Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Utility (or Futility) of Subgenres: a guest blog by Chris F. Holm

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Being a resident of the great state of Maine, it always gives me pleasure to discover a new author scribbling away up here in Vacationland (formerly the Pine Tree State, until the marketing people reclassified it.) Then I found out Chris Holm was an ex-pat from Syracuse, NY (like me!) who was pursuing a graduate degree in Virginia (I did that, too!) and who married a Mainer (yep) who lured him north. (At this point, I can only conclude that Chris Holm and I are the same person.)

I sent off an email to Chris' publisher, Angry Robot Books, and they kindly sent me a review copy of his debut,
Dead Harvest. I was tickled by the cover, which appears for all the world to be a well-read golden-age pulp paperback complete with scratches, smudges and the marks of many fingerprints. I was even more impressed by what was inside.

Sam Thornton collects souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Once taken himself, he’s now doomed to ferry souls to hell for all eternity, in service of a debt he can never repay. But when he’s dispatched to retrieve the soul of a girl he believes is innocent of the horrific crime for which she’s been damned, Sam does something no Collector has ever done before: he refuses.
It was a hell of a read. The only problem was: what was it? Pulp fiction? Paranormal? Noir detective? Horror? Paradise Lost fanfiction? (Seriously, that would be awesome.) I couldn't tell. And clearly, I'm not the only one.

First off, thanks to Julia and the rest of the Jungle Reds for letting me tarnish their otherwise stellar blog. ’Tis truly an honor, particularly for a lowly debut novelist such as I.

One thing I’m discovering now that I’ve got a book out is that folks (be they fellow writers, reviewers, or random family members) seem more curious what sort of books I write than what my book is actually about. And given that DEAD HARVEST is the first in a series that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp, I don’t always know what to tell them. Do I say that I write urban fantasy? Fantastical noir? Gonzo crime-fic? Cross-genre horror-tinged fantasy-pulp? Science fiction, since despite the fact there’s not a hint of science in my book, that’s where it always winds up shelved?

Yeah, sometimes, I guess I do say that. It’s what they want to hear, after all. I know, because I see it echoed in reviews and interviews that reference my work. The only problem is, I don’t mean it.

As far as I’m concerned, I write mysteries. Mysteries are the sole through-line in my work, the thread that ties together everything I’ve ever written. Whether fantastical, horrific, science-fictional, or quiet and literary, my stories are all just mysteries at heart.

Fact is, when I first started writing toward publication, I hadn’t the faintest notion of the morass of subgenres into which I was ignorantly wading; I just wrote what I wrote. It was only when I started submitting my stories that I realized how fractured along genre lines the publishing industry truly was.

The first short I ever published – and quite possibly the best I’ve ever written – appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I was elated. My next few tales were perhaps a little darker, a little nastier, and wound up in grittier online magazines such as Demolition, Beat to a Pulp, and Thuglit. To me, the only difference between those markets was in flavor, not quality, so imagine my surprise when I discovered plenty of folks from the grittier camp held Ellery Queen in disdain. Why, I’ve no idea. Lord knows I don’t shy away from violence and F-bombs when called for (a fact to which I’m certain Julia could attest), but good writing is good writing, and bad writing can’t be saved by striking fashionable literary poses. Ellery Queen, to my mind, falls solidly in the former camp.

I was a kid when I first fell in love with mysteries, and back then, I didn’t delineate along subgenre lines. Whether it was the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, Christie or Poe or Doyle, or even THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, they were all of a piece to me. And to this day, the writers I most admire didn’t chain themselves to reductive ideas about what one should and should not write. Donald Westlake wrote one of the bleakest series of all time in his Parker books, but he also wrote marvelous comic capers featuring career thief John Dortmunder. Lawrence Block writes the hard-bitten tales of unlicensed PI Matthew Scudder, but also light mysteries featuring bookstore-owner-cum-cat-burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Michael Crichton got his start writing pulp, and went on to dabble in historical-, techno-, medical-, and espionage-thrillers, to name a few.

It seems to me readers and writers both benefit by eschewing a myopic, reductive genre worldview – and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. On Julia’s site, you’ll find a section titled “Are my books cozies?” in which she expounds far more eloquently than I on the topic of the limited utility of subgenres. I was fortunate enough to catch Rosemary’s so-called cozy panel at Bouchercon, in which she described her own work as suburban noir, no doubt earning new readers in the process. And when my wife described Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef novels as cozy/thriller hybrids in a recent (glowing) review, it seemed far closer to the truth than either one of those labels on their own.

My point isn’t that authors should strive to straddle fences and break down boundaries; as advice goes, that’s every bit as silly as telling writers never to. All I’m saying is, it seems to me the best writers read widely and go where their muse takes them, and leave it to the booksellers to sort out where to shelve it. God knows I’d rather read ten great novels outside the narrow slice of real estate I’ve staked out in my own fiction, than ten lousy ones that fall within my wheelhouse.

Which reminds me, there’s this Julia Spencer-Fleming novel on my Kindle I’ve been dying to get to…

Well, dear reader, what do you think about genres, sub-genres, blended genres and bent genres? Are you a purist, or an anything-goes sort? Do you think genre-mixing is the wave of the future? Or not?

Chris F. Holm was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for crime fiction. His work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. His first novel, DEAD HARVEST (Angry Robot Books, February 2012), is a supernatural thriller that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. You can find out more at Chris’ website, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.


  1. Welcome to Jungle Red Chris! Golden Era Crime Pulp--that's a fascinating mouthful! I agree a writer needs to write what she writes, unless she has a contract specifying a particular kind of book:). And even those guidelines can be stretched a little.

    Julie Hyzy's White House chef books are a great example. they are packaged as cozies but there is a lot of thrilling action and her main character is no Miss Marple.

    Anyway, we wish you the best and see you on the crime-fighting circuit!

  2. Hear! Hear! I cheer you on, Chris, not so much as a writer but as a reader.

    I "don't read" alternative history/reality but I love Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. And I'm not one of those people who feels she has to "learn something" in her mysteries, but I still pine for Rebecca Pawel's Spanish Civil war series.

    The more lines you draw, the less you enjoy. The tighter the boxes, the less interesting the results.

  3. So great to see you on Jungle Reds, Chris! And I can attest to the fact that you're a fine short-story writer, as well.

    I think genres are (or were) a useful marketing tool. They were the "if you like that, you'll like this" or "readers who bought that also bought this" of their day.

    I suspect they may have outlived that usefulness, however. But then, I have been known to steal a phrase from Julia and call my books "traditional mystery/thrillers."

    Love the great success you're having with DEAD HARVEST! I hope it only grows and grows!

  4. Thanks, Barb and Lucy! (And to Julia, of course, for having me.)

    Barb, you're right that writing under contract is a bit of a different beast, but I think the widely read come through as such even when tackling a specific assignment.

    And Lucy, I love Thursday Next as well. Fforde hops genres with such glee, I haven't the faintest idea where to stick him, except for in my TBR pile. And that's good enough for me.

  5. Thanks, Linda!

    I'm as guilty as anyone of book-browsing along genre lines. There's nothing wrong with that; everybody's allowed their tastes. It's when I start telling myself while writing, "I'm not supposed to do that in this kind of story" that I worry genre gets me into trouble. So now I take thoughts like that as a dare.

  6. Welcome Chris!
    Haven't read Dead Harvest yet, but just went to Angry Books website and learned even more about it and you - and I LOVE the cover!
    Yes, they have to call us something. about fiction?

  7. Thanks, Rosemary! And hey, if folks wanna buy my book, they can call me any damn thing they want. Though I do occasionally wind up stumped when an interviewer asks, "So, when did you realize you wanted to be a horror/fantasy/crossgenre/science fiction writer?" Uh, I didn't. I just wanted to be a writer.

  8. Boxes. They're meant for packing, not writing -- or reading. (Unless the box is sitting on the kitchen table and you have nothing else to read while you eat.)

  9. I love reading about genre-blending fiction...I love what's going on indie publishing these days!

    I'm definitely going to check out your book. Thanks!

  10. Leslie, the idea of you reading boxes reminds me once more of Donald Westlake, who once remarked he was such a compulsive reader, he'd read the label on a bottle of Worcestershire sauce if that was all he could get his hands on.

    And Lisa, I hope you enjoy it!

  11. Welcome Chris. In a bit of odd timing I just started your book last night. It's very good as in I almost burned supper because I was just going to read one more paragraph and instead read three pages good.

  12. Genre labels are just convenient "addresses" to begin the narrowing down of the search process. :)
    Otherwise, in my reading, it really depends on my mood what "flavor" to read in crime fiction. I like having lots of options.

  13. Thanks, Darlene, that's great to hear! But maybe stick to salads and sandwiches until you're done -- I don't want a house fire on my conscience.

    And PK, I agree. If you wouldn't eat the same dish every day, why read the same thing? Variety is key.

  14. LOVE that cover..and love this discussion. It's so funny--people need to categorize things, its a way of helping them think about it.

    And who was it that said "people want NEW--and they want it to be exactly the same new they had before."

    SO yeah, I hear you. There was a brief spate of describing some books as "thrillzies"--a cozy-ish thriller. But I always thought that was pretty patronizing.

    How 'bout if we start a new genre, which could be describe the same way we describe something in my TV world: "It's a helluva story"? Could there be a "Helluva story" section?

  15. Chris,

    Something tells me I'm going to like your books!

    I was intrigued when I read the description above of Dead Harvest. I like fantasy/unreality,etc,mixed with my reality. (What is more real than evil?) I like mystery,suspense,thrillers, science fiction. I definitely do NOT care if it follows a "recipe" or meets certain criteria. I feel that writers ought to write whatever they enjoy writing,even if they are mixing genres.

    Yep,I'm a Jasper Fforde fan and I like the fact that I can't exactly explain his books to people who do not know of them. (Makes me feel like I know something that they don't know.)I tell people that they need to experience the books,especially if they love literature.

    I can't wait to get out there and buy your book. I can't wait to see the expressions on certain people's faces when they see me reading it. (This is an experience you cannot get on an e-reader!)

    Oh,JRW,you have introduced me to so many authors whose books I NEED to read! I can't ever afford to retire; I need money for my beloved books habit! And I don't have enough free time to read all the books that I want to read!

    (But writers, listen to me: you MUST continue writing!)

  16. Welcome Chris!

    I love me a well-written book. Mystery, romance, thriller, YA, dystopian, cozies, contemporary, chick lit...I am not picky except about the style of writing. Don't insult me with a hastily thrown-together
    novel copying some new theme of best seller. And while I love my favorite authors to publish frequently, I've found that most of those (not all...Lawrence Block could write drivel and I'd read it), that churn out 2-3 books a year, are too prolific in their writings to meet my preferences.

    Looking forward to reading your book!

  17. Sorry so late. Just want to say now that when I first started reading for fun 6 years ago it was mysteries, all of them. About a year ago, I started tiring of some sorts and filtered them out. Occasionally I give them a retry, but so far none have restuck, especially the way too, for me, gory. I do gravitate to certain authors, but love discovering new, and if they are any bit different from what I read elsewhere, that is a great plus.

  18. Hank,

    I don't know whether or not my books would earn a spot in the "Helluva Story" section of the bookstore, but that's where you'd find me shopping regardless.

    Deb and Lora,

    Thanks very much! I hope you enjoy it.

    And Reine,

    It sounds to me like you filtered based on experience, not just based on label, and who could fault you for that? Everyone's got their dealbreakers, their lines they won't cross as a reader or writer. Interestingly, though, the last book my wife (a reviewer) had a visceral negative reaction to was because of explicit violence toward animals... and that book was a pastel-covered cozy. That may be an instance of a writer stretching their subgenre in an unappealing way. (And no, I won't mention what book it was.)