Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Whining in Theory

with 4 comments

I sometimes think it’s a very bad idea to write things before I can actually see in the morning, but I’ve got stuff to do today–annoying, routine, aggravating stuff–and if I don’t start now, I won’t start until tomorrow.


You’re about to find out just how bad I spell before I’ve had the nuclear caffeine tea I drink in the morning.

First, a little aside from the comments as of yesterday.  Sweet, Savage Love is a romance novel written by one of the more singularly peculiar writers of the early Eighties romance boom, Rosemary Rogers.  My first novel was something called Sweet, Savage Death.

Ah, but that was under another name, and in another country.

And besides, the wench is dead.

But back to the fray here.  As some of the comments noted yesterday, I’d no sooner posted yesterday when a response went up at the blog where the original review was that I used as a jumping off point for…okay, this sentence is getting impossible.

You can go here and find the response:

When I finally had a chance to check it myself yesterday afternoon, there were a couple of comments that I found rather interesting, and I’m going to get to one of them in a minute.  But let me start with a quote from the original reviewer’s response, which was this:

“…I expressed my displeasure with the lack of actual detection that went on in what I assumed to be a book about a detective…”

It’s here, I think, I take issue–a detective novel may be a book about a detective, OR it may be a book about the detection itself OR it may be a book about the suspects in a crime.

All three forms of the detective novel have existed since almost the very beginning of the genre, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses as books. 

And to these three approaches we have added, fairly recently, what goes on in a cozy, because a cozy is essentially a book about the community in which the detective is embedded–which is what, I think, the original review thought I was doing with Gregor Demarkian.

But my point here is that all these things have existed in the genre since the beginning, and that they all have writers and readers devoted to them. 

The question becomes:  what does the writer have a right to expect from the reader in terms of reading skill, attentitiveness, general knowledge and knowledge of the form?

It’s not all that academic a question.  I’m in the middle of reading a book of  Vladimir Nabakov’s essays on Russian literature, and that’s where he starts–what can a writer expect from his readers, what DOES a writer expect from his readers?  And, oddly enough, the first essay, on Gogol–a writer whose work I do not enjoy, but whose life as a first class loon is pretty entertaining–is also about a writer struggling to come to terms with what he can and should expect from his readers.

In case you haven’t noticed already on this blog, I’m a little ambivalent about all of this.  On the subject of general reading skill, I’ve come to the realization that I simply cannot dumb down what I do enough to sink to the level some readers demand.  If you can’t understand third person multiple viewpoint, you’re just not going to like what I do.  Or find it comprehensible.

But that is not this reviewer’s problem, and I’m not really sure he has a problem.  He was apparently unaware that there was this third kind of detective novel, but in knowledge of the genre overall he’s still light years better than some of the people who write reviews for the prestige print media, who sometimes seem never to have read a mystery since about, oh, Raymond Chandler.

And then not to have read  Chandler, but only to have watched the movies.

That said, I tend to like to read books where a lot is required of me.  I used to think it was a difference between likeing “serious” books instead of “light” ones, but it isn’t.  I love lots of Terry Pratchett and a fair amount of Carl Hiassen.  I don’t like most cozies, but it’s not because they’re funny but because they’re lightWEIGHT–simplistic writing styles, even more simplistic characterizations, absolutely no problem even to people who think Pearl Harbor started the Vietnam War.

Okay, I’m sorry.  I still can’t get over that one. 

I know from experience that there are a lot of readers out there who think of books literally the way they think of television, as throwaway entertainment that they expect to be able to plow their way through without effort.  They don’t want to learn anything and they don’t want to be forced to think and they really don’t want to be made to feel “stupid” because they don’t know something the writer should have told them about in the first place.

You know.  Like the fact that Pearl Harbor didn’t…


On the other hand, there are writers who seem to think readers have nothing to do but to worship at their altars.  James Joyce, my old college English professor said, said it had taken a lifetime for him to write Finnegan’s Wake and it should take you a lifetime to read it–so, you know, if that’s how you want to spend your life.

Certainly there is no virtue in obscurity for obscurity’s sake, and even less in erudition for erudition’s sake.  Throwing in random references just to show that you can does nobody any good, and it makes a writer look more like an idiot than otherwise.

At the same time, I find I feel it really, really objectionable that I should keep some kind of tracking device on the things I do know so that I can anticipate when readers will not know them. 

I don’t even think that’s possible.  Most of what we know seems natural to us to know.  It also seems natural to us that other people will know it, too.  I really do expect people to know that Pearl Harbor brought the US into the Second World War and had nothing to do with Vietnam, and I can’t–and won’t–clutter up my prose with explanations to that effect for people who don’t see any reason to know anything about history.

When we get to knowledge of the genre, though, things get muddier.

I have, by this point in my life, read hundreds, if not thousands of detective novels, thrillers, romantic suspense and psychological suspense.  I’ve written in a lot of these subgenres, too, and in first person and third, and about the detective and about the suspects. 

I started writing detective fiction before my age hit double digits, knowing nothing about the field but what I found in Nancy Drew.  When I published my first novel, my knowledge of the field was wider but nowhere near comprehensive. 

And I’d been publishing for a few years before I found P.D. James and the subgenre of detective novel I now write and would now read exclusively except…you know…it’s helpful to keep up with the competition, and polite to read what your friends write.

If mystery readers trying to be mystery writers–and even a lot of mystery writers–don’t know this stuff, I’m not sure I can legitimately expect readers to know it. 

And yet, it remains the case that if you’re reading Ulysses on the assumption that it’s a guide book to Dublin you’re going to have a hard time understanding why the writer is doing what he’s doing.

If you’re waiting for me to come to some kind of conclusion here, it’s not going to happen.  I don’t have one.  I think it’s legitimate to ask what a writer has the right to expect from her readers.

I also think that Nabakov has a point–readers are part of the writing process.  The better a writer’s readers, the better the writer, in the long run. 

But in the end, we’re all going to just do what we do anyway.

That said, a couple of things:

First, I was not particularly upset about that review, except on one point:  Small town values?  Hometown values?  REALLY?  I’d rather drink hemlock. 

Aristotle, yes.  But death before Sarah Palin.

Second, I didn’t get around to it in this post, but I will in the next one: one of the comments over on the other blog asked why I’d writer a MYSTERY if I wasn’t interested in the detection, and insisted that plot was absolutely necessary–and referencing, interestingly enough, the work of Ruth Rendell.

So…why somebody interested in what I’m interested in would write mysteries, and why the plot is not essential (although story is) next time.

I’m going to go finish this tea and listen to Charlie Parker.

It’s that kind of day.

Written by janeh

May 27th, 2010 at 7:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Whining in Theory'

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  1. I find it amusing that both the original review of Cheating at Solitaire and the linked review of Quoth the Raven both complain about there being “too many words” taken to accomplish what their perception of your purpose is. Doesn’t seem to occur that their perception might be flawed.

    And I note the original blogger is waiting for you to moderate a comment he left here. Be interested to see what that is.

    I never saw the Demarkian books as particularly plotless. It’s just that to me, the plot is longer than one book. The plot is Gregor and Bennis, and what happens with Cavanaugh St. The incidents of a single book are the messy kind of thing that happens in real life when you’re trying to get to the good stuff. Each book, in the singular story it tells of murder and detection, explores the lives and motives of people like (or unlike, that’s fun too) those we each may encounter, and whatever social issues the events of the book may touch on.

    Maybe I have that entirely backwards, I don’t know. If so, I have my own life entirely backwards. To me, plot is getting married, having kids, fulfilling dreams, doing good, dying well. Why the guy next door committed suicide is an incident.

    The fact that the critic didn’t recognize your real loathing for small town values, which does indeed come through in your writing, and isn’t just obvious to those of us who hang around here, should be a clue as to the rigor of his analysis. Wow. That’s a nasty sentence. Now I’m doing it.

    And I don’t even do caffeine.


    27 May 10 at 12:22 pm

  2. Hi Jane

    You’ll have to read down a way to Comment #9, but my reply is here on my blog:


    Best regards



    27 May 10 at 1:53 pm

  3. I typed that??! My apologies. I even had my copy in front of me, but I was mildly medicated at the time.

    As for the problem of background knowledge, you’re right. There is no fact so basic–so well known–that some reader won’t be ignorant of it, and by the time you’ve explained it to that reader, everyone else is dying of boredom. At the other extreme I give no bonus points for being deliberately obscure. You write for a reader with an assumed level of general knowledge. It is, I think, worthwhile to keep in mind that in some area or another one has specialist knowledge, and “unpack” a bit in that area.

    Concerning mystery types: yes, certainly the detective, the detection, the suspects or the community, but I would hesitate to say writing about a community makes a cozy, because I’d wind up making Dashiel Hammett’s RED HARVEST a cozy, together with much of John D. McDonald. I’d also like to avoid perjorative definitions. (“It can’t be a cozy because it isn’t written for ignoramuses.”) Doing this the classical way–What books are called cozies, and what traits do they share?–I’d say the defining trait is an emotional detachment from the crime. Nick and Nora Charles or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford may solve a crime because they’re intrigued by it and enjoy the work. If the opposite of a cozy is a hard-boiled–well, anyone who enjoyed being involved in a hard-boiled would be crazy, and shown as such. Amateurs do hard-boiled detection only out of desperation. It’s a spectrum, of course.

    And in that sense, Gregor and Bennis are about on the cozy 30 yard line. Gregor doesn’t solve cases because he needs money. He isn’t even getting paid. He isn’t seeking out injustices to right. He’s solving mysteries because otherwise he’d go nuts in retirement. That’s not so very far from Lord Peter Wimsey. So perhaps it’s possible to write a cozy with long sentences and decent vocabulary which makes some demands on its readership?


    27 May 10 at 2:36 pm

  4. One of the things that startles me every time I open a newspaper is the lengths some journalists go to “explain” what auld phartz like me absorbed in our primary school years when General Knowledge was a serious if not exactly formal subject on the school curriculum. I can still beat my 40-something sons and their friends at non-dumbed down versions of Trivial Pursuit. So I can sympathise with Jane and other writers of her vintage if the assumptions she makes about her readers background “general knowledge” turn out to be overly optimistic.

    I agree with Lymaree that each book in the Demarkian series moves the story of Gregor and Bennis and the Cavanaugh Street people forward, and that the actual “mystery” plot, and the social commentary where it occurs, often seems to be incidental to that – just as the average cops’ day-to-day work is incidental to their “real” life outside working hours.

    For me, it’s a feature not a bug in and why I look forward to every new book in the series.

    And now I’ll go and rage at the news that Australian and New Zealand doctors are “considering” undertaking FGM.


    Jesus wept!


    27 May 10 at 7:34 pm

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