John's comment, too! I don't know where my brain's gone, though.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Many people I know would have a hard time separating Richard Price from crime writing. So you can imagine comments I get on my writing. "Are you still writing those..."
One of the last things my mother said to me was she was looking forward to either Megan or me writing a more uplifting sort of book.

Alex Segura said...

That's a great story, Patti. It's funny, because I feel like I get the same questions from two fronts - as a crime writer and also as someone who writes comics, specifically Archie ones. "Are you still writing those?"

Yup! Still am.

jack welling said...

Slow Clap.

Alex Segura said...

Jack: High Five.

Rick Ollerman said...

Just call me a writer. I don't care what kind. I also weasel out of explaining what my books are about, not because of fear of stigma, more like fear of sounding stupid. I just said that out loud, didn't I?

Robin Agnew said...

Awesome post! Thank you.

John McFetridge said...

Sometimes I am too much of a fan of crime writing. I like the genre a lot and so I can't really get into the discussion of "good vs. bad" books because I know I'm too subjective.

So, every once in a while I reread this article: