Wednesday, September 12, 2007

No Country for Young Men?

A week ago Bryon Quertermous asked a question on his blog about why the crime fiction story market seems lackluster compared to other genres, specifically, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. The ensuing discussion on his blog didn't really answer the question, but it did raise another one, which I was already pondering: Is crime fiction an old people's game?
What we generally think of as crime fiction started in the first half of the 20th Century. You can trace the genre back to Poe, sure, but most people would classify Poe as a horror writer. Even "Murders in the Rue Morgue" could be called a horror story. Sure, it featured a detective trying to solve a crime, but the killer was an orangutan with a straight razor. An orangutan with a razor is scary, but he's not exactly Professor Moriarty is he? In the 20's and 30's you had locked room mysteries and Agatha Christie, who topped Poe for half-assed endings and implausible scenarios with Murder on the Orient Express, where everyone on the train was guilty. It makes a homicidal orangutan seem plausible.
At roughly the same time as Agatha Christie and her contemporaries were writing about well heeled detectives and murderers Dashiell Hammett was, as Raymond Chandler put it, [giving] murder back to the alley, and the kind of people who do it for a reason." One only needs to read Red Harvest to know that Hammett's early efforts were not necessarily any more believable than Christie. Unlike Christie, however, Hammett's work changed over time, and he eventually wrote some believable stories.
And there you have it. The two schools of crime fiction: Cozies and Hard boiled. Not much has changed in crime fiction since the 1930s. As such, it's not hard to see why crime fiction fans may tend to skew old. My recent experiences tend to bear this out. Over Labor Day I went to the Decatur Book Festival where I attended a panel with three mystery writers. I'm 30, and I was, by far, the youngest person in the room. The next day I stopped by Dragon Con, a huge science fiction and fantasy convention, where I attended a panel on podcasting. The room was packed with young people, and Scott Sigler, an author/podcaster, was greeted like a rock star. So was the founder of, who wasn't even on the panel. He was just in the audience, but when someone pointed him out, the crowd burst into applause.
Why the young, enthusiastic crowd at the panel composed mostly of science fiction podcasters and the sedate, older crowd at the crime fiction panel? The answer, I think, is that science fiction has to reinvent itself every few years. The genre is based largely on technological developments, and, must stay fresh. Now that we've sent probes to Mars, little green men aren't really plausible anymore. Hell, with the advent of human/animal embryos, The Island of Dr. Moreau no longer seems all that far fetched. My point is that young people can see their world reflected in science fiction. With crime fiction, authors are still working largely off templates drawn up before the Second World War. The genre deals with actions and motives that are as old as Cain and Abel. Not a lot has changed since then. One thing that Seth Harwood said when I interviewed him him really stuck with me: "When kids stop reading Harry Potter they have to read something else. Hopefully we can get them to read crime fiction." To me, that seems like an optimistic statement. I'm not sure crime fiction is in a position to do that at the moment. Sure, it appealed to me when I was in high school, but I'm fully prepared to admit that my tastes aren't exactly mainstream. If I really like something that's a good indication it will never sell ten million copies. So, how do you make crime fiction appeal to younger readers? The answer is simple: Make it reflect the world around them. How, exactly do you do that without resorting to gimmicks or obscuring the essential truths crime fiction touches on? I wish I knew.


Peter Rozovsky said...

Why do these younger readers sit around waiting for someone to write crime fiction that appeals to them? Why don't they write some of their own, and perhaps we old farts, older than, say, 30, can learn something from them.

I will tell you that the absolute last way to get crime fiction that appeals to younger readers [if one feels that (a) crime fiction really does not appeal to these readers, and (b) this is a problem] is for a bunch of people to sit around trying to develop crime fiction that appeals to younger readers.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

Good post. Science fction short stories are compelling. I never considered the effect on younger readers.

I'm glad someone else feels that way about Agatha Christie.


Scott Sigler said...

Greeted like a rock star? Awwww yeahhh!

Maybe the crowd reaction at DragonCon happened because we, the podcast fiction community, fight our asses off to gain audience and to keep that audience. We don't take the audience for granted. We know we can accomplish great things and establish a writing career, but ONLY if the audience is happy. That means writing great stories and engaging with them, answering emails, IMs, participating in chat rooms, forums, playing their calls on my podcast, etc. We let the audience know they are heard, and we react to their comments and suggestions.

This ain't rocket science - old-school crime and scifi is having trouble because the day of the ivory-tower author is over. These days, you have to be accessible, you have to engage, and you have to give the customer what they want.

Maybe they treat me like a rock star because that's how I treat them.


Seth Harwood said...

Good points. And I know firsthand that Sigler's already planning on a marketing campaign to go after those Potter fans. But here's another point: one part of the reason I think Sigler's got fans is that he's viewed as breaking the modes of old-time publishing that many have come to view as oppressive. I've definitely been able to corral a lot of young listeners/readers by bringing out my crime fiction in podcast form and offering it to them for free. Though some might not understand how it will happen, I know this will translate to readers. Believe me. Sigler proved it and we'll see it again when my first book comes out in March.

My question is this: why aren't any other crime writers podcasting their work? I've talked to a lot of folks over the last year and no one's on it. Sure, the tech stuff's a bit tricky, but really not that bad. AND I'm happy to help walk anyone through it. I was on the panel of podcasters with Sigler and I'm making a name for myself in the podcasting community. Podcasting is free marketing, really.

Here's the thing: right now, Science-fiction is huge in podcasting because lots of the early adopters of the technology are science fiction fans and writers. But the audience wants more and we should be giving it to them. When more crime fiction writers start to podcast, the audience for that will continue to grow. And this is a YOUNG audience. They're out there. They like crime too.

John McFetridge said...

Some of this may also just be cycles. About fifteen years ago I was at a sci fi convention and one of the panels was, "The Greying of Fandom." There was a lot of concern about not enough young sci fi readers. But then, as you say, the genre reinvented itself.

There are a lot of good, young, crime fiction writers working now, it'll probably just take a while for readers to find them, but they will.

Declan Burke said...

Nathan - Eoin Colfer is doing some wonderful things in terms of crime fiction for young people ... his Artemis Fowl books are well known, but check out Half-Moon Investigations, it's a cracker of a story about a 12-year-old PI.

jvdsteen said...

Younger writers will give us stuff that appeals to younger readers, sure. When I started with my Noah Milano stories I was 25 or something and set out to write about a PI that was more suited to the 'now'. Maybe Spenser used to be a cool hero when he was first published but now he seemed outdated.
Interacting with the fanbase, using the internet will surely help bring in the younger readers.
Also the format of the stories and novels could use some tuning for the MTV generation.
Seth's Jack Palms is a good example of what we can do with the format, but also the content, his hero being a Bruce Willis kind of guy in a very modern setting.