At a reading I gave a couple of weeks ago, one of the questions I fielded from the audience had to do with why I’d chosen to write genre rather than literary fiction. It’s a fairly common question, especially among university educated, literary types. Sometimes there’s a bit of snobbery involved, similar to that a jazz musician might feel when speaking to a pop star, but I didn’t feel it this time. This time it was about genuine curiosity.
Why do I write suspense fiction (ranging from horror to crime) rather than more literary fiction?
The answer is somewhat complicated.
First, suspense fiction is not the only thing I write. It is the only genre I write novels in, but I do write short fiction of a more “literary” nature. I even write some poetry and essays (like this one).
However, most of my time and effort goes into writing fiction in the broad style of suspense fiction. Why? Well, primarily, suspense fiction is the type of novel I prefer to read. I will and do read just about anything (except Harlequin Romances, sorry) but my favorites are in the suspense spectrum, from the horror of Stephen King and Peter Straub to the thrillers of David Baldacci and John Sandford to the noir detective works of Dennis Lehane and Greg Iles.
This is the genre I know the best. I write what I know. I write suspense fiction.
But there is another story that explains how I chose the path I’m currently on. For once I too was a young college student, taking writing and literature classes and trying to write cutting edge, experimental fiction. I read Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. I tried to be symbolic.
Don’t ever try to be symbolic.
Then I read a detective novel by John D. McDonald, one of his Travis McGee novels. One of the characters in this novel (I have no idea which one anymore) was a young woman who painted abstracts. In one scene, she asked the detective what he thought of her work. Instead of an answer, he asked her to do him a favor. What? Take out a pencil, a piece of paper and draw that lamp. She made an effort, but couldn’t do it. He told her that before she attempted to experiment with her art, she needed to have mastered the basics.
That scene struck me and made me think. Before experimenting, one must have first mastered the basics. Well, what are the basics of writing fiction? In short, storytelling. Before I tried to push the edges of my art form, I needed to know and have mastered the basics of storytelling.
I’ve spent the next thirty-five years doing just that, learning the basics of storytelling. That means plot, characterization, dialogue, description, exposition, voice, and everything else it takes to tell a story. Now, I think I’m getting to the point where I can tell a pretty good story.
So am I going to start experimenting with my fiction? Perhaps. And perhaps I already have.