This is a topic I have been thinking about for a while.

I have been building my collection of Hard Case Crime novels and reading about some of these pulp and post pulp era authors and the struggles they faced in their careers. Some produced significant numbers of books under various pen names and often for small returns on each book.

But they were writers and writing was how they made a living. We all know names like Laurence Block and Ed McBain but few of us couldn’t even imagine trying to locate every books they ever produced, let alone read all of them.

It seems to me that a significant number of authors these days have a different attitude. It seems they feel they are artists. They produce a book and it is a great and wondrous thing, like a work of art. It must be appreciated and they expend a great deal of effort promoting and discussing it.

I recall an author I spoke to some time ago when they were promoting their book. I asked the standard questions: Tell me about the current book in the series, what are the plans for the next and what projects do you have in the works. They had a short story I found interesting and I asked them if they ever considered turning it into a novel. They told me their publisher wasn’t interested so there was no point. So I suggested they see if they could get another publisher and get it published. It would expose them to a different audience and might even be fun. Well, they looked at me like I just said their mother was a hooker. They told me they had a publisher and they were required to produce one book a year. That was all the writing they needed to do.

I have also heard of authors who said that if they didn’t have a publishing deal, they wouldn’t write anymore.

When I see that, it makes me wonder if they even like writing.

There is that old saying: “A writer writes.” It seems in the age of self-promotion and self-marketing, we have lost sight of that simple axiom. Often I hear people say “if I don’t focus on marketing instead of writing, I’ll lose my deal.” Well, I say back that no one buys books because they think the author is a great promoter but because they think the author is a good writer.

If you can write well, you can find another publisher. Maybe it won't be the biggest and best in New York but the book is out there.

I am reminded of “American Skin” by the multi-talented Ken Bruen. This book was published by a small press to rave reviews. But he was not contracted to write it and yet he did. Why? Because Ken is a writer. He is writes everyday because it’s his job and he takes it seriously.

I also think of James Sallis. I am willing to bet a number of people will say who? James is a prolific talented writer who has a wide portfolio. He is another example of that drive that a serious writer has.

I think it is sad that so many authors just want the big deal so they can slap together a book in a few months and they kick back the rest of the time pretending they’re minor celebrities.

When an author treats writing like a something you do so you don’t need a job, how much real success can you have? I have heard of a few six-figure advance guys who, a few years later, have dropped off the face of the earth. Successful writers who have longevity in the business work hard writing.

It is never about holding up your book in one hand and patting yourself on the back with the other.

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I don't think genre fiction is low quality at all. Plenty of it is extremely high quality, and FAR higher than a lot of so-called 'literary fiction' I've read. I really dislike the whole idea of crime fiction (or any genre fiction) being seen as the thuggish little brother of literary fiction. It seems that unless books are picked up by the establishment and lauded as 'literary' then they are unworthy, and I hate that snobbish attitude. There's a lot of literary fiction I like, but I find a lot of it cold, charmless and heartless.

I dislike the sneering way that some exponents of literary fiction look down on genre fiction. What is there about it that makes it so superior? Let's see...would I rather read a book that engages my mind, my emotions, takes me into another world, makes me laugh and makes me cry, written by someone who wants to tell a good story, with engaging characters and excellent writing; or do I want to read a book full of angst and no bloody plot, written by someone who looks down on their readers? Hmmmm, difficult, that one. I still have nightmares about being made to read a book at university in which nothing happened except every 8 pages or so a caterpillar crawled up a wall. By the fifth appearance of the caterpillar I wanted to bash its little head in with the most convenient Nancy Drew book in my collection. All that bloody navel gazing. If I want to gaze at anyone's navel I have one of my own. OK, it's not pretty, but it's mine dammit, and it's an honest navel. I don't need to spend £10 on a book just to be bored by someone else's. And, furthermore, be made to feel that the writing's dishonest, which I often do with 'literary' fiction. They seem to be written more with one eye on a literary prize and no heart or feeling in the words.

I'm not anti-literature, or anti-literary - I happen to think that a lot of the crime fiction I read IS literary. And I love Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Balzac.....etc. I just hate pretentious, emotionless fiction of ANY genre and I get my buttons pressed by anything that seems to be sneering at genre fiction when a fair few of the much lauded 'transcending the genre' (grrrrr) books suck (literary term there) because they have no heart and soul.

I can enjoy a book without caring whether it's a literary masterpiece or a piece of genre 'trash'. I can pick up a book with pure unadulterated joy, and come at it without any preconceptions. I like books which are well written, have characters I can care about (not necessarily like but care what happens to them) and which engage me and, yes - shock, horror - entertain me. I couldn't give a stuff about what happens to Paul Morrell in Sons and Lovers, but I do care about what happens to The Grinch who stole Christmas.

Often, literary fiction just feels like posing and posturing. The author gets in the way of the words as though he's sitting on my shoulder pointing to the page as I read "Look at that turn of phrase, isn't that divine?"

There's a Raymond Chandler quote which fits here:

"I think that certain writers are under a compulsion to write in recherche phrases as a compensation for a lack of some kind of natural animal emotion. They feel nothing, they are literary eunuchs, and therefore they fall back on an oblique terminology to prove their distinction."

You said it Ray :o) Style over substance lacks something for me.

Read Daniel Woodrell, Ken Bruen, Kevin Wignall, Joe Lansdale, George Pelecanos, James Sallis, Eddie Muller, Laura Lippman, David Corbett, Reed Farrel Coleman...I could name many more writers in the same vein...and then tell me they are writing 'low quality' books. Those are the writers I am in awe of, the writers whose books I read and then close with a "Wow - I wish I could write something like that", the writers whose books stay with me for weeks, months, years after I have read them. I've tried Booker prize winners and nominees that have bored me to tears within a couple of paragraphs. Where would be the enjoyment in picking up a book by A Literary Writer and feeling that I had to gush about it? A lot of literary fiction is good, just as a lot of crime fiction is good. But just because it's literary, doesn't make it great. Sometimes, the emperor just isn't wearing any new clothes.

I shall now step, very carefully, off my soapbox.
I'm with you on this, Donna. I just think so much literary fiction is so stylized and self-conscious that it calls attention to the writer and not the story. I just can't get into it.
>There is the same kind of snobbery with genre writers as with literary writers. Literary fiction is boring >and feeling like posturing, it's too self-important. It's the general disregard for literary fiction. Both >sides have their snobby preconceived notions and ideals.

I agree - which is why I made sure that I stressed that there is good and bad in both literary fiction AND genre fiction. However, for me, 20,000 atfully constructed 'smooth sentences' does not necessarily a good book make. I don't read a book to marvel over the sentence structure or the elegant turn of phrase; I read a book to lose myself in the characters' world and to be entertained by the plot. The writing is a big part of that, and I love great writing. But pretty sentences are nothing if the characters make me say "Oh, who cares?"

I agree, this is a side issue and not what Kev was talking about, so I shall shut up now :o) But John, do read, for example, Daniel Woodrell's WINTER'S BONE and see how great crime fiction can be.
I was hoping this would spur some lively discussion!

The confusion I think is that unpublished and new-published author look at writing as something you do when you’re NOT working. There is the day job that you do so you can afford to write. But I believe that if you want to earn enough to live on, then writing cannot be something that you do only when you feel like it. I remember something that Charles Ardai (Editor for Hard Case Crime and writes under the alias “Richard Aleas”) said about his writing. He has to get up very early so he can try to get 1000 words out. He also wrote a book in 60 days. He is also an Edgar nominated writer.

The expression “Writers write” is about the idea that a writer is a writer first. Anyone with enough time and resources can write one good book. The hard part is to write ten good books.

When you love what you do, it is fun and won’t feel like work all the time. But if it is a hobby, something to tell the co-workers you did last night instead of watching American Idol so you can sound interesting, then that’s a different animal in itself.

When people put the mantle of author on themselves but are unwilling to work for it, then it is hobby. If you love being an author, then why would you want it to only be a hobby?


I completely agree with Donna and Charles. Too often literary fiction is wrapped up in this pretentious veil of self-importance. But to infer genre fiction is more sales oriented than literary. The primary difference is that literary fiction is aimed more as coffee table books. Something to show the neighbors about how sophisticated you are. We have an award in Canada called the Giller, which is given to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection. But genre fiction need not apply. It is very heavily promoted and sales of the shortlist spike during that time. But are these books read or just featured prominently on the shelf?
I think some of the best crime novels are also pretty good literary novels. For instance, there is Crime and Punishment or the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky or Bleak House by Dickens, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. I don't think the folks on the literary side of the fence have anything that compares to these.

I do see what you mean about a lot of the writing that is out there, but I don't think it is confined to genre writing. I think literary writers may put more care into their sentences, but sometimes that's all they have. In the end, I think a wirter has to create characters people care about. Failing that, there's no point. Read a lot of Henry James for college, but never found a single character I cared about (that is probably my fault, still...) so his wonderful sentences do me no good. Sara Gran's novel, DOPE, nearly broke my heart.

If you're looking for great stylists among the murder crowd, I'd point you to Megan Abbott and Manuel Ramos for a start.
Okay, but then, we must also be careful about how we're making this comparison because I'll readily admit I know nothing about lit-fic of the past 100 years, so are we talking about classic lit-fic that has stood the test of centuries and which has therefore had a good season of weeding? Or are we talking about everything that publishers put out today and call literary (often because they can't think what else to call it or because the writer has an MFA)? About ten years ago I went through a phase of buying and reading literary journals like Tri-Quarerly and bunch of MFA driven reviews. A great deal of it was dreck. Even the BEST AMERICAN anthos don't have uniformly good stories. Out of those BEST OF anthos (PUSHCART, O. HENRY et al) how many stories will be remembered a year or two later?

True, however, that there will be troubles in finding great writing in the genre field as well. No intention here to sling mud at anyone by the way. I'd just say there's good and bad writing in all areas and good and bad writing gets published. I'm not so keen on the highly polished sentences - I'll forgive a lot if the characters are interesting and I get something from the plot. However, for me as a reader, if all you've got is beautiful language, it had better knock my socks off.
You mean the James Patterson experience. I don't think that it is good or bad, but I think it is prety lazy on his part.
He was a marketer first. And last.
Evil K, I'm guessing this is just semantics or me misunderstanding what you're saying. But the people who write what they want to write, whether or not there's a contract for it, are artists in the true sense of the word (and yes, they are also writers). Like Picasso or Vermeer, they may occasionally create on commission or with an eye on the market, but they're essentially exploring their own creative process and will do so whether or not the world recognizes them.

The person you describe who writes only to meet his contract obligations, or who treats it purely as a business is perhaps the equivalent of a commercial artist. Nothing wrong with that, but sure, it's different.

The other thing is, as with all the arts, I don't think people can be pigeonholed as easily as you suggest here. After all, many of the authors from the past who are now considered artists were ultra-commercial at the time, from the oft-cited Shakespeare and Dickens to Graham Greene and Hemingway, which suggests they had a foot in both camps, as perhaps we all do to some extent.

But I'll say this, I'd rather write because that's what I am than because that's what I do.
Like the good Mr. Wignall, I think I might be misunderstanding, but that, of course, won't stop me from answering...

One thing I think isn't quite highlighted enough here is that the professional writer (ie, one with a contract to fulfill) is often under constraints that other writers don't have. Case in point, I'm currently 65k words into a novel that needs to be 75k by Monday (which is why I'm posting all over the web today...). That's part of the writing life for me - deadlines (or making excuses...). Another part is showing my work to editors and an agent who may (probably will) make suggestions for changes. Another part (since I write short stories on spec) is scouring the internet looking for homes for my stories. Then I have to mail stories out and, later, open rejection letters. Six months after a story appears I may still be waiting for payment which can be (usually is) as low as a contributor copy.

Put another way, since I usually write AFTER my wife goes to sleep (up till 3:30am last night), I resolved this past week that I would get at least six hours of sleep per night. It has been, literally, about five years since I got a week of nights in a row with six or more hours. I've done three nights in a row now.

The way I understand your post is that I should be willing to do all of this even if no publication were in the offing. In fact, I should love this. I submit the following: if Ed McBain didn't have access to publication, we would not have found the 87th Precinct series clogging up his desk drawers when he died. He wrote for cash. Shakespeare wrote for cash too.

Writing is not, I think, merely putting words together to express myself. As I tell my students, good writing is about communicating with an audience. Without access to that audience...

Imagine this- what if I told you that every time you hit the send button, your computer was going to freeze up and your email or post was going to be deleted. Would you bother?

It turns out one of the confusing things of the post was saying that Sallis and Bruen write because it's their job to do so, but then pointing out that Bruen wrote a novel without a contract - that is, not because it was his job but because he felt like it. Both authors are great and both are very prolific (good news for readers). But would they have been as prolific if they were guaranteed not to be published? Would they have written all that they have if no one ever gave them the encouragement of a contract?

A last detail (because really, I'm getting only more confused...) my contract with St. Martins Press expressly forbids me producing works with another publisher that competes with my series (ie, I can sell sci-fi, but not another police procedural). The way around that for me is to send stories to my SMP editor to reject first. This might just be my contract, but I do have to be careful what I submit elsewhere.
I realised after I sent my rant that I didn't actually answer the question - but that's because I couldn't..Like Kevin and Steven I am a bit confused. I think it's probably a bit of both - that whether you have a contract or not you can still be a writer, you can still be an artist. But writers write to be read, ultimately. There's nothing wrong with commercial success, and I wish more of my favourite writers were blessed with it.
I kind of feel sorry for your students, though, if you're telling them that writing is NOT something. Or IS something. That should be left for them to decide.

Most students in a college composition classroom would decide that writing is something they prefer not to do. That would be fine by me - less to grade - but the taxpayers who pay my salary might disapprove.

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