Jean B. Cooper’s work first appeared in EQMM after a story she’d submitted to the Mystery Writers of America’s Fiftieth Anniversary Short Story Contest was named a finalist in the competition. EQMM published that story in the August 1995 issue and it went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story of 1995. Jean has also been nominated for the Anthony Award and her stories have been anthologized in best-of-the-year anthologies and elsewhere. She talks about “genre” in this post, but her own work defies such categorization. She writes “literary” as well as genre stories and has won the South Carolina Writers Workshop Fiction Award and been recognized by the South Carolina Fiction Project. In recent years she has devoted much of her time to writing for theater. Her plays have been produced at Piccolo Spoleto and at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. We’re delighted to have a new short story by Jean coming up in our June 2016 issue—something not to be missed!—Janet Hutchings
Have you ever bought a genre car, genre houseplant, or genre drugs (don’t answer the last one)? Genre is a noun. So what is genre fiction? I don’t know, but I’m uncomfortable with the word genre as a noun or as an adjective—sounds like someone’s put on her fancy pants. I grew up in a South Carolina mill village. We said category, which has more syllables, but no particular attitude. How to categorize a story, for instance. I’m not talking about literary journals that publish someone who uses seriously the words sturm und drang to describe his angst, marriage, or circumstances. A memory of a writers’ group experience: I heard a literary mag editor say that he had a weight problem as a kid, and he might not publish a story if a fat person were in it. That fact was not in the mag’s writing guidelines. What I’m wondering about aside from that editor’s issues (sorry, a pun escaped) is is it a thriller, a cozy, a whodunit, a howdunit, or a justget’erdunit story? Maybe it’s a police procedural or a hardboiled crime. Is it a mystery story? There is so much overlapping. Science fiction does differ a bit, as does romance, but to me all stories are, for good or ill, love stories. Why categorize a story? One reason is that some editors must categorize for a target audience. I concede it may be fun to be part of a distinct and specific group, especially if you get to wear costumes. What is a mystery? All these questions! I’m getting dizzy, and you’re on the verge of The Big Snore. Hmmm. My four-year-old grandson walks behind my chair, so I ask him, with good reason: Grandchildren are smarter than all their elders.
“Sweetie, what is a mystery?”
“I don’t know.”
Exactly! The boy is brilliant. A mystery is something unknown. You knew? Stay with me. I’m out for a little spin, and, like Evil, I crave company.
I need an additional source or two for the meaning of mystery. My choice is Wikipedia, a name that to me sounds like a disease to put fear into the hearts of men, and into the hearts of women if I’m telling the truth. Truth? Please wait while I bite my tongue. Note to me: check Wikipedia on origin of idiom “to bite one’s tongue.” It’s probably Shakespeare. In the mill village, we did use “bite your tongue,” and the more succinct imperative “Hush up.”
Wikipedia is infallible, like all things Internet, but if I can’t find there the facts required, I make’em up. It’s the license and freedom of fiction without adult supervision. I love the word fiction, how it feels, how it has the velar “k” followed by the fricative “sh.” Say it . . . slowly. Feels sexy, doesn’t it? No? Really? Well, no offense intended, but see the above comments on the name Wikipedia. It’s a suggestion, and it’s speculative. It doesn’t mean I think you have Wikipedia. Not everybody gets it.
Due to my trying to help you, here’s another suggestion, gratis, because I’m a giver. If, despite all the news items, cautionary tales, true crime, short stories, and novels offering you saner counsel replete with examples, you intend to post your profile, or whatever it’s called, on one of those serial killer dating/matchmaking sites, and want to get some responses, feel free to use my personal relationship with the word fiction. Best not to let it be your lead. Try to sidle up to that aspect of yourself so you’ll sound not crass or weird, but mysteriously alluring. Also, you will come across as intelligent. Don’t go for erudite. Erudite is too too, probably involves some sturm und drang, and a lot of people might think you belong to an obscure religious cult. Okay, maybe that would depend on the dating site. In any event, no need to thank me or to hold me responsible for any disastrous results of decisions you make. I’m merely a writer, and like many writers I’m just putting the word out there so you might be reminded that our world yesterday, today, and tomorrow is lovely, kind, good, generous, beautiful, and deadly.
My unselfish interest in your life and safety took us off on a tangent. God made tangents as side trips for writers where a path emerges for the solitary traveler (without earbuds) to search out the creatures, characters, turns, and unexpected reaches of his very own mind. God, He/She, loves writers. You can look it up. There’s a book in which God spoke to writers. Actually it is a book of assembled books, and you could take an interest in these writings. Here’s a sample, and because this book has various versions and translations, I paraphrase slightly: This is what happened when Xerxes was king. That’s a pretty good opening sentence (it’s not strictly grammatically correct, but let it go). Not a gimmicky hook, but a simple declarative sentence to appeal to the inquisitive nature in all of us, the nature that is tantalized by a mystery, and yearns for answers to who, what, where, when, why, and how. I believe that inquisitiveness is a survival mechanism hardwired in us since man huddled hairy and wary in a dark cave and whispered, What was that noise? So, are you intrigued by an overheard assassination plot, a tale of a hateful scheme to commit genocide, an account of battles and revengeful acts, and (the author of the book, although unknown, was no dummy) the story of a brave, beautiful woman? Guess what, Xerxes is aka Ahasuerus. Already there’s an alias and a dame! Add one hundred eighty days of beauty treatments, two crafty banquets, and the description of home decorative elements. Then there’s a hanging, not a tapestry, but a “You won’t see him around no more” hanging. Did I mention there are some eunuchs? I like a eunuch.
Whew! That’s a story to rival any lengthy novel, yet it has ten short chapters. Everything I’ve listed is in it. If you haven’t guessed already, this story is the Old Testament narrative Esther.
To give the New Testament its due, I’ll suggest there would be fewer horror movies if it were not for the book of The Revelation to John. As a source for story titles, that book is a stand out.
Writers research history, poetry, music, philosophy, science, plus many other disciplines, faiths, beliefs, cultures, and endless minutiae to enhance their own work. Therein we meet true mystery. The creative process—there’s our mystery, but how does it work, this creating of people, worlds, times, and events? There are as many answers to that question as there are writers. I sincerely hope that mystery is never solved or answered definitively. The mystery of creative artistry is dear to me almost to the point of the love and need I have for the mystery of religious faith.
Back to literary genre (got on my fancy pants now—I look good. Oh, hush up). As a writer what I will do is follow the editor’s guidelines. As a reader I do not care about genre, because I don’t have to care. What I am interested in is good writing. I do not mean “make your college professor happy” writing (if you have a college professor do try to write as directed so you get out of that class with a grade that won’t wreck your GPA). What I want to read is the writing I cannot escape, writing with the pull that is visceral, emotional, dark, or perhaps so out there lunatic mad I cannot resist, whether it’s a horror tale, murder mystery, war diary, memoir, a beyond hilarious story like Michael Malone’s Handling Sin which I could barely read for laughing out loud until I had to rest before I could continue, and that is not an exaggeration. You may be astonished I’m including a cookbook, but here the unsurpassed M.F.K. Fisher comes to mind. When I encounter a work of style, form, honesty, slant, and recklessness, and most specifically an ear for how people really talk, you know, what we say when we are real, then I believe willingly in the covenant of the writer. I don’t mind that I will never be so good as the writers whom I admire. It is sufficient that they are kind enough to share their gifts.
I almost forgot. A form of “bite your tongue” is attributed to Shakespeare, Henry VI. It is actually there. I checked.