I’ve been on a mystery readers’ and writers’ listserv for about fifteen years and way too often a predictable thread emerges. Somebody complains about being sneered at for reading mysteries by somebody else off-list who thinks they’re silly or trashy or mindless or “escape reading.”
The list starts to bubble over in a sad way: some of the “victims” quickly turn victimizer and start trashing “Literature” or “literary fiction.” What’s that? Well, as defined by a best-selling mystery author at a conference I attended years ago: books where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting. His audience went wild and I was embarrassed him and for the whole crowd.
What generally happens next on the list is that more people chime in with complaints about Proust or just about anyone they think is highfalutin and boring. That expands inexorably to Modern or Contemporary Fiction, however it’s defined, which is usually whatever book that person doesn’t like. Or disliked in high school. Or was told was brilliant but they hated. Or anything dubbed “classic.” And the authors and their fans are of course elitist.
The contempt these mystery readers feel directed at them gets recycled as they express withering disdain for books they don’t like written and read by people they have to denigrate. That’s not an argument, it’s insecurity and maybe even anti-intellectualism.
Sometimes they’ll point to all the crime writers on the bestseller list and sneer that literary novels only sell a few copies and are usually written for the author’s friends. Or they’ll say “Well, every literary novel I’ve read lately was empty and boring.” Or they’ll make outsized claims and say something like Anne Perry is a better writer than George Eliot. I’ve had dinner with Anne Perry and I doubt even she would make that claim.
I’ve reviewed on-line, on-air and in print since the early 90s. There’s plenty of lousy writing in every genre, and I avoid reviewing books that are duds. My feeling is, if you don’t like a certain kind of book, don’t read it. But isn’t it more fun to just read what you love and not waste your time dissing books you don’t like, and the people who do like them?
If you love crime fiction as a reviewer, author, reader or all three, you don’t have to defend your choice to anyone, and you also don’t have to trash a whole other genre–it only makes you sound like a reverse snob or someone with a giant chip on your shoulder.
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