Writing a Mystery is no ‘Joke’

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today I can’t help but weigh in on the latest kerfuffle caused by Isabel Allende’s assertion in an interview with NPR that she wrote her latest mystery novel, Ripper, as a ‘joke’. 

She said that she wasn’t a fan of mysteries but decided to “take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but is a joke”… I had to digest that statement for a while before I let the full impact of it sink in (and to read the full interview you can visit:  http://www.npr.org/2014/01/25/265246811/author-interview-isabel-allende so you can see I’m not misquoting or taking her out of context). Then I sat back and fumed because writing should never be a ‘joke’.

Sure, writers can be ironic and tongue in cheek (which is also what Allende maintains she was doing) but they should never disrespect a genre they don’t read or like, by making it sound as though you can fool readers by simply following the ‘formula’ and get away with it. You can’t. Readers see through that. Readers want writing that is authentic.

Once, when I was young and naive I thought I could write a romance novel. I didn’t read them. I didn’t like them. But I actually thought ‘what the hell’ and so I went to a class on how to write a romance…until I realized (after two classes and one failed attempt at writing the first 3 chapters) that I couldn’t. Not in the strict genre sense of a Mills & Boon or Harlequin novel. Why? Because I couldn’t write them authentically. I didn’t love those types of novels and if I attempted one it would probably be with a less than pure heart (I would have been tongue in cheek perhaps or ironic, but not genuine). To the instructor’s credit, he made one thing very clear right from the start: If you thought you could just make money out of writing a romance then you’d come to the wrong place. If you didn’t love reading romances, you would fail. Why? Because you wouldn’t be true to the genre or to the authenticity required for the true writing process.

Back to Isabel Allende – who, I might add, is an author whose work I used to admire.  I loved her magic realism novels, The House of The Spirits, and Of Love and Shadows. But now I’m not sure what to make of her as an author, because I don’t understand what she thought she was doing writing a book in a genre she didn’t like as some kind of ‘joke’ (I’m also totally bemused as to why she would tell someone that was what she was doing in an interview!).

My take away from all of this is that you have to be authentic in all that you write. Your heart has to be in the right place. If you intend to be humorous, ironic or satirical that’s fine – just don’t pretend otherwise, and but don’t use that to disrespect genuine readers and lovers or a particular genre. To do so makes me cringe. 

So, Isabel Allende, you have now lost both my respect for you as a writer, and my love for your books as a reader.  Tell me TKZers, what was your reaction?

36 thoughts on “Writing a Mystery is no ‘Joke’

    • And I can’t imagine Allende’s publicist would have encouraged her to be condescending to her readers! That never sells books!

  1. This is really interesting, Clare. Claiming to write a mystery as a joke belittles the great mystery writers out there and insinuates that some genres are easier to write than others. It also suggests that some readers need less depth to their level of entertainment. I don’t agree with either. If there’s a genre that’s easier to write than the one I battle with each day, please tell me what it is so I can get started churning out the books and watch the bucks pour in.

    • I know! The implication that somehow a mystery can be just dashed off easily and not taken seriously is ridiculous (as all of us to read and write mysteries know)

  2. I’d like to know which books she read in preparation for the task of writing a mystery thriller. Allende says she read the top 2012 sellers. And then she wrote about a bunch of children finding a dead guy with a baseball bat stuck up his rectum. And she wrote about the callous way the children reacted to this sight.

    She’s not reading (or writing) the same books I am. Never heard of her and I’m not interested in finding out more.

  3. I agree that Allende’s comment and approach were inappropriate. They were disrespectful of thousands of authors and millions of readers. But I try to keep in mind that she’s human and humans make mistakes. I hope she realizes at some point the mistake she has made.

    • That’s true Eric – and I can’t imagine spending all that time writing a mere ‘joke’. Surely it was more than that!

  4. Dana – good point – and I saw she got a review in the NYT on Sunday so reviewers aren’t snubbing her, that’s for sure.

  5. Hi Clare,
    When I wrote what I call my first mystery (Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder), I studied the genre in detail. I’ve been reading mysteries forever…I’d never really studied how to write them. Even as a reader, I don’t think I ever considered writing one to be a joke. Now, as a writer, I know it’s not. While a reviewer loved my twists and turns and misdirects, I still feel I’m not very good at it.
    On the other hand, writing humor is difficult too. If I ever try that, I’ll study the genre in detail, just like I did when I wrote Teeter-Totter.
    My muses challenged me to write a mystery. They also challenged me to write a YA novel. I’m reading a Deaver book where he tells the tale in reverse. Muses are always challenging authors. But it’s only a challenge if it’s NOT easy.
    BTW, how many of you like to lump mysteries with thrillers and suspense? Seems like a cop-out at times (and I’m not speaking to police procedurals). Bookstore taxonomy seems so limiting….

  6. Steven – you’re so right. It’s never easy! I’ve written a YA and read heaps before I even attempted it. Studying the genre is important and necessary. As for putting mysteries in with thrillers and suspense I’m not sure these categorisations help – seems more what marketing departments like than how readers perceive them.

  7. You know, I suspect this was just a poor word choice. Allende’s husband is a mystery/crime writer. I don’t think she would be so dismissive of his work.

    Perhaps she meant it was a bit of a lark to write given she doesn’t generally like the gritty subject matter of many crime/mystery novels. She did some of the genre expectations upside down and is maybe a bit surprised it worked out successfully.

    As an author I doubt she thinks writing any book is really easy.

    Am I being too Pollyanna?

  8. As a lover of mystery novels I feel she has insulted not only other mystery writers but we the readers that enjoy the genre! Her attitude will hopefully lose her readers! Thanks Clare for sharing your take on this, well written 🙂

  9. I heard that interview, and just went back to it to check my recollection. She does NOT say mysteries are “a joke.” (The shortened transcript is ambiguous, and that seems to be what you quoted; the full-length on-air interview is clear.) Her husband writes mysteries. She says HERS “is a joke, tongue in cheek.” She does say she doesn’t like mysteries and describes the genre in a way I barely recognized, in part, no doubt, because she prepared to write hers by reading the Scandinavian mysteries. She appears to make the mistakes common of someone who doesn’t know a genre in trying to write it, in thinking that her “twist” — a teenage, blond, female sleuth — is in fact unusual, when of course, it’s not. I found myself wondering why she wrote one, and having NO interest in reading it, although I loved her early novels, and disliked more recent ones. She’s given us plenty of room to criticize what she said, but let’s not criticize what she didn’t say!

    • Good points – I confess I only read the transcript and didn’t listen to the whole thing – though my point is really not that she thought mysteries were a joke (which I agree she didn’t say) but that she wrote HERS as a joke – which is really where I feel she comes undone:)

    • There are a handful of fun parodies of the genre — the only one I can recall at the moment is Donna Moore’s To Helena Handbasket — and it’s fair game, I think, as with any parody. Doesn’t sound like that’s what she wrote, though. Sounds like, to borrow a term from a recent past president, Allende misunderestimates the genre. And while I am a big fan of NPR, they did a poor job of editing the transcript — should have left in the phrase “tongue-in-cheek” to make her meaning clear.

  10. As a Latino whose first language is Spanish, same Ms. Allende, I’d like to believe her real meaning was lost in translation. Perhaps she meant “pun.”

    On the other hand, I felt a similar dislike of Albert Zuckerman’s book Writing the Blockbuster Novel when on the second paragraph of chapter 1 he states:
    “For a beginner, trying to write a blockbuster novel be likened to a high school athlete trying to play with the Dallas Cowboys or a first-year piano student trying to perform Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. These things happen sometimes, but chances are you’ll stand a better change getting your first novel published if it’s a work less ambitious in scope and scale, say, a category romance or mystery.”

    I copied the entire paragraph to avoid getting the quote as out of context. I know he meant well, but can’t shake off the feeling that he’s putting those categories in a different level.

  11. I think she’s suffering from poor word choice.
    She’s trying to make her book a “joke,” not that mysteries are a joke. Of course, as Leslie points out, her twists are not that unique (Trixie Belden, anyone?). Amateur sleuths come in all shapes and sizes.

    But I think you’re spot on when it comes to loving to read in the genre you write to be authentic (I can’t do pure romance either for the same reason).

  12. Regardless of whether Allende meant to use the word ‘joke,’ or whether she was fully aware of how to use the word (which, I suspect, she is), quality is always the best measure. I’ve not read the book, but I’ve read several reviews. Kirkus states this genre is clearly not her forte; Marilyn Stasio, of the NYTimes says it’s a fun read, but the readers on Goodreads disagree . . . strongly, and I doubt these are all offended mystery/thriller writers like me and many of the other commenters on this blog. I won’t be buying it. There are too many better mystery/thrillers out there to enjoy.

    • I haven’t read it – but I might get it out from the library to take a look see…But agree there are so many great mysteries I haven’t got to yet – hers isn’t top of my list.

  13. I don’t understand writers who “slum” in genre fiction and then feel compelled to explain their reasons like it is some weird urge. Joyce Carol Oates, by contrast, writes some of the best crime fiction out there and she has never once felt the need to apologize.

    • It’s strange (and offensive) why some authors feel the need to suggest they are ‘slumming’ it when they write genre fiction…

  14. I think it is like the wine snob who happens to like the $8 Australian Cabernet on the bottom shelf just as much as the $40 French Merlot his snob friends tout. If they catch him he has to laugh it off and pretend it was mere experimentation at what ‘other half’ has endure in their ignorance.

  15. I’ll have to listen to that interview now. This discussion reminded me that JK Rowling wrote a detective novel under a pseudonym, and it didn’t sell very well. Maybe announcing that the effort was a “joke” will boost the author’s sales. The whole thing makes her seem arrogant, however. I wonder how her mystery-writing husband really feels about it.

  16. I don’t write mysteries, but I enjoy reading them….and I totally appreciate detail and authenticity. I want to know if the blood clots…the length and the how. (My medical background and such) hmm…never read this lady’s work though. Slumming in another genre and then slamming it….not cool.

  17. Pretty shameful. Writing is hard work and a lot of people try very hard to be excellent writers and put out great books. If Allende loses more fans and respect, then I’d say she’s earned it.

  18. Clare– I can understand your annoyance, but why it would lead you to lose your respect for earlier Allende books you had read and enjoyed–that I don’t understand. My guess would be that Allende, as a “literary” writer, felt for some reason a need to speak of her genre novel in a disparaging way. This makes little sense, but that’s hardly something new for writers.

  19. Hmm. I want to know how – and why – a bunch of people who CLAIM to be writers can’t tell the difference between “I wrote a mystery as a joke” and “mysteries as a genre are a joke”.
    There is a lot of snotty pretentiousness going on here – but none of it is from Allende.
    What a pointless, pretentious carry on. Poor Allende.

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