Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Storytelling vs. "literature"

J. A. Jance is coming to Fort Worth! Former Star-Telegram book editor Jeff Guinn who's hosting the visit says I may even get to meet her. Since she's my all-time favorite mystery writer, I'm excited--and I decided to check out her web page. She has pages for each of her series--the Joanna Brady books, the J. P. Beaumont books, the new Ali Reynolds series, and the three that don't fit--on that page, I found an interesting statement. Mysteries, she says, work as stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the end, the bad guy has to be caught and/or punished. If that doesn't happen, "we're dealing with literature, and that's another kettle of fish entirely." Mysteries, she says, are puzzles in which the reader doesn't know the killer's identity until the end; thrillers, in which the reader knows the identity but doesn't know how much evil he or she can do before being caught, are examinations of good and evil. Her definitions or distinctions make perfect sense to me and reinforce what I've known for years--as an author and a dedicated reader of mysteries, I want to write a mystery, not a thriller. But it's almost like I have writer's block about it.
The distinction between mysteries and literature struck home with me. I have long said there's a difference between storytelling and "belles lettres" and I prefer the former. I'm a storyteller--I want a beginning, a middle, and an end, not a "slice of life" that leaves me contemplating my navel. In an academic environment, I doubt my writing is much respected by those who run creative writing programs. As director of an academic press, I face this difference all the time in a different way. We can't, and shouldn't, publish genre fiction (which is essentially what many of my books are)--no mysteries, thrillers, romances, or westerns. But we do publish regional literature--and I want the work that comes from "my" press to tell stories, tell the history, involve people. I value literature that captures the feel of the region, the importance in Texas of the landscape and the culture in shaping people's lives. And it simply doesn't have to be enigmatic, in fact shouldn't be.
So why can't I write a mystery? Maybe it's because, as one of my sons suggested, I'm so poor (he used an unrepeatable adjective) at thinking up my own plots that I should write novels about historical incidents and people, which is, of course, exactly what I've done for most of my career. Am I too old to branch out and use my own imagination? I hope not.

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