I happen to hate Dan Brown’s books and like Stieg Larsson’s (Ibought all three of the girl who kicked butt and loved Salander, Blomqvist not so much). But here’s a novellist who says that all these books are amateurish and poorly written.
Now, I agree that Larsson’s books could have used an editor, but since he died, that wasn’t possible. Brown, on the other hand, is simply bad.
Edward Docx, however, makes a number of categorical statements in The Observer about genre novels vs. literary fiction using these books as examples. He implies that literary fiction is harder to write than thrillers, because, well, mystery readers are kind of simple.
“…genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology. If you have a body on the first page, then you raise a question: who killed it and how did it get there? And curiosity will power readers a surprisingly long way. As will, say, a treasure hunt (Brown) or injustice (Grisham) or the locked room mystery format (Larsson). None of this is to say that writing good thrillers is easy. It is still incredibly difficult. But it is easier.
“These are the reasons, too, why a bad thriller or detective novel or murder mystery will feel so much better than a bad literary novel – why it might even thrive. Even in a bad genre book, you’ve still got the curiosity and the reassuring knowledge that the writer will eventually deliver against the conventions. Bad literary fiction, on the other hand, is mostly without such fallback positions and is therefore a whole lot worse.”
(A mystery and a thriller are not, by the way, interchangeable, although Docx often uses the terms as if they are. You can have a mystery novel that isn’t a thriller.) Now, I’m not going to suggest that literary fiction is easier or harder to write than a good mystery or a thriller, for that matter. I think it’s hard to write well, period.
But frankly, a bad book is a bad book whatever genre it is. I don’t feel any better throwing out a bad mystery novel than I do tossing literary fiction that bored me. I’m annoyed I wasted money on either of them.
But I completely disagree that reader psychology is somehow simpler in thrillers. Or that the mystery genre constrains subject matter. There are conventions, sure. But they’re not written in stone. And the best of the genre flout them entirely.
The mystery genre hasn’t constrained me at all. I’ve used The Beggar’s Opera to target corruption, US-Cuban relations, gender issues, poverty, sex tourism and human rights. In The King’s Indian, I go after church as well as state.
I also don’t think that readers ‘curiosity’ alone will keep them reading a bad book. It’s about the writing. If the writing is good, if the characters in a novel are interesting and if the reader is drawn into the story, the reader will read on to find out what happened. If they aren’t, and s/he isn’t, s/he won’t.
I have hundreds (okay, thousands) of books. And I’ve thrown out hundreds more. The ones that didn’t survive the toss couldn’t keep me engaged long enough for me to care. Dan Brown’s was one of the ones that went to recycling. I don’t actually think I ever finished reading it. Stieg Larsson’s third book bored me, too. And John Grisham’s stories have always been better for me on the screen, or in French, which makes them more of a challenge to read and therefore somewhat more interesting.
Character, tension, dialogue: I don’t see much difference between good books, whatever the genre. Good literary fiction has to draw you in just like a good mystery. The one thing I have sometimes found missing in literary fiction, however, has been plot.
You can read Edward Docx’s critique in The Observer here:
Let me know what you think.