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?