January 17, 2002

ARE WE DEAD YET?


Commentary by Cherie Jung

Every few years someone begins a rumor that the mystery genre is dead, or as good as. Usually the whispers pass from writer to writer, popping up here and there in an Internet digest discussion or two, and once in awhile, on an editorial page within a mystery magazine. (Or here in one of my online commentaries.)

I think I've visited this very theme several times in the past five years. My answer is almost always the same, with pretty much the same theories spouted each time to back up my not so humble opinion. This morning I heard that the rumors are going around yet again. I pondered, what was I going to say this time?

My first response was, "Who cares?!?"

And by that I mean both, "Who cares if the mystery genre is, indeed, dying or dead?" and "Who cares if I have anything to say about it?"

My next thought was "Who keeps starting these rumors?"

Then an idea began niggling at my brain.

I never hear readers lamenting the death or impending death of the mystery genre. I never hear readers saying anything at all about the state of the genre. If pressed, they'll give an opinion on what they have read, or plan to read. They might eagerly pass on a tidbit of gossip they've heard about some author doing the whatever with another author. But they don't, to my knowledge, sit around worrying about where they're going to get their next mystery to read. (I suspect, if push comes to shove, and no new mysteries were ever printed after today, the real die-hard fans might haunt the bookstores for used copies of books they haven't read or pull out old copies of their favorite mysteries and read them again. But that's just my opinion. I don't have any real evidence to support it.)

The point is. The people I hear crying out to anyone who'll listen that the mystery genre is in trouble are...wannabe writers.

As I've said before, and will probably say again, yes...there are a lot of poorly written, poorly edited books in the marketplace, trying to pass themselves off as mysteries. And with the availability of desktop publishing and so called print-on-demand sources, not to mention the vanity presses, there will probably always be a plethora of less than good mysteries taking up space on bookstore and library shelves somewhere. Can't do much about that, I'm afraid. But why cry out that the genre is dying? It may be awash with unsightly volumes but there seems to be plenty of choices for the reader. They just have to wade through the bad stuff. And that's really not all that hard to do. There are options. A reader can check out a book from the local library before committing money to its purchase, or read sample chapters online at the publisher or author's website. Amazon.com has even begun to add sample pages to its inventory of books available for sale online.

What I really think these rumors are all about is that writers and wannabe writers are lamenting that there isn't enough money to go around. They haven't a "snowball's chance in hell," as the saying goes, of making a decent living as a writer. With so many people writing and publishing mysteries these days, there just might not be enough readers willing to plunk down money to buy all of the bad books, and mediocre books, and that will mean that all of the writers and wannabe writers won't be rich by this time next year.

I think the mystery genre from a reader's point of view is as healthy as it ever was. I can't recall a time where every book written was published or every book published became a best seller. From a writer's point of view, the health of the genre may look a little shaky. Too many writers, too many books, not enough readers, not enough money being paid to the writers. There are several options available to writers who would like to change the health of the genre for the better. Complaining about it or wishing it weren't so are probably the least effective ways to go about it.

For whatever reason, some books are better than others, or better liked by readers than others. If you're a writer, you can't hope to control the readers. You can't force them to like you or your books. The best chance you have is your writing. Could it stand a little improvement? Then that might be your starting point. Hone your writing and storytelling skills to improve the odds of your book making its way to an adoring audience.

The mystery genre isn't dead...yet. However, the independent mystery bookstore might be in grave danger of extinction. But that's a topic for another commentary. Next month...


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