What's Wrong with Genre Fiction?
I read a lot of classic crime fiction, and when I go back to the best writers in the genre, I consistently find that they pack more substance, insight, and emotional weight into 200 pages than today’s bestselling authors can get into 500 pages. And yet, a handful of authors manage to consistently sell millions of copies of books about uninteresting characters doing far-fetched things described in prose that is not compelling and sometimes not even convincing. Why is this?
The computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once wrote a parable about two programmers who were both assigned to write a new software program. One programmer set to work immediately writing code. The other spent weeks thinking about the design of the program and the fundamental problems it had to solve before he typed a single line of code.
Both completed their work in nine months, and both programs did what they were supposed to do. When it came time for the programmers' annual job reviews, their managers looked at the code they had written. The manager of the programmer who had started writing code immediately found a huge, sprawling code base with tens of thousands of lines of code. It was so complex, he could barely make sense of it. But he knew it worked, because people were using it.
When the manager of the other programmer looked at his employee’s code, he found just a few thousand lines of concise easy-to-read code that laid out with crystal clarity the problems the program needed to address, and then very neatly solved them.
The first programmer’s manager said to his employee, “I can tell by what I’ve read that you’ve solved a very difficult and complicated problem. That fact that the software works as well as it does is amazing. I can’t believe you cranked out eighty thousand lines of code in just nine months. You’re getting a raise.”
The second programmer’s manager said, “Your code is so surprisingly simple and clear, it shows that the underlying problem couldn’t have been very complex. The fact that the software works as well as it does just proves you were working on a simple problem all along. I can’t believe it took you nine months to write five thousand lines of code. You’re fired.”
This is how the software world sometimes works, and this is how the publishing world seems to work, especially in bestselling mystery and thriller fiction.
To write a good 200 page book, you first have to write a middling 50o page book. Then you have to distill that and pare it down. It’s not just a process of cutting unnecessary sentences. It’s often a process of conveying three chapters worth of information in a single scene, which has to come across as natural and fluid while advancing the story, developing themes, and conveying facts, emotions, and insights to reader.
Unfortunately, many established authors, knowing they have a dedicated readership, crank out the 500 page version and stop there. A good editor should push them either to have 500 pages of substance, or to cut the book down to where it’s nothing but substance (say, 200 pages?), so it will have more impact. But the writers and editors don’t have to, so they don’t put in the extra work. Readers happily accept the pale and flabby works of [I won’t say who] and have no idea how much deeper and more powerful are the works of the masters like Dorothy Hughes, Elliott Chaze, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Williams, and Jim Thompson.
To put it another way, readers would rather sink into a 500 page mess then contemplate a 200 page gem.
Edsger Dijkstra summed up the problem when he said, “Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse, complexity sells better.”
In the world of genre fiction, readers tastes have become accustomed to lazy writing and pointless scenes the way children’s tastes become accustomed to processed food. When you give them something fresh, they reject it.
I call this “The Seinfeld Problem.” If you pick up a popular mystery, thriller, or suspense novel that is part of a series, you’ll find lots of scenes where the main character has lunch with a partner or dinner with a date, or has a long argument with a friend over who makes the best meatball subs in town. These scenes don’t advance the plot or enrich the story. They’re supposed to give the reader some insight into the main character, or to make the reader feel more connected.
In series fiction, however, the reader already knows the main character from previous books. The writer doesn’t have to do the difficult and rewarding work of revealing the character through his actions and words. Because that work has already been done, the reader often finds himself just hanging out with the main character, talking about nothing over a long lunch, in just the way Seinfeld and Kramer and Elaine and George hung out and talked about nothing in the show that Seinfeld himself called “a show about nothing.”
Seinfeld got away with it because the characters were interesting and funny, and the viewer understood there would be no plot and none of the characters would change by the end of the story. But mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are supposed to have plots, and those plots should keep moving. Stories where the main character changes and grows are always more interesting than stories where he/she doesn’t. But part of the nature of series is that the main character has to be the same from book to book. The main character is the product, and readers expect him to be same in the next book as he was in the last, just like they expect the can of ravioli they’re about to open to taste just like the one they ate yesterday.
As a software engineer, I became accustomed to managers asking, “Why are you still working on that program if it’s not crashing and there are no glaring bugs?” I keep working on it because I see it can be simplified, that a thousand lines can be boiled down to two hundred. Managers don’t always appreciate that, and neither do readers. But if you spend a few months reading the powerful, well-written works of the masters in any genre, and then you return to what passes for “a great read” on the current bestseller lists, you start shaking your head and wondering what’s going on.
What is going on?