Of stories, and how we prefer them

You can’t tell by looking at the sky today, but a little over a week ago, Atlanta was practically afloat, and during one of last week’s downpours, the Girleens and I found ourselves stranded for a few hours at our neighborhood library — where I found myself reading a lot of book jacket copy while I stood in the stacks keeping an eye on them as they read Judy Moody books to each other.

Granted, the whole topic I’m about to embark on is truly shallow, particularly if mentioned in the same breath as flooding that actually caused a great deal of damage (there’s a terribly misbegotten pun in there somewhere, if you can untangle it) but it takes a foot of water lapping at the curbcuts to keep a mom still for longer than a few minutes these days (there’s laundry to fold!  there’s math homework to do!)

And here’s my question, the one that seemed particularly burning by the time I’d worked my way to the end of the fiction stacks:

When on earth did every single novel out there start having to include a mystery within it?

Oh, I’m not talking about the actual mystery genre, which has always been with us, and always will —  there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

I’m no snob.   (Well, that might be debatable; maybe I am…). I like a good who-done-it as much as the next escapist.  Sometimes you just plain need those page-turners, those propulsive narratives that pull you through a book.

My issue du jour might be more with the recent elevation of such narratives  to every single end cap of a book store’s fiction shelves — when, o when, did a Mystery (capitalization intentional) become  such an absolute prerequisite plot twist for … what used to be called literary … fiction?

The jacket copy of almost every single contemporary novel I picked up contained a reference to”searing,” “heartbreaking” mysteries and “devastating” and  “explosive” secrets.  I’m not just talking the ever-popular “child in peril” subgenre of domestic fiction — you know the kind of book I mean, it’s got a sky blue cover that contains a photograph of a single child’s sneaker left forlorn on the pavement.

I’m talking debut novels by the Bright Young Things of American Letters.  I’m talking basically every novel written these days by someone between 25 and 60.

Is this even worth mentioning?  Probably not, but I was struck by this current tic most in books about what used to be called, somewhat derisively “the domestic” arena (not necessarily only those written by women).  If “family” was mentioned in the first paragraph of a book’s jacket copy, you can bet, dollars-to-doughnuts, that a searing mystery or harrowing secret reared its head in the second — usually one that included a snatched or vanished child or a more historical mystery that took place when the novel’s protagonist was a child and witnessed a murder or was somehow close to a snatched or vanished child.

What to make of this?

There’s a dissertation in there somewhere.  Maybe this need for every single narrative we read to contain a mystery (the comforting assumption being that by the end of these books these mysteries will be at least somewhat … solved)  addresses social anxiety, a need for a “quick fix”  and a culture of fear (or the unspoken desire to “disappear” children?)  Maybe it speaks to the notion that in our reading, as we’re told we have in so much else,  we’ve gotten lazy — if the plot doesn’t propel us through it, we can’t be bothered.

Maybe it’s that (and personally, I think this is a biggie) we live in times that value solid functional frameworks above all else.  What used to pull readers through novels considered literary? The way they were written.  Style.  And character development. Somewhere along the way, these things became window dressing — great if they’re there, but the main thing is plot, plot that moves along at a merry clip.

But the thing that’s most interesting about this phenomenon, at least from the point of view of a blog about writing and motherhood, is the possibility that , just as a “working” parent has more legitimacy in many circles than those who “stay at home,” writing that locates itself within that “domestic arena” is still not considered interesting (or valuable, or readable) unless it borrows from more popular genres.

Enter the deus ex machina of the Searing Mystery!

It’s an amusing party trick — trying insert one into the literary novels of previous decades and see what you come up with.  For Whom the Bell Tolls.   Mrs. Dalloway.  Middlemarch.

Sorry about such a long post, but you get the idea.

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One thought on “Of stories, and how we prefer them

  1. I prefer my mysteries searing, my secrets harrowing, my hoaxes elaborate. If that makes me an idiot, I hope I’m a blithering one.

    I’m so out of touch with book-world that I am not familiar with some of the tropes you mention, such as the missing child one. (I am aware of at least a couple of missing child books but didn’t know it had become a type.)

    It’s hard to engage with the culture if it really isn’t interested in being engaged. Everything seems to have been taken over by spambots now. Does publishing really care what we think? Do they even care what’s going on in publishing? I get the sense that the People in Charge have put the plane on autopilot and parachuted to safety while the auto-pilot spambot just spews out the same stuff until the plane crashes or the program runs out of adverbial/adjectival/noun combinations for the jackets. Boy, bunch of mixed metaphors in that.

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