BY NICO VREELAND

[This is the second installment of Armchair Detective, a C4 column about reading mysteries. Follow it here or follow all our ongoing features here.]

In the past few years, I’ve noticed more and more so-called literary writers crossing over into genre fiction. Crossover has never been all that rare, but literary writers used to separate their genre work: Mike Beeman discusses Graham Greene’s “entertainments” here, and here’s a Washington Post piece about the pseudonyms that writers once used (at least partially) to write in different genres.

These days, the crossover is more condescending and less satisfying. In “mysteries” like The Missing and The Nobodies Album, authors attempt to elevate genre formulas with literary sensibilities, but they succeed only in creating hollow mishmashes, prettily written but horribly plotted.

I think I know why. During my extended MFA career—which began before the iPhone and ended last week—I’ve grown to hate one piece of clichéd workshopspeak more than any other. It goes like this: “True mystery is not what happens, it’s how it happens.” You hear this from the aspiring “literary writer” in each class, the one whose characters are forever ambling through picturesque foreign cities and having torrid but chastely described love affairs. In other words, the one who can’t write a plot to save his life.

It’s particularly grating in writing classes because it reflects such flat-line contempt toward plot, from ostensible students of the craft—no other facet of fiction writing is as widely reviled, or even reviled at all. Imagine a fiction writer declaring, “Characters are for movies,” or “Descriptions? What is this a catalog?” And yet, the prevailing school of writing education considers it acceptable to dismiss plot as an opiate for the masses.

It betrays a sneering arrogance, and it leaves gaping holes in the skill set of many literary writers actually publishing books. Those holes become most noticeable when those literary pens attempt to write mystery without deigning to craft a plot.

Before we get much further, let me say this: I understand the purpose and intent of the “true mystery” statement, and, from a certain angle, I don’t mind it. I understand that it’s meant to convey that novels are not converted police blotters—they should not be strings of spiritless events (“He ran down the hallway, then opened the door, then ran down the stairs”).

Character is a crucial element of fiction, and in most contemporary fiction, subjective experience is a crucial element of the narrative. Things happen—or appear to happen—in different ways to different people, both in great fiction and in life. When I give “true mystery” the benefit of the doubt, that’s how I read it: you need more than just events, you need to capture the way your character perceives those events.

That’s not how most people, at least people in my classes, mean it. Instead, they use it to throw away the “what happens” of a piece of writing. Events, to these literary aspirers, become mere jumping-off points for rumination, or endless conversation. They hit that first phrase so hard, “not what happens,” that they often don’t bother to make anything happen at all.

Don’t get me wrong: there do exist writers who can pull off fiction where nothing much happens. One of my favorite novels of last year was The Believers, by Zoe Heller, a plotless, but riveting, family portrait. One of my all-time favorites is The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford, which takes place over an innocuous holiday weekend and consists of probably 95% interior monologue—just a guy thinking about his life. There are events in both these novels, of course, but it’s the prose and the emotional acuity that make them riveting.

The problem comes when literary writers decide to write mysteries and then they think, “True mystery is how it happens,” and they refuse to write a plot.

That’s when you wind up with a novel like The Missing, which was up for an Edgar award, but doesn’t actually contain a mystery. The author, Tim Gautreaux, tells you who the bad guy is a third of the way through, and stretches out an extra 300 pages describing (in very nice prose) a steamboat. You can almost hear his contempt for the “what happens” of his story, and you can feel your eyes unfocusing as they glaze over.

Even more frustrating is a novel like The Nobodies Album, in which a very good literary writer has absolutely no idea how to structure or plot a mystery, and so her protagonist wanders around, almost aimlessly, and the mystery lurches about separately, of its own accord, to a separate conclusion. The emotionality is precise, but the rotting mystery foundation ruins the experience of reading it.

Plot is a craft and an art every bit as much as character or prose or dialogue, and mystery is the most plot-centric of all genres. Great mysteries have great characters, too, but for one to be even good, it has to have a plot. A beautifully written literary mystery with a poorly crafted plot is like painting a masterpiece on the wall of an old barn: it might be pretty to look at, but it’s no fun standing in shit.

And yet, writing teachers in MFA programs treat plot like Kansans treat evolution. When I was working on my thesis (which is a mystery novel), I asked advice from my advisors about which plot fork was less predictable. They responded with the rote “Let your characters decide” answer, which is about the same as telling surgical interns to close their eyes and let the organs tell them where to cut.

When writers learn to rely on such black-box voodoo, they hobble themselves. Perhaps it’s largely unnoticeable, most of the time, and at cocktail parties they can tell boring stories about their characters surprising them. Please, though, “true mystery” stalwarts: write your breathless, action-free bildungsromans all you want—I will read them—but if you decide to write a mystery, make sure it’s got a plot.

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