Recently I read a long interview that Jofie Ferrari-Adler, an editor at Grove/Atlantic, conducted with four young editors. This was published on the web site, Poets and Writers.
Here’s part of the response that Eric Chinski gave to a question about what besides the written page or the author’s skill or her obsession compels an editor to purchase a manuscript. Mr. Chinski is vice-president and editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, a long-time publisher known for its literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s literature.
“The word necessary always comes to mind for me. Beyond a good story, beyond good writing, does the novel feel necessary? . . . the ones I tend to be drawn to are the ones that either feel personally necessary or globally necessary in some vague way that’s hard to define. And that should be at the sentence level, too. People who can write really well sometimes get carried away by their own writing and forget what’s actually necessary on the page. . . . Sometimes you feel like an author is just writing for the sake of writing, and that is a big turnoff. It’s got to feel necessary at every level.”
Huckleberry Finn was a necessary book. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Grapes of Wrath. I’m not sure about Moby Dick, though, no doubt, generations of high school English teachers could argue me to a stand-still on that one.
I tried to think of a globally-necessary mystery. The one that came to mind was Tess Gerritsen’s The Apprentice. With apologies to Dr. Gerritsen, it was a book that made me tremendously uncomfortable. I finished it with all of the morbid fascination people display gawking at fatality traffic accidents, which is exactly the point one of the characters makes. I saw qualities in that character’s assessment of people’s relationship to torture and death that I didn’t like recognizing in myself. It cut so close to the bone that I had more than a moment’s pause as to whether I should turn myself in for a bit of psychotherapeutic tune-up.
As writers, we have a standard list of why we read/write/enjoy mysteries. Justice is done. Crime does not pay. Murder will out. The world can be put back into alignment through the actions and sacrifice of the hero/heroine. The bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the wrong that can be righted. These ideas are embedded in culture. In countries where justice—or the lack of it—and the roles of police officers are different from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, mystery “truths” look very different.
I suspect, however, that the majority of us are writing personally-necessary stories. Each of us has a particular mix of stories and characters that won’t let us alone. They intrude during the day when we’re standing at the photocopier or doing dishes. They invade our dreams. They keep coming back until, in desperate self-defense, we have to put those stories on paper. I really hope that is what Mr. Chinski meant by a “personally-necessary” story because I think it's as close as I'm going to come to meeting the necessary criteria.
What makes a mystery necessary to you?
Quote for the week:
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and aviator (1906-2001)