Wednesday, June 29, 2011

STOP DEGRADING MYSTERIES

A few years back, Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times Book Review, said that Elmore Leonard deserved a Nobel Prize for Literature, given his gifts for writing exceptional dialogue, creating memorable characters, an ability to tell a compelling story without wasting words (much as Hemingway could), and constructing inventive and taut plots. But of course, McGrath, being no dummy, realized this was not likely to happen, given the fact that mysteries and thrillers are step-children when it comes to major literary awards: no matter how literary they are, nobody takes them seriously as being on the same playing field as other novels lauded for style and substance (John LeCarrĂȘ, though a Brit, is the perfect example of this, for his mysteries never competed for Nobel or Man Booker Prizes). Forget the Nobel Prize. I can’t recall any mystery that was honored by either the Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award during my 32 years as a publisher, and I welcome correction if I’m wrong.



This, to me, is a knee-jerk insult to literary writers who are pigeonholed as belonging to this sub-class when it comes to being eligible for the major literary prizes. Chris Knopf, for example, can write five “Sam Acquillo/Hampton Mysteries,” and garner many honors and mystery prizes. Head Wounds was named one of the best mysteries of 2008 year by both Mysterious Reviews and Deadly Pleasures, and won the Ben Franklin Award for Best Mystery. But on a more inclusive level, he only qualify on the state level, as a three time finalist for the Connecticut Book Awards, where his novel Two Time (2007) and Philip Roth's Everyman were named runners-up for this award. The difference being that Philip Roth can compete for the big national book awards, whereas Chris (just as Elmore Leonard), faces a stacked deck in this regard.



A similar fate might be expected for Leonard Rosen’s first fiction, All Cry Chaos, which debuts in September. It is one of the most richly layered novels I’ve read in ages, as well as being one of the best mysteries. But Rosen’s novel goes far beyond that, portraying the disorganization, chaos, and senseless violence in today’s world, while at the same time bringing in Chaos Theory, mathematical models, and fractals—the organization of matter and the very nature of existence itself, which is the biggest mystery of all. One Catholic theologian reading the manuscript said that it proved the existence of God. Not being a Catholic, I can only say that it is in keeping with Taoist and Buddhist teachings.



I share McGrath’s feelings and believe that the only way to change this perception that mysteries are “second tier” novels is to take it head on, and that despite this existing stereotyping it’s incumbent for all publishers who value artful writing, and have mysteries to back it up, to start submitting their novels—as we are doing—for National Book Award and Pulitzer consideration, for I’ve seen a trend afoot where more and more gifted writers are trying their hands at mysteries and thrillers.





MORPHING INTO MYSTERIES:



In 1978 my wife, Judith, and I started publishing books, evolving, over the years, into doing fiction primarily. Publishing one title each month, for the most part, we established a reputation for literary excellence, culminating in the LMP/R.R. BOWKER EDITORIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD—the equivalent of a publishing “Oscar”—the winner being chosen from five finalists by electronic voting from colleagues in the industry. Since we began we’ve gathered more honorsper book than Macmillan, Random House, Penguin, Hachette, Simon & Schuster or Harper Collins—the Big Six of conglomerate publishers—including having a National Book Award finalist (Sandra Scofield), a Nobel Prize winner (Halldor Laxness) and a Nobel nominee (Berry Fleming). This year Kermit Moyer won the PEN/WINSHIP AWARD for Best Novel—the third time one of our writers gained this prize in the past seven years with Edward Delaney winning in 2005 and K. C. Frederick in 2008.



Up until 2008, we only published an average of one mystery a year from among the 5,000 submissions we received. This was not a case of our dismissing mysteries, for we make no discrimination between mysteries or other artful fiction. It’s just that few mystery submissions measured up to our standards, which are books that have multidimensional characters, from writers who are craftsmen regarding language, narrative flow, and plot; writers who do “original” work, grounded in reality and avoiding clichĂ©s. Yet among those few we selected were some exceptional writers, many of whom were Edgar Award and Hammett Prize finalists. In 1979 we re-introduced the work of Richard Lortz, whose supernatural thrillers (Dracula’s Children, Bereavements, and Lovers Living, Lovers Dead) were hailed by dozens of critics. We also published Domenic Stansberry’s first three noir novels, and Reed Coleman’s first four mysteries. But in 2009 the tide began turning when we published four mysteries, in 2010 five, three more are coming out this year, and eight are scheduled for 2012—half of our list. How to account for this transformation?



Firstly, the mystery submissions we’ve been receiving have greatly improved. We don’t get generic copies of Cromwells or Cobens or Crichtons or James Pattersons or Ken Folletts. These books are the provenance of large publishing houses just as movies featuring car chases, explosions, gun battles, and lots of casualties are the provenance of Major Motion Pictures. This underscores the short sighted stupidity of the large publishers who, looking to find their next “Major Best Seller,” have largely given up on taking a chance on good, literate, and relatively unknown mystery writers—or even known writers who haven’t sold a minimum of 10,000 copies when previously published, thereby failing to earn back the advance they received.



Why have we received so many well written mystery submissions? I believe—aside from people we launched earlier—things began changing once we published Chris Knopf’s The Last Refuge back in 2005. After reading his manuscript I thought it even more engaging than Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, published that same year. And, unlike other writers who move on elsewhere, Chris gave us a total of five Sam Acquillo mysteries (Two Time, Head Wounds, Hard Stop, and Black Swan, (as well as a stand-alone, Elysiana—published in 2010). All these mysteries were published by Blackstone Audiobooks, all had terrific and widespread reviews, and the first four Sam mysteries were published north of us by Random House Canada. There were awards, and sales in seven other countries. The end result was that well over 30,000 copies of Knopf’s thrillers were read in North America and thousands more listened to. This cumulative success has resulted in more agents sending us quality fiction that did not meet the criteria for what the big houses were interested in.



This led to Jodie Rhodes, a west coast agent, sending us Connie Dial’s police procedurals that we published in 2008 and 2009 (Internal Affairs and The Broken Blue Line). Connie, having worked her own way up the ranks from beat cop to detective in Internal Affairs, Homicide and, finally, to Captain and Commander of the Hollywood division of the LAPD, brought an authenticity to her mysteries that few could match. This was followed by four thrillers from two other agents: Eve Bridburg at the Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Agency brought us Len Rosen’s All Cry Chaos, which had been turned down by all the major publishers (we‘ve already sold five subsidiary rights). Jill Marr at the Sandra Dijkstra Agency then brought us David Freed’s Flat Spin, coming out next year and two mysteries by Jaden Terrell, Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight, also due in 2012. Talk about complex characters and good writing! Freed, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter, has a protagonist who’s a down-and-out flight instructor, a former government assassin now working on his Buddhist nature, a love/ hate relationship with his ex-wife, and balances a tense and crisp story with laugh out loud dialogue. Terrell’s private eye still loves his former wife, has a son with Down Syndrome, and lives with a close friend, a gay man, who is dying of AIDS. These are all well drawn characters, nothing cardboard about them, and, here, again, we’ve already sold audio rights to Flat Spin and German rights for the Terrell mysteries to Rowohlt, a major mystery publisher, because they “loved” the character.Additionally there seems to be a trend from other authors we’ve previously published who are now writing and submitting out-and-out mysteries for the first time. We’ve published seven previous novels of Howard Owen, a renowned Southern novelist, whose Oregon Hill, is his first straight ahead mystery. And a second novel (but first mystery) from Victoria Jenkins, whose An Unattended Death will also appear in 2012.



With increasing numbers of gifted novelists putting their skills into creating quality mysteries, it’s time, I think, for The Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, and the National Book Critics Circle Awards to stop treating those who write mysteries and thrillers as poor relations when it comes to judging the very best fiction being produced in America.



As always, I welcome your comments.



Marty

6 comments:

  1. Dear Marty,

    A heartening blog, especially for someone like me, who grew up reading books with covers best kept hidden from the divinity master. I’d love to ‘write a mystery’ if only I could cobble together a plot. I put ‘write a mystery’ in inverted commas to highlight the first of two disagreements I have with you here.

    The people you’re talking about are not ‘writing mysteries’, they’re writing good books that happen to use certain literary conventions to create a narrative tension and smuggle interesting but complicated ideas past lazy readers like myself. Pigeon-holing (does that idiom exist in the States?) writers is the preserve of people with the intellects of pigeons.

    This is not just a question of genre. Until I stumbled across Judy and yourself, I had frequent spats with publishers and agents telling me, “No, you can’t write this and that and then a bit more of this,” which was what I wanted to do, something historical, something tragic, something funny, something zany, something solemn etc. “You’ve got to write this and this and then this again.” Thankfully, you and Judy have a larger vision, in consequence of which you’ve lumbered yourselves with a writer who doesn’t sell any books, but that’s another story!

    Second point of issue. I can appreciate that prizes probably make the difference between making a bit of money and barely breaking even, but apart from that, they are utterly irrelevant (By the by, I may change my mind about this if I ever win one). It’s the readers that count and the only valid purpose of prizes is to pull in the readers. If prize giving committees prefer to parade their superiority to the hoi-polloi by selecting books that are impenetrable and inaccessible, and ignoring those that achieve literary greatness by employing a light touch and a capacity to make people turn the pages for reasons other than sheer bloody-mindedness and a sense of duty, that’s their problem.

    ‘Nuff said. Must do some work before I succumb to total ranting.

    Charles

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  2. I agree, Marty. Good writing is good writing, regardless of genre. The best ones have all the elements of literary fiction with the added challenge of a compelling plot. It reminds me of something Ginger Rogers once said--that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels.

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  3. Add to the tendency to downgrade mysteries the fact that Publishers Weekly and The New York Times (God knows how many other review periodicals) separate fiction and mystery as distinct categories. I believe that this is not only unjustified given the same concern we all have for The Elements of Fiction that make for fine reading but that such a formatting, with the mysteries coming after the fiction, of course [!], tends to make mysteries seem like a sub-genre on a par with other sub-dubious sub genres -- romance, say, less serious, less literary, less likely to have wide appeal.

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  4. Hi Marty:

    Your assertion may well be valid that the literati as a rule regard those of us who write mystery-thrillers as red-headed step-children. I'm not sure, however, that the institutional "snobbish discrimination" to which you allude would be eradicated and respectability gained with the awarding of major prizes.

    All modesty aside, I've won my share of prizes. It's nice to be recognized, no question, and you usually get a free chicken dinner out of the deal, but I'm not sure how much commodity there is in these things beyond a line or two on the old CV, or affording your mother bragging rights. Elmore Leonard may well deserve a Nobel or a Pulitzer, as you point out, but my guess is that if the choice were offered, he'd take one more trip to the top of the Times' best seller list any day of the week.

    Most of the best journalists and writers I've ever known have never won a so-called significant award. But that in no way diminishes their inherent talents or body of work. Award competitions, by my experience and I'm sure yours, are as often determined by politics and subjectivity as they are merit. They're like beauty pageants: few contestants make it to the finals, but that doesn't mean the runners-up are any less fuckable than the winners (most, anyway).

    If you aspire to publish commercial fiction, true validation as far as I'm concerned can only be realized with the swipe of a credit card or cold cash on the counter. In other words: Gross sales. I'd much rather be validated by a broad readership eager to pay for my next book than by some stupid committee whose members sit around for one afternoon eating donuts and passing judgement on works that, on their best day, they themselves could never come close to duplicating.

    Peace.

    David Freed

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  5. Coincidentally, The New Yorker just ran an article on the author John Banville, who writes "literary" fiction under his own name and mysteries under the name Benjamin Black. The article makes the point that while the works of Banville and Black are different in style, they both get at many of the same issues and are of equal philosophical gravitas. Here's a link to a summary of the article:

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2011/07/11/110711crbo_books_kavenna

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  6. Fascinating conversation, and fascinating post. Somehow genres and ratings both seem artificial, almost like telling the reader what to think before they open the book. I always want to believe award winners will have that certain "je ne sais quoi" to raise them above other books, but if they're pre-judged on genre the awarders don't give themselves a chance to "sais."

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