What Makes a Mystery "Literary?"

The ever-gracious Linda Rodriguez has reposted the interview she did with me on her Web site, Linda Rodriguez Writes, so I'm taking the opportunity to do likewise with this blog post. I've never been one to agonize over the "literary" versus "genre" question. I know it gets under the skin of many people who write speculative fiction or romance, as well as mysteries, but at the end of the day, it strikes me that the aesthetic success of any work of the imagination should be judged by the impact it has on the lives of its readers or viewers. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael famously declared the first Star Wars movie to be an embarrassing failure, but George Lucas's space opera transformed the culture—and individual experiences of reality—far more than a film like Annie Hall, released the same year and universally (and deservedly) acclaimed as a work of art. I'm not going to be the one to tell a fan of Star Wars: A New Hope that his or her response to that movie was unserious.

What makes a mystery "literary? anyway" Is is the use of language? Or the fact that characters drive the plot and not vice versa? These questions were in the air during a recent discussion I had with author Linda Rodriguez, whose novel Every Last Secret won the Malice Domestic Award and will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2012. Linda asked me everything from who my literary influences were to how I came to write novels:

What inspired you to write your first novel, The Poacher’s Son? Had you always wanted to be a writer?

For the longest time I thought I was going to be a cartoonist and then I read the Lord of the Rings, as I said, and my sights changed. When I told people that I wanted to write for a living, they would always nod and say, "Yes, but what are you going to do for a job?" That's an excellent question! Every young writer should be asked it. I wrote a lot of stories when I was in my twenties, but honestly I had nothing to say: I was too callow. It was only after my life began to settle down and I rediscovered my deep interest in the Maine outdoors—which is so rarely rendered with accuracy—that I realized I need to write a story about the North Woods and perhaps my own experience of being an impetuous, callow young guy could fuel the story if I made him a Maine game warden.

We also discussed the reactions of fans and reviewers to my second book, Trespasser. In the days of GoodReads and Amazon reviews, everyone can now be a critic. In addition to the awards and accolades I've received, I've also seen my share of one-star notices from readers who didn't understand my books or failed to see them as literary at all. (One guy, I remember, berated me for the "weird hacky surprise ending" of The Poacher's Son.) It's a cop out to say that "literature" is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes it really does feel that way.