Last night, my writing group hit a bit of an awkward moment.Â Outlander was talking about having read a Michael Connely novel, and I commented that Michael Connelly is the mystery writer’s mystery writer.Â He is the person people describe as their major influence, their hero, their dream blurb.Â And I said that I thought the reason for this was Connelly’s prose.
“Really?” said Outlander.Â “I didn’t know genre writers cared about prose.”
“Of course we do,” I said.
So, yes, hr hmm, awkward.Â But we breezed right past it, because really I understand. There’s a huge rift between literary writers and genre writers, and although I’m now on the genre side, I wasn’t always.
When I was in college, I bought into the idea that in order to write anything worthwhile, I had to write something literary. It was the idea espoused by all around me, all my professors — the very first grown-up, professional authors I had met. And I was too young and naive to understand that the view they were putting forth was not the view of the Community of Grown Up and Professional Authors. It was the view of the Academic Community.
When I entered college, I wanted to write science fiction.Â It took them about one year to convince me I had to write literary, and I spent about nine years (!) doing it.Â I read Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards every year.Â I subscribed to the New Yorker.Â I met a lot of truly awesome friends in the literary scene, including the writing group I’m still part of today.Â During this time I also wrote some decent stories, but there’s only about one I’d now proudly display to my friends.Â Partly this is because, well, I was just a young writer.Â But I think it is also partly because I was trying to write stuff that didn’t really get me jazzed.
What finally jolted me out of this literary mindset was NaNoWriMo, the online challenge where people sign up to write a novel (or 50,000 words) in a month.Â Something about the excess and sheer wonderful craziness of the idea let me decide to try something genre.Â After all, it was an insane challenge.Â I wasn’t going to really produce something worthwhile.Â And therefore I could try something fun.
That book became my first, unpublished novel, Murder 101: Introduction to Death.Â Even after I finished it, I thought of my foray into genre work as a diversion, a way to jumpstart my career.Â But not (no, never!) the real meat of my career.Â No, that had to be literary.Â It was probably another two years before I gave up on the idea of being a literary writer altogether.
And doing that made me happy.Â Not wildly, ecstatically happy–just content.Â At peace.
But I have been on the literary side of the fence for too long to expect all my friends to understand completely.Â Outlander wasn’t being a jerk when he asked me whether genre writers cared about prose; he was just expressing the belief of his community.Â Literary writers tend to believe that genre writers don’t care about good prose, that they don’t care about meaning or nuance or writing something “real.”Â You can hear their attitude in the term they sometimes use to describe literary fiction:Â “serious fiction.”Â As though genre writing were inherently silly.
Similarly, genre writers tend to believe that literary writers don’t care about plot, or tension, or actually telling a cohesive story.Â They believe that literary writers like to wade around in a marsh of emotion without giving the reader something they can hang onto and clearly understand.Â In their own way, they believe that literary writers are not “serious –” serious about story, about structure, about scene.
I’ll tell you a little secret:Â there’s some truth to both these sides.Â Genre writers do care more about plot than prose, and literary writers do care more about prose than plot. But both groups do care about both things; both groups are earnestly trying to put out the best books, the very best books that they can.
And that is the way of things.Â And though I am glad both kinds of fiction exist, I am happy to find myself on the genre side of the fence.Â It’s the side that’s never going to get me access to the Nobel or the New Yorker.Â It’s the side that’s not likely to pave my way into book clubs or high society galas.Â But it’s the side, I guess, where I’m comfortable.Â Frankly, it’s the side where I think I’ve always been meant to be.
And yes, I do care more about plot than prose.