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So this is the first Monday in months where I don’t have to jump up and go running off to something, which is nice in a way, but disorienting in others.

Due to all that craziness last year, I’m in the middle of finishing a book–the book for next year–at a time when I wouldn’t usually be writing fiction, and that’s disorienting, too. 

And the book itself is disorienting. 

This is, I think, the closest I’ve ever come to writing the kind of golden-age dectective novel that got me interested in writing mysteries to begin with.  For better or worse–and my guess is that my people at SMP, or some of them, would say for worse–I am not a fan of the “modern” “crime novel.” 

Really, I’m not a fan of the modern crime anything.  I fall asleep during episodes of Law and Order and CSI, in any of their incarnations. 

I like Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot, and their lesser or later incarnations.  I prefer Dalgleish to Jack Ryan.  Any Jack Ryan.  Chandler drives me up the wall, but I can read Hammett and James M. Cain–someday I’m going to have to post my explanation for why the feminist critique of Mildred Pierce (the movie) is entirely wrong.

But I like old detective movies, too.  I like Nick and Nora Charles even if the scale of their drinking makes me wince.   I like Charlie Chan–and no, I don’t think  those movies are racist, although the casting was more than a little odd. 

I used to think this was okay, because even if modern writers didn’t like writing this kind of thing, modern readers must like reading it, since a lot of it is still out there on the racks, not only selling, but being published by large scale conglomerates.

Then I talked to a friend on the business end of the business, and he calmly explained to me that the reason the majors still publish most of those books is because there are long-standing contracts and other legal things going on that require it, whether they want to or not.

For instance, in order to publish the Chrities books that do sell (And Then There Were None, for instance), they are required by their contract to keep everything else in print.

And the Christie books that do sell well enough for major publishing houses to be interested in them do so only because they are now Course Adoption Texts (CATs) and having a “Literature of the Detective Novel” course in your English Department is these days considered very cool.

I doubt if any of these books would go out of print entirely.  There are small publishing houses more than willing to put them out, although print runs in small houses tend to run to hundreds, not thousands, of copies.  And if those houses don’t have distribution deals with the majors, the chances are they’re not getting much, if anything, into the big chain bookstores.

But, you know, I wouldn’t worry about this, either, if it wasn’t for another and very disconcerting aspect of present-day mystery writing.  I mean, let’s face it, EVERYTHING I like appears to be a minority taste.  I like harpsichords better than pianos, chamber music better than symphonies, and just about anything better than hip hop.  I’m out there on the cultural ledge most of the time.

But, as Robert reminded me in an e-mail a couple of days ago–and as I keep forgetting, the way people forget traumas, because it hurts to much to bring them to mind–we now have the Multiplex Phenomenon in book publishing–writers who “write” not one, but five or six or ten books a year.

Except, of course, they don’t.  Nobody could write that many books in that short a period of time.  What they do is to lend their names to books other people write.  Those other people are largely paid work-for-hire (you write, you get paid, you have no right to royalties or any other money) and anonymously, or largely anonymously.

This is not an unheard of thing in genre writing–several of the old-line Harlequin Romance writers did the same, and the practice is still the most common in Romance writing.

But it’s fairly new to mystery, as far as I know.  And it leaves me wondering exactly what is going on here.

For me, writers are largely their narrative voices–there are narrative voices that I like, those that I hate, and those that just don’t get in the way. 

After that, they are largely a sensibility–a person, very individual, I find it interesting to spend time with.

I’ve said before that story doesn’t count very much for me in what I read in fiction, and it doesn’t.  Too much story–too much plot, actually, there’s a difference–seems to me to get in the way of what I really want when I read, which is to live in a different place with different people for a while.

And by different people, I don’t mean people unlike anybody I know. 

But here’s the thing–even if your main consideration is plot, can it really be the case that these books, supposedly “written by” people they could not have been written by–actually give you that?

Even plots are, to an extent, a function of sensibility.  Agatha Christie wrote different plots than Dorothy L. Sayers, even though they were both writing in a very narrow corner of a subgenre.

I can’t quite get my mind around how this sort of thing is supposed to work.   It seems to me that either one of two things must be going on.

First possibility–the outlines for these novels are strictly and intensely formulaic.  So formulaic that they dictate not only sequential action, but character traits in main characters and side characters and even phrases and figures of speech.

And if you think no writer would write like that or no publisher would demand it, you’ve enver seen the old category romance “tip sheets” of the Eighties, which would demand that not only must the first kiss appear on page 25, but would then spend a page and a half explaining that descriptions should be “concrete and attractive.”  “Her skin was as soft and perfect as the petal of a white rose” was okay.  “Her skin had the luster of Norwegian wood” was not.

And I’m not making that one up.

The second possibility is that the readers of these books are reading them in a sense I never understood anything could be read.

That is, they don’t hear narrative voice, they don’t care about authorial sensibility, they read the way they watch television–by processing details through their heads for the moment, just to forget about most of them as soon as they put the book down.


I know I sound insulting.  I don’t know if there’s any way to describe what I’m talking about without sounding insulting.  This is not anything I’m used to thinking of as “reading.”  There’s no engagement there. 

And I may be misunderstanding it.  It’s like looking into a thought process from Jupiter for me, so  I may have it all wrong.

I have, of course, run across people on Internet discussion groups who declare that if a book makes them try to figure something out or learn something at all, they just put it down–they read for entertainment, they don’t want to do any work. 

I’ve always thought of those people as a tiny minority of people who buy books.

But the business of cloning yourself and putting out gazillions of volumes yearly seems to be a very profitable one.  And that means that there is a significant population of “readers” out there who find that kind of thing satisfying.

It makes me look at this thing I’m writing and wonder what I’m doing–never mind the Other Thing, the start of a Possible New Series, what with its Little Old Lady (okay, more Bertha Cool than Miss Marple) and all the rest of it.

I understand narrative voice.  I understand authorial sensibility.

But maybe, in the end, I don’t understand why people read.

Written by janeh

May 3rd, 2010 at 7:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Bookish'

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  1. I think you’re right – there are people who read in the same way they watch TV, and the next book in the series has to be, for them, just as accessible and easy as the last, or they won’t keep buying the books. I find those books to be uninteresting and not worth reading, mostly – but I’m looking for good writing, and a sense of what you call the author’s narrative voice. To me, the story is secondary. In fact, you may remember years ago someone on RAM had a hissy fit because someone posted some detail about how a book ended – one of Karin’s, if I recall correctly – and the person having the hissy fit actually refused to read the book because the spoiler was posted.

    Or at least said so.

    All I could think was, really? The only reason you’re reading those books is to find out the ending? I can’t comprehend it.


    3 May 10 at 10:12 am

  2. “One result of selling an author instead of the book is the book factory: three, four, six or more books a year from James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Danielle, Steel, Clive Cussler, Stuart Woods, and so on. There is no possibility that one writer can write every word of these books. Danielle Steel will publish 6 books at least by the end of the year and I lost count after 10 for James Patterson.” (my comment from
    Brand Name Kvetch a few days ago.)
    There are many more book factory writers than I listed above. And their audience reads them for familiarity, for speedy plot, and entertainment, of sorts. Quantity, not quality. More, more and more. Doesn’t matter if it’s the same thing with a different title and characters. Rather like going to one of those all you can eat restaurants where customers keep going back. Not to learn anything, or enjoy the writer’s sensibility, wonderful prose, voice, good dialogue, interesting characters. Just to zip through and bring back to the library. I have no idea how many of these books are purchased. If the print run is any indication, then an astounding number. As librarian in a small town, I have to meet public demand and buy a copy of books by the above authors and others like them. That’s not all I buy. I include Doctorow, Anne Tyler, Thomas Pynchon (although I personally can’t stand him), Roth, Updike when he was still around, John Banville, Ian McEwan, in our collection. It has to meet all reading tastes since taxpayers fund it. I read all sorts of mysteries, crime novels, suspense novels (not the romantic ones), historical mysteries, any sort of fiction (not sci-fi) with a dead body. But my requirements–good prose, interesting characters, good dialogue, humor, plot that makes sense within the covers of the book have to be met. People read for numerous reasons and entertainment means something different to each of them.


    3 May 10 at 1:18 pm

  3. Oh, dear–such an abundance of topics. Multiple books per year first: Before I said such a thing was unprecedented, I’d talk to Agatha Christie AND Mary Westmacott, John Dickson Carr AND Carter Dickson, Earl Stanley Gardner AND AA Fair, not to mention John Creasy and his hosts–all from the Golden Age, too. It might be more accurate to say that outside of a certain level of romance, it was long accepted that one book per year per series was all the public could be trusted to accept. Georgette Heyer might publish both a regency and a mystery in a year, and Christie both a Poirot and a Marple, but they would not normally two regencies or two Marples. Sometimes the series are quite different, and sometimes not. John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson are much of a muchness, but Mary Wetmacott is NOT Agatha Christie in a literary sense.

    “JD Robb” is currently challenging this with two “in Death” books a year, and since she’s been doing it since 1995 the results must be satisfactory to herself and her publisher. I might prefer a bit better quality control myself, but it’s possible that her sales wouldn’t go up enough to make it pay off. And it’s possible she’s writing as well as she can already. The other names mentioned I can’t comment on.

    As for how many books an author can write in a year, darned if I know: 30wpm X 480 minutes in an eight hour day X 250 work days a year provides 3,600,000 words or 12,000 pages of 300 words–and without forfeiting weekends or holidays, or working overtime. Naming no names, I think I may have read some things written on such a program. Personally, I’ll hold an author accountable for what’s published under his name.

    As for multiple authors and sensibility, I go two ways. Many authors seem literally inimitable. I’ve read efforts to complete SANDITON and THE WATSONS, the notorious efforts to complete certain Robert E. Howard stories and others. I used to think the problem was that talented authors wouldn’t take the work. I pretty well gave up when Robert Parker couldn’t complete a Raymond Chandler fragment. If Parker–a hard-boiled PI writer himself who had written his thesis on Chandler–turned out a novel more Spenser than Marlow, it probably can’t be done.

    But there is a category of novel–in fact, several–in which multiple authorships are accepted without comment or quibble. Think house names, and think Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift. Or think Doc Savage and The Shadow. Think pretty much every TV series you ever watched, for that matter, though using the same cast and sets probably takes a bit of the edge off. The last of this sort of book seem to be two Western series and the “Executioner” series. They used to be Executioner # Whatever by Don Pendleton, but after a climax in #100 they shifted to being “Don Pendleton’s The Executioner # Whatever” and his name went off the copyright page. I’ve read only Tom Swift and Doc Savage in serious numbers in my youth, and I’d say you nailed the requirements–familiar characters, minimal style and setting, and if not the same plot, a plot drawn from a limited range. Of course, this might be what is to be expected if you have the same cast of regular characters and nothing permanent can happen to any of them. I think when you say “read as one might watch television” that’s a pretty accurate description.

    The longevity of classics another time.


    3 May 10 at 6:08 pm

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