I am not an ambitious woman. Well, not any longer. It is true that, at one time, I wanted to be either the pope or the president, career paths I am clearly unsuited for, one by reason of biology and the other by reason of being utterly unskilled at making any kind of enterprise involving more than one participant run well. Very briefly, I also thought I might become a partner at the big law firm where I landed when I graduated from law school, but the work was so soul suckingly boring, and I was so spectacularly bad at it, that this ambition ended ten minutes after I hung up from my first phone call with a lawyer on the other side. “You’re unethical,” he hissed. “You lied to me. Where are my documents? You said I’d get them all. I didn’t get them all. You’re unethical.” It went on and on and on. At some point, I should have said, “You’re an asshole,” but I didn’t. Instead, when the horror was over, I hung up the phone, put my head on my desk and moaned and vowed that I would never again harbor any ambitions of any kind. I would be an underachiever. People would be pleasantly surprised when I managed to do anything of note.
But you see, it’s also true that for my entire life — ever since I knew this particular job existed — I’ve wanted to write stories. And it turns out I do indeed have an ambition. It came to me the other day when I was reading an article about a kerfluffle in the literary community involving a woman who writes literary fiction. Her advice to young writers? Aim high. Do not write derivative crap. For some reason, this made people who write genre fiction mad because they felt insulted and made people who write literary fiction mad in her defense. And me? I just thought, “Okay, then. I will write the BEST genre fiction there is.” I will never be a literary innovator because I am not interested in literary innovation — but I can certainly aim high enough to write really terrific genre fiction. So, that got me to thinking about whether there was such a thing as excellent genre fiction, and that got me to thinking about the day when fiction was not divided into genre and literary. Wilkie Collins, for example, just wrote fiction. It was mystery-type fiction, but it was shelved in Victorian libraries (if they even shelved things in any kind of order), relatively close to Dickens, who wrote just fiction too, fiction which also often had secrets and mysteries at its heart. Like, who’s my real mother? Who’s my father? And what happened to all my money?
Really, all I want is to write stuff that’s so entertaining and so beautifully written that people will close my book and think, “Wow. That was worth the money. Plus, what a nice cover.” I do not want them to close the book and feel sort of bad, the reading equivalent of eating a big mac, plus fries, plus some frozen dessert thing. That is what it feels like to read crappy derivative fiction and we all know that that sort of stuff is filed both in the genre section and the straight on fiction section.
Genre Queen. That’s what I want to be. And how do you achieve THAT? Well, first you write the things you love to read. If you happen to love genre fiction, as I do, particularly spy books and mysteries, then you write that. And you learn how those stories are structured by reading them carefully. And then you write one of your own, but you tell your own story, the one about a place you lived when you were a child, or a man you loved once, or an event that has never left you. And you ask questions you’re afraid to ask, and then you go ahead and try to answer them, all the while using the form you really like to read as a way to answer them. That’s what I do anyway.
It turns out that the great thing about becoming Genre Queen is that you don’t have to marry Genre Prince and wait for his grandmother to die in order to achieve your goal of being Queen. Also, you will never have to worry that people will find out what your wedding dress looks like before you show up in your Rolls Royce and step out to the oohs and ahs of the world. (Gack. Who ever would submit to that kind of thing? Crazy.) It turns out there can be a couple of Genre Queens and Kings. PD James is one. So is Dorothy Sayers. Eric Ambler. Sometimes John LeCarre. Me, I’m a Genre Scullery Maid at this point. I’m aiming for Genre Lady in Waiting next. After that, who knows? There’s a lot of room on that throne.