Malcolm Gladwell was dancing to “Kung Fu Fighting” the night that my life changed forever. Perhaps yours would have, too, although Gladwell is a minor footnote in the chance encounter that led to my life as a genre writer.
It was 1991 and Gladwell was the host, along with my old friend Jacob Weisberg, of a ’70s party in Washington, D.C. I gravitated toward the one woman who looked as if she had actually had a driver’s license in the ’70s. We made the usual party chit-chat. When I said I was a reporter, the woman brightened: “Have you ever thought about writing erotica?”
I felt like Sister Carrie on the train to Chicago. But the query was legitimate. The woman was Michele Slung—former editor of the Washington Post Book World and a bestselling writer. Her latest project was an erotica anthology, Slow Hand, and she was looking for submissions. Use a pseudonym, she advised; think of it as a mask. In her experience, women sometimes needed the “mask of genre” to attempt writing fiction at all.
“It pays $1,500 and the deadline is July 1,” she added. Money and a deadline? Those were terms this cheerful newspaper hack understood. I stole a friend of a friend’s funny anecdote about a ménage a trois. Michele accepted it and, two years later, commissioned another story for the sequel, Fever. She also encouraged me to write a novel, promising to give me a ruthlessly honest opinion if I did.
Two erotic short stories had used up all my shades of gray. And despite amazing mentors—Meredith Steinbach at Northwestern University, Sandra Cisneros in a long-running Texas workshop—I had already stalled out on several autobiographical novels for, well, lack of autobiography. However, I loved crime novels and it occurred to me that writing one would force me to overcome my plot issues. It might even teach me how to plot.
I took my second check from Michele and bought a Mac Classic 2. (Pause to consider that such a machine, basically a glorified word processor, cost more than $2,000 in 1993.) I gave myself a year to finish my first novel, then showed it to Michele. She said, “Lose the prologue” and then she helped me find the right agent. Vicky Bijur sold my first novel, Baltimore Blues, to Carrie Feron, then at Avon. Twenty years later, I am still with Carrie and Vicky; Michele is a dear friend.
And for 20 years I’ve never considered taking a flier on a book outside the crime genre. The way I see it, I have limitations, but the genre doesn’t. I don’t try to elevate mysteries by claiming Crime and Punishment for my team. But at its best, genre fiction can hold its own. As Nick Hornby once wrote of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River: “Lehane has done everything that a literary novelist is supposed to be able to do.... Indeed, Lehane has ended up making it look so effortless that no one I’ve ever met seems to have noticed he’s done anything much at all.”
Yet the rap against crime fiction is, in part, an inside job. In the seminal 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote: “The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does.”
Huh? Average novels, downright mediocre novels, are published every day. I suspect this was true in 1944, too. And Chandler observes in the same essay: “Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels.”
True, the crime novelist has the option of laying down what was once known as the Baltimore chop, a neat little infield hit whose tricky bounce will get you on base. But literary novelists have their own chops: the novella disguised as a novel, the genre pastiche that— dreaded words— transcends the genre.
My problem with “transcends the genre” is that it encourages us to see literary fiction as the brass ring hanging above everyone’s head on the merry-go-round. Perhaps that’s why crime novelists can be brutally snobbish about female dominated forms such as romance, chick-lit, and even the beloved cozy, a mystery subgenre. But we’re all on the same ride. Some of the horses rise up and down, while others are fixed. There’s a bench bolted to the floor for those who like to kick back and some guy always wants to straddle the ostrich. Whatever mount you choose, one thing is certain: The ride ends. Enjoy it for however long it lasts.