As it happens I have rather strong opinions on the subject, and as the former Exec Vice President of Mystery Writers of America, a lecturer at Hofstra University in creative writing, I teach courses on writing mystery fiction; a stretch, I know – and someone who began as a poet, I feel well qualified to contend that there is a lot of crime fiction that is equal to or better than so-called literary fiction. I would suggest that Daniel Woodrell, Philip Kerr, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Megan Abbott et al are as skilled with the English language as anyone you might summon up from the literary field and that their books deal with as many of the big questions as any literary author. There are segments of the crime fiction world that are, of course, exploitative and silly, but is this not true of literary fiction?
Why do you write, for whom do you write, and what makes your writing worth reading?
I write because it’s an affliction. I write because I’m compelled to write. It’s a motor that steers the driver. I am not one of those authors who consider the end game before they begin. I write for me and hope other people like it and find value in it. I’m not judging people who do it differently, but I couldn’t do it any other way. As to why people read my work, such as they do, I am always suspect of answering this. I think what crime writing offers, as opposed to most other genres, are niches. Some people read only PI novels, some only procedurals, some cozies, some hardboiled, some only noir. Then there are those that read for plot, others for characters, some even for setting.
Given this variety, does crime fiction deserve more critical attention?
Of course I’m a self-interested party here, but yes, I do believe the genre deserves more critical attention – critical being the key word. As in all genres, there’s great mystery fiction and there’s crap. The issue with our genre is that because it’s so popular, you have a lot of crap to wade through to get to the good and great. Frankly, critics and reviewers are simply overwhelmed. I won’t mention his name, but I had a friend who did book reviews for a major American newspaper. He got so many books to review, it was silly. His own publisher sent him his own book to review. I mean, how absurd is that? But beyond the reviewers and the critics, I think mystery fiction is too often ignored and dismissed by the intelligentsia. It’s ridiculous that Daniel Woodrell or Ken Bruen aren’t taught at college level. To dismiss any art simply on the basis of form is foolish.
When form becomes formula, does it also become a liability to the genre’s reputation?
This is always a difficult question to answer. Look, cozies are comfort food, but there’s nothing wrong with meatloaf and chicken soup. Some cooks make better meatloaf and chicken soup than others. Why should I reject cozies? I may not write them or enjoy them, but I don’t object to them. I also find it unfair that mystery writers are asked to make this choice. Does anyone say to George Clooney, do farces and comedies ruin movies? Does anyone think less of Citizen Kane or The Godfather because another moviemaker made Citizen Ruth or Dear God? I think it’s a false choice. In fact, I think formula can work for a skillful writer. I go back to my previous answer. To dismiss any art simply on the basis of form is foolish. Good writing is good writing.
Does good writing have an agenda – does yours?
Personally, I am interested in the fate of humankind, but my writing is about what interests me at a particular moment. I worry about writing with an agenda, regardless of how well-intentioned that agenda. This is not to say I do not use social commentary – it’s one of the things I’m known for – or that I don’t philosophize. As long as a writer never forgets that his or her first job is entertainment and to stay within the confines of the story being told, he or she can do anything. This relates to your question about formula. A skilful writer can use the form to say all manner of things while sticking to the formula.
On the topic of social commentary, what are the complexities that account for crime, and what are the considerations that animate your antagonists?
I’m afraid I know too much about crime to attach any sort of significance to it beyond the act. Crime is usually done out of weakness, lack of impulse control, strong emotion, or fear. Remove drugs, alcohol, and guns from the equation and you’d see a remarkable drop in crime. As to what goes into creating my antagonist, I want him or her to be entertaining. I’m just not one of those people who see writing the bad guy as a surrogate for things inside me. I went to therapy for that and I take out my aggression on the basketball court.
What do you make of heroes?
I reject the notion of heroes. Just as I believe all humans are capable, given the right motivation and set of circumstances, of the most heinous acts, so too do I believe that all humans are capable of the most heroic acts. I believe in heroic acts, not in heroes.
Given the ongoing abuse of civil rights and due process, is crime fiction reflecting a contemporary suspiciousness of systematic policing?
This is the great motivator behind PI, detective fiction. In many, many cases, it is a single citizen who feels he or she has been ill-served by the system – that justice has been denied them of their loved ones, hence they turn to the PI for justice. This is why I think there will be a resurgence in PI fiction. The PI is the one against the many; the citizen against the state.
Is good crime fiction about the big questions, or what do you make of its confrontation with mystery?
I teach a course at Hofstra University in writing crime fiction, and one of the first things I say is that all fiction is mystery fiction. Let’s start with Hamlet and Macbeth, for instance. Isn’t Moby-Dick a revenge novel? How did Gatsby earn his fortune? Even on a very fundamental level, all fiction asks the big questions: Who am I? How did I get here? Where am I going? What does it mean? These are the big mysteries. But what crime fiction does is supply an accessible route to the big questions. You don’t have to have read Kant or Sartre to read crime fiction, but you can certainly point to mystery fiction that has been informed by them. Mine, for instance.
Is the reinforcement of core values an accident or its appeal?
Making sense of the senseless is the writer’s mission. One of them, anyway. I think people read crime fiction to be entertained. If the by product of that happens to be a reinforcement of core values, great. But if you read someone like my friend Jason Starr or even some of Ken Bruen’s stuff, where’s the reinforcement of core values? In fact, what I love about noir is that it rejects core values… well, other than survival at all costs.
Where does that leave us?
You want the facts, read non-fiction. You want the truth, read fiction.
What does that make your long-term relationship with your characters?
Problematical. At times they are like my children away at college. I love them, but they’re not present. However, when I’m writing about them, it’s like they’re back home and very present. For instance, I rarely think of Moe Prager unless I’m writing a Moe book. When I’m writing a Moe book, he is constantly with me, even in my sleep.
If you had to start all over tomorrow, what would be your last thought before going to bed tonight?
I hope I’m better in the morning.
In that hope, thank you for your candid answers.
Len, it was my pleasure. Too often we’re asked the same silly questions and it is always fun and stimulating to discuss the genre on a deeper level than: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
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