Recently, a review of The Black Owls appeared in the Myrtle Beach Sun-News, daily circulation 50,000. It is, by and large, a good review for which I am properly grateful (everybody appreciates a good review), but it raises two issues that I think are worthy of discussion. Both arise out of the conventions of genre fiction, in this case thrillers, a topic I’ve addressed in these pages before. Although my new book, The Kingfishers (due out in a few weeks), is also a “thriller,” I’m a reluctant author of genre fiction due in large part to the very questions raised in this review. As noted there, I “twist” the conventions and, as a consequence, neither book is a “true” thriller as the Sun-News reviewer indicates, though there’s lots of action and suspense in both.
The first issue is what the reviewer terms a lack of “elucidation,” a wonderful word that my dictionary defines as “making something easier to understand.” It’s an old saw that a good writer never explains, he allows the reader to reach conclusions on his own. At every turn, a novelist is faced with the question of how much information to give, when to provide it and how (dialogue, exposition, or action), all aimed at permitting the reader to perceive what’s going on without being told. In the cause of holding the reader’s attention, much is withheld until the end, but bits and pieces must dribble out in the course of the story so that the reader understands, is even invested in, the conclusion. Thus, a well-written novel expects a lot from its readers, an assumption not necessarily present in formulaic genre fiction.
The response to the second question complements the first. In his discourse on why The Black Owls is not quite a thriller, the reviewer says that there is “a literary patina” about the book, and that “the plot is subservient to the artistry.” He’s dead right about both those things, and it’s that judgement that pleases me most about the review. While I hope that the plot is compelling and intelligent, it is the novel’s “literary bent,” in this and all my work, that I strive for. I don’t see how any story is better off without it. The idea that a “thriller” need not have fully-developed, nuanced characters, settings and themes, that its only serious element is the plot, is the reason so much of our “literature” is bad. It’s just another skin-deep media for those who seek only sensation and titillation, foisted on us by a publishing establishment interested only in money.
When you encounter a list of “genres,” you usually come across one called “literary fiction” and, when a book is not worthy of a genre, it’s usually referred to as “mainstream fiction.” Other words for literary are poetic, artistic and dramatic. Does that mean that all the other genres lack such characteristics? And mainstream is defined as “ideas, attitudes or activities that are shared by most people.” I believe that fiction can be exciting, thrilling if you will, and still be artistic and appealing to a large number of people who are unaware of the distinctions imposed by the cognoscenti. Not so long ago, we had lots of books like that.