There’s a philosophical debate in Mathematics about whether mathematics itself pre-exists and is simply discovered as we progress into new areas or whether it is created as we go along and so each new discovery is less about having discovered something and more about having created it.
It’s a fascinating, unanswerable conundrum to grapple with, not least on account of how you can really get into the idea of learning, epistemology, and the philosophy of knowledge. Oh, man, one day I really must write a post about the philosophy of knowledge as applied to classic detective fiction, because the crossover is both huge and beautiful, and because I am a massive nerd who is seemingly going out of his way to alienate his own audience.
I do not intend to get into any of that today, but I want to look at something which is linked in my mind, partly for the nature of the issues it raises: whether books are written to cater to a particular audience, or whether they’re written in spite of an audience and the lucky ones just happen to find one. At first glance it seems obvious — that writers write books because readers want to read them — but if you’ve been following along with this month’s Tuesday posts, and my sincere congratulations if you have, you’ll know that nothing here is ever that simple. Or, if it were, you’d know that I seriously neglected my own self-imposed blogging deadlines. Anyway, it’s not that simple. At least, I don’t think it is.
“I. Am. Shocked.”
It’s probably fair to say that an author’s first book is written for themself, partly because an idea keeps nagging away at them, and partly because they feel there’s something they want to add to an existing body of work. I haven’t read Freeman Wills Crofts’ debut The Cask (1920), but his second novel The Ponson Case (1921) feels like someone working very earnestly to show a side of detection that was perhaps being neglected — earlier works tended to focus on smaller, short forms of investigation, or to copy the Holmes idiom with a genius detective simply leaping to the correct conclusion and there being little actual work involved (“But, of course, once I knew that the villain had size eight feet, it was clear that he was also a smoker and Wilson’s father was the only smoker in the case!“). Agatha Christie famously wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) as the result of a bet with her sister, rather than because she wanted to revolutionise a genre, but there was still that element of personal challenge in it. At this stage, no-one was writing for an audience of more than maybe two or possibly three people.
As an author’s career progresses — and this applies more widely across all divisions of book-writing, not just novels and not just GAD — it’s fair to say that this focus changes. Once John Dickson Carr got a name for himself as a wrangler of fine impossibilities, he would have had a brand to uphold and an audience to repeatedly outfox. Christie was the same, as was Crofts, and would anyone who managed to last more than a handful of books in the genre. And, of course, the audience of an especially successful plotter would extend beyond merely those schmoes who were buying the books, as there would also have been the challenge of showing one’s fellow authors something especially new or devastatingly well-hidden. Indeed, collaborations like The Floating Admiral (1931) would give everyone a chance to try to out-shine their contemporaries, introducing a dual-headed audience impetus: to say to the average man “See? See how smart I am?” and to one’s fellow contributors “See? See how much smarter than you I am?”. The expectation of response is far greater once we hit this phase of an author’s career, because once you have a style or a series of expectations to uphold there comes implicit with that a group of people who are expecting you to uphold them, and therefore the book is written very much for the reader rather than the writer.
The game-playing element is no bad thing — Carr evidently enjoyed it, indulging in a challenge with Clayton Rawson to find a resolution for a particular impossible setup, collaborating with John Rhode on another baffling murder, and partnering with Arthur Conan Doyle’s son Adrian to produce a series of canon-expanding Holmes tales in which Carr, you feel, comes off very much the better. And the awareness of what other authors were doing, and the intention of trying to outwit them and so delight your reading public with your chutzpah or legerdemain, undoubtedly pushed GAD into a period of fecundity that has served the genre superbly for the last 80 or so years. Sure, everything has its enthusiasts — hell, Bigfoot Erotica is a thing — and so it’s possible for anyone to claim that any genre has done sufficient work to justify interest in it past its prime, but GAD walks that balance of familiarity and newness in a way that no other genre really needs to (as sort of discussed last week): we’d not be raving about the genre after all this time if there were three solutions, or only three possible deceptions, cycled through by the hundreds of authors who turned their minds to it.
“Did…did you say Bigfoot Erotica?”
But even this reader-focussed age of book writing will pass for most authors. Like anything, you do it enough times and it becomes stale. Hence Carr veering off into historical mysteries after churning out 50 books in 20 years, becoming increasingly interested only in writing about the sorts of things he found interesting (and Carr’s interest in history is there on the page from the beginning of his career). Equally, I’ve been arguing for a while now that Christie’s later books are really extended reflections on old age and perceived irrelevance — not the sort of thing fans of Evil Under the Sun (1941) would have been clamouring for, let’s face it — and that her final Miss Marple novel feels like little more than someone wanting to spend some time with an old friend. Now Carr and Christie may arguably be atypical in their careers since both managed a productivity beyond the mere mortals they surrounded themselves with for camouflage (John Rhode was clearly, like, a warlock or something), but even if someone doesn’t end up indulging themself for the last 16 books of their career the focus very much shifts from the audience to the personal for one reason or another: either “I don’t want to/can’t do this any more”, or a stark ignorance that the fan base they believe they’re writing for dearly wishes they’d given up the ghost back when there was sufficient dead horse left to flog.
The always-insightful Xavier Lechard and I exchanged some comments on Facebook recently concerning precisely how much of an author’s output may be considered typical of that author’s work: we’ve all done it — “Well, maybe avoid the first three, and he was going through a divorce for these five, and the last eight are clearly a sign of someone in decline…”. And that was in part what got me thinking along these lines; essentially, how much of any author’s work is written for the people who are going to buy it?
Because, well, a certain amount of balance is needed. Too much trying to placate or pander to the reading public and you end up with a lot of the problems the genre faces today — turgidly repetitive (though undeniably popular) long-running series like Jack Reacher and his various knock-offs where the notion of peril and invention is likely to throw people into apoplexy (see also: The Last Jedi, possibly the most hilarious example of the ‘displeaed fanbase’ as yet generated by the chaos engine of the 21st century), or cookie cutter I’m A Woman With A Nice House And A Fashionable Medical Condition In Some Sort Of Peril While On A Thing Or in A Place And I’m Divorced And There’s Someone Mysterious In My Life thrillers which might as well be written by committee and do precisely no-one any favours at all. And yet if you ignore the fans entirely and write the sort of book that scratches some itch in your soul…well, Late Career Introspection has produced multitudinous examples of books failing to connect with readers, and while you may be applauded as a burning iconoclast it will be quiet applause as a direct result of only four people reading your work.
All of which brings me back to my original point.
“Well, I didn’t like to say anything…”
Are books written for a particular audience? Yes, but perhaps only after they’ve found that audience quite by accident in the first place. I can’t tell you how many “Next Big Thing!”s I’ve seen championed on book covers only for them to vanish without a trace because, well, you can shout at a reader as much as you like, but the personal relationship between each person and the book they’re reading is often too precious to be determined by volume of press quotes alone (and, hell, 20 quotes in the front of a book lauding it to the sky and beyond only means that 20 people like it — crap, find me a book that couldn’t rustle up 20 fans if called to). That this awareness is perhaps more keenly felt inside a genre where surprise is typically paramount is (ahem) unsurprising: we like our ends tied, our floorplans accurate, our killers hidden but fairly clewed, and our clues liberal but obscure — hell, you’re not going to write that sort of book accidentally now, are you?
The Criminous Alphabet will take a break for a little while (I’ve got some Little Fictions for Tuesdays next month, and some Minor Felonies for Tuesdays in December), and then return triumphant with B is for…Bloody Hell, Is He Really Doing This Again? sometime in 2019.