Friday, April 02, 2004

Out of the Ghetto of Genre 

Andi Shechter, who has been one of the most influential fans in the crime fiction world, writing amateur reviews, organizing Bouchercons and Left Coast Crime conventions, and generally being a recognizable face in various online lists and communities, has gone pro. Her article on various trends in the mystery genre is the lead story in the current issue of Library Journal, and along with short Q&As with S.J. Rozan and Jacqueline Winspear, focuses a fair amount on a trend that's taken hold over the last few years: the standalone thriller:

For writers, the standalone is a creative way to move beyond the confines of a series format. [Peter] Robinson chose the standalone, he says, "because the idea was too good to resist, and it isn't appropriate for a Banks story because there's no police presence." [S.J.] Rozan notes that Absent Friends "needed a very different voice, different sensibility, different approach."

For publishers, standalones are an opportunity to reposition their authors in the market. According to St. Martin's senior editor Keith Kahla, a series writer might not be given the same attention for book 15 in a series, no matter how solid a base that series has. A standalone, he says, allows "a writer who may have grown as an artist" to attract new readers "who don't read mysteries." Former Walker & Co. mystery editor Michael Seidman concurs, pointing out that the standalone can be marketed as a novel and released as general fiction rather than mystery.

Although standalones can do well in "breaking out" an author and increasing sales, are there any disadvantages? Jim Huang, who runs a mystery bookshop in Indiana, thinks so:

"Right now, the 'conventional wisdom' is that it's easier to sell a standalone instead of a series book," he says. Huang feels that too often standalones reflect a "sameness" and that publishers take writers who develop these "wonderful, distinctive, quirky series," and then try to cram them all into one mold for that "breakout" book.

And overall, I do agree with Kahla that the standalone thread will "settle down" a fair bit. I'd rather see series books and standalones have equal weight and value in terms of quality output and thought processes, and so writers don't necessarily have to change their voices completely to write one of those. But when a standalone works, and really well at that (cue praise for Laura Lippman's EVERY SECRET THING) then it's like a Pandora's Box. Once the writer has stretched his or her powers of craft and creativity, you can't go back. I'm hearing the same thing about Rick Riordan's SOUTHTOWN, the new Tres Navarre book that followed last year's excellent standalone COLD SPRINGS. It's a series that has broadened in scope and storytelling since the first book, a PBO, was released back in 1997.

In the end, though, I'm kind of getting sick of the whole "series vs. standalone" argument. Can I beat the drum of "I want good books" once again? If the story grabs me, I'm there, whether with a favorite character or ones completely new to me. Which, I suppose, is--or at least should be--the bottom line.

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