Friday, June 6, 2008

Finding a Form by Anne Morgellyn

Murder by 4 welcomes Anne Morgellyn, writing professor, singer, pianist, and author of three psychological thrillers: THE PINCUSHION, (BeWrite books 2008), DISREMEMBERING EDDIE (BeWrite Books, 2003) and REMOVING EDITH MARY (BeWrite Books, 2004).

I am often surprised (though less often these days, now that I no longer move in snooty London writing circles) at the patronising sidelining of so-called ‘genre’ fiction. When I started out, I had no clear direction as a writer, though I certainly had big literary ambitions (don’t we all?) which caused me to disdain generic classifications. Then I got a hot-shot agent, who pronounced my work as ‘midlist.’ In British publishing terms, this means one who is set adrift in the wide Sargasso Sea of letters, not quite experimental enough (high-toned-literary, forward-thinking, form-subverting) to make the Booker Prize shortlist, and certainly not honed or sharp enough to slip into the fast-streamed shoal of genre titles. In spite of my hot-shot agent and his pulling power, I stayed in those doldrums for quite some time.

The trouble with midlist fiction is that it is all over the place. It can be about pretty much anything, although usually on a quiet enough level that doesn’t rock any boats or induce a messy catharsis. It is the fiction preference of Middle England - which is not quite the same as Middle America, although I have sat in the kitchen of a Vermont farmhouse and listened to public broadcast radio programmes which come pretty close. Middle Englanders like BBC Radio 4 (Radio 3 is often too challengingly highbrow), which runs a series about the everyday lives of rural folk (The Archers), from a studio in Birmingham - complete with sound effects from the farm, and has been doing so for more than three decades. It says little about the human condition, in all its gory splendour, and a lot about home comforts and the safety of the known world. I am getting to the age where I am more than happy to settle for home comforts too – but not as a writer. And I haven’t yet quite succumbed to the cosy, whimsical charms of The Archers on Radio 4.

Genre fiction, although often very bad, at least knows where it is going. There are clear conventions, which must match the expectations of readers. I like the way that readers of genre fiction compartmentalise themselves into groups with strong preferences, for hard-boiled detective stories, say (the great Raymond Chandler) or gruesome pathologies (Kathy Reichs) or anodyne romances; or the new genres, which may or may not stay the course, like chick lit (Candace Bushnell) or the strange new thriller subgenre where the story is narrated from beyond the grave (THE LOVELY BONES et al). Genre fiction is edgy, which is why it is curious that British writers from the social milieu that now listens to BBC Radio 4, pioneered it: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and a century before them, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, who set the blueprint for Romance with a capital R, spawning the monstrous hybrid tea-rose that was Barbara Cartland (why did she have to be British, too?). No one would call these literary lions genre fiction writers now, except, possibly Agatha C (and Cartland of course). But just as it is possible to have a cross over from classical to popular music styles, so is it possible to take the best of genre fiction conventions (their terrific insistence on formal principles – the imperative of strong plotting, of telling a good story) and inject them with literary genes. An example from the past would be Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, a precursor of the detective story, and a satisfying thriller in its own right, though with literary morals and colours. From the present, I’d cite Annie Proulx, whose Pulitzer-winning THE SHIPPING NEWS shows how a writer at the top of her craft can start with a potentially mid-list premise and turn it into a fusion of generic conventions (page-turning pacing, some noirish characters indeed) and a commentary on the triumph of even the most craven human spirit, narrated in a highly original prose style that immediately, but always engagingly, marks its credentials as a literary novel. Proulx succeeds in her linguistic experiments where James Joyce fails: yes, he was the more groundbreakingly literary writer; but who, in all honesty, can confess to staying awake throughout the whole of ULYSSES? And who, except the most self-flaggelating academics, has even finished FINNEGAN’S WAKE?

Genre fiction welcomes its readers. It panders to them, keeps them entertained. It knows they put food on its table. From a teaching perspective, it gives a good model for structural awareness and offers a strong bench test for the viability of ideas and the sustainability of material (plotting). I don’t pretend to be in any way efficient at it, but when my second agent, on reading a draft of mine, told me to ‘tighten the thriller threads a bit more’ – it was perhaps the best advice I ever had. It brought a new focus and discipline to my work. I wasn’t all over the place anymore. I had found my form.

What is that then? Well, I am shy to define it, but it seems to follow the conventions of the psychological thriller: atmospheric (dark) location (in the case of the trilogy, a certain seedy side to London, with its grimy, politics-ridden old public hospitals and shabby apartment buildings); odd-ball, rather than hard-boiled characters; a protagonist (narrator) who suffers from terminal anxiety – and angst; a cool pathologist, who doesn’t quite know as much as he thinks he knows; and a body, of course. Mine aren’t murder stories exactly: any suspicious cause of death is in the mind of the narrator. But death features highly, as a sustaining motif – both for the narrator’s own take on the world (depressive!) and for its dynamic impact on those who are left behind to sort out the mess. I can honestly say that none of the events in my books was experienced by me personally; which, again, is something that attracts me to genre fiction: you don’t need to ‘write what you know’ (as you almost certainly need to do with midlist). You need to do some research, sure; and, in the case of my London locations, know a bit about the area; but beyond that, the fantasy is entirely yours. You are free to roam the reaches of your story world but always within the binding conventions of your genre (with your reader always in mind). It’s again something of a curiosity that our best British thriller/murder writers (Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters) are women whom would have been termed ‘genteel’ fifty years ago (as was Agatha Christie); and yet they are able – through sheer force of fantasy, to create generic worlds that are dark, pulsating with menace, drenched in blood. Good genre writers can write their material and shut the door at the end of the day (or return, as Mozart did, on a much higher plane – but it’s a fair enough analogy!) to his game of billiards). It’s close to journalism writing in that it is writing at its most focused and professional. Readers seem to respond to that work ethic, too, which is perhaps why the best selling fiction writing is almost exclusively generic.

And still it isn’t up there with the gods?


Anne Morgellyn, 16.5.08
Bio: For years I was a London-based broadcast journalist, at one time covering soft-news features in Europe and Russia for PBS; then I relocated to Cornwall, on the far south western Celtic fringes of the UK, in search of my paternal roots. A parallel career here, as a university teacher, bankrolled my writing time while I raised my daughter. I was formerly Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing for Exeter University, and also devised the Write Time distance learning programme for the Open College Network here in Britain. I still teach part time, currently on fiction and play-writing programmes for the Open University – the largest provider of distance learning courses in higher education in the world – and, I think, the world leader (though naturally, I am biased!). But, increasingly, my passion is for music: I am a classical pianist and singer, making recent forays into jazz and gospel – fantastic!; and I am myself completing a Music Diploma with the OU next year, which means I get to see the learning experience from both sides now, as student and teacher. The third of my trilogy of psychological thrillers, THE PINCUSHION, is to be published by BeWrite books late in 2008. The first two are: DISREMEMBERING EDDIE (BeWrite Books, 2003) and REMOVING EDITH MARY (BeWrite Books, 2004) My blogs (I am a novice blogger – so bear with me!) are at: And at: - Yes, I forgot to mention: I am a cancer survivor, too – but don’t let that put you off. (It hasn’t stopped me!)


Kim Smith said...

You said "But just as it is possible to have a cross over from classical to popular music styles, so is it possible to take the best of genre fiction conventions (their terrific insistence on formal principles – the imperative of strong plotting, of telling a good story) and inject them with literary genes"

I am so glad to hear someone actually put this into words. For years there seems to have been two camps, the one, literary, and the other, genre or everything else.

Thanks for such an inspiring post.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Anne, wonderful piece, with so many truths embedded throughout! Thank you so much for this and hope you'll stop by often!

Diana Raabe said...

Anne - psychological thrillers written by a former snooty Londoner? Sounds great!

What you said about The Shipping News is spot on (and note how successful the book was).

Best of luck with your continued success beating the Beast.

Marta Stephens said...

Ann thanks so much for this great article. All the best with THE PINCUSHION!

Morgellyn said...

Thanks guys for such postive comments. I guess you didn't need much convincing with regard to the merits of genre fiction - but it still has an uphill struggle with the 'literary' supremos!

Sorry it has taken me a while to respond to your posts. I have been in hospital for some investigative surgery - all ok though.

Anne Morgellyn

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

So glad you are okay!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Anne, I will strive to beat my Genre-fiction-phobia; but listening to The Archers in cold blood is a genre-bridge too far!

I think, to my shame, I fall into the snobby camp! However, I'm starting to get over it.

I read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca for the first time a few months ago and loved it. Only after reading it did I discover that it's considered "just a page-turner".

Have just started on what I judge so far to be another sucessful fusion of the 'literary' and the 'popular' - Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Or should that be 'the obscure' (cf. 12 page discussion of Greek grammar) and 'the accessible'? It's one of the most engaging and enjoyable reads I've had for a long while, but when thumbing through the discount paperbacks in Marks and Spencers (an apt microcosm for my personality) I nearly dumped it because of the clich├ęd title, the oh-so-phoney-sounding author's name and the anodyne, let's-hope-everyone-thinks-I-was written-by-John-Grisham jacket design. It just goes to show... you can't judge a book...