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THE GLASS CEILING

Sometimes the words come and sometimes they don’t. sometimes the narrative passages are there and sometimes they aren’t. Just tonight I heard the comment “Michael Chabon was nominated for an Edgar Award because the M.W.A. wants credibility. They want their award to be a literary award”.

Pfui, as a certain cerebral detective used to comment. Much has been made of what is and isn’t on this year’s Edgar Award list. The fact that I did at least 30 “happy dances” while reading the award nominations says a lot. The fact that when people began pointing out who didn’t make the list, I began to question, means perhaps even more. This isn’t about the judges. This year’s Edgar Awards embrace everything I covet within my own little realm of mystery. I know the judges this year are all readers. You can tell from the lists of nominees. But the comment, off hand and uttered amongst true fans, bothers me a little and worries me a lot.

For, and I’m saying this with a straight face, we are snobs!! Reverse snobs and so, therefore worse. Can someone just send me back to a John Hughes movie please. What am I talking about? I’ll give you two instances of recent “Jordan” conversation along with a recent posting thread on 4MA and ask you think about this. Talk about it, blog about it and if you post a response to this blog, this is one time when I will respond (usually I just cut and run)

Time and time again you hear the genre versus literature argument. Time and time again, I myself have said it’s a good two hours but no …. (plug in fav “literary” or “mystery” author here). Frankly I’m bored and a little disappointed in both sides. This is a world where the person who reads 300 books a year is reading the same percentage of published books as the person who reads two, and by that I mean 1% of all published novels. It’s about time we get off our high horses here. Because, for a book to be noted as literary it has to continue to be read. This applies to all novels, no matter how they are originally branded by the marketing departments that release them. Did anyone really imagine we’d still be reading about Holden Caulfield who read the first print run of CATCHER IN THE RYE? That the ophthalmologist billboard in THE GREAT GATSBY would resonate to this day?

And then there are the dry as rice cake classics. To say I was a little disillusioned when finally allowed to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an understatement. Flowers woven , indeed. If you are a reader, you have to read. Not say.. I only read…. Qualifying oneself as a reader takes away from the act of reading. There are voices within words, authors who speak to a volume of readers who may decipher the prose a little differently but no less intelligently. If the words resonate with the readers the work becomes literature. And readers, once you get beyond Lit 101, the world is yours.

And yet we all have reading preferences. The path of origin towards “literary” acknowledgement depends more than ever on critical and financial success. So, if you’re still with me, I now present conversation fragments.
For those of you who don’t already know, I’m disappointed in myself as a reader because I cannot get into THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN. The book, by Michael Chabon, was both a critical and financial success and I cannot get past page 80(and I’m a fan). But a few weeks ago a friend who is also an author (and a Chabon fan) defined my problem. “Ruth, we’re mystery readers, so when reading a mystery we want all of the extraneous detail edited like a “genre” novel. “ At the time I felt better. It’s my weakness. I can embrace it. My friend went on to say if he had turned in the same manuscript and it had been edited by a “genre” editor the novel would have been at least 100 pages shorter. In YIDDISH, mystery wasn’t the plot, it forwarded the plot.

This conversation took place a week before a thread on 4MA (the mystery board) began. Val McDermid’s THE GRAVE TATTOO is one of my top reads ever. I know it will remain so, neither time nor distance is going to alter my opinion. And yet when another reader presented her argument, “I was interested in the Fletcher plot and everything else kind of got in the way” I UNDERSTOOD. But I was disappointed. I remember feeling when I first read Tattoo that the book which embraced several timelines and multiple plotlines was ambitious and well executed. Something not found everyday within the mystery genre. Because in “Mystery” unless an author truly resonates with their reader, all is extraneous. The poster prefaced their entire statement with the caveat, “I would never tell McDermid how to write, she is a great writer.”

These two instances now two weeks in the past, I’ll reflect upon another conversation I was part of. A friend who reads above the 1% a year percentile and remembers everything, said to me, “If we’re going to move beyond this, we cannot do it either. We cannot continue to say the “literary” world needs to recognize Lehane and Pelecanos as “real” writers, and not let people know about the writers within mystery who might not be quite as lofty but who sell the books day in and day out. We have to level the playing field.”

Sound words. My friend was referring to an interview held with yet another (they shall remain nameless) writer. In the course of an interview this writer professed to be “happy” within their niche but “glad” that friends like “Lehane, Pelecanos, (fill in more names at no extra cost)”had moved beyond the genre, creating words that would inspire future generations.”

I agree with the sentiment, but why do we continue to wait for affirmation? The author I paraphrased in the last paragraph is a best seller in their own right, has written some of the most poignant prose of the last 10 years and doesn’t need to be quantifying or qualifying books. Yet we all see a glass ceiling .Hell, we create it.

A ceiling that if we forbid it to exist, would cease to be. In the end it all seems clear. If enough people read it the academics and critics will have to respond, and if nobody reads it? Well, it’s rather like that tree in the woods….

Ruth