The Agony of Genre

I check agents’ sites occasionally, and yesterday I saw a note that a person had incorrectly classified her book as a ‘thriller’ in a query letter.  The agent said (quite correctly, I think from the query) that the book is suspense, not a thriller … but that’s okay, she said, because “thrillers are hard to sell these days.”

Ahhh, visions of my history with venture capital, when someone would have a Big Honkin’ Idea, would get funded and (shortly) acquired.  Within months there would be a dozen minor variations on the original idea looking for money, some of which would be funded.  Then the market would be saturated with look-alikes, and VC attention would turn to the next Big Honkin’ Idea.

So it is, I fear, with the thriller genre in commercial fiction.  I have two finished thrillers, one in rewrite and another in design.  So this is of some concern to me.

Once upon a time, the “thriller” plot turned on some big problem, something that would hurt thousands or millions.  Somehow the story’s protagonist, often an ordinary person (not cop, PI, lawyer, etc.), would discover some important detail and be pursued by bad guys until he or she was successful in exposing the bad stuff.  Then, sometime between Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2006) and her Gone Girl (2012), her marketing department made Gone Girl a thriller.  After that, there were a lot of thrillers came out. Most were suspense (the general classification above thriller), but ‘thriller’ sold.

It’s looking more and more like I’ll self-publish at least my first novel.

Fiction and reality

I have just returned from a trip to reality.

In my second novel, a main character is drugged and pushed off a Danube river boat. She ends up in a little town at the eastern edge of Austria called Hainburg an der Donau.

With my Internet resources, I was able to see a Google World view of the town, locate the hospital in it, observe the uniform of Austrian policemen, calculate the actual speed of the boat after it left Vienna for a trip to Budapest, view a plan of a boat similar to my fictional one. I knew the depth and temperature of water in late June, and I knew that a single screw (propeller) would most likely not drag an unconscious person through its blades. More than enough information to write a credible story, right?

A little over a week ago, my wife and I had dinner in VGruner Veltlinerienna with several friends from my former business life. Over a very nice glass Grüner Veitliner, I allowed as how I planned to ride the train to Hainburg the next day. Chuckles. Well, I said, part of my novel takes place … Outright laughter. “In Hainburg?” they asked, with the same inflection a Manhattanite would use to describe central North Dakota.

I mentioned that I had written ahead to the Tourist Bureau there (not-so-stifled laughter) and received a long German reply to my request to visit the police station. The Tourist Bureau had summed it up in four English words: “It is not possible.”

My friends Werner and Tina took pity on us and drove us to Hainburg the next day.

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg hospital

Hainburg hospital

The town was substantial, but definitely in the sticks, at least to my sophisticated city-dwelling friends. The hospital was far more substantial than I expected, and its design would not have allowed the story line as I had written it. The police department, the one which was “not possible” to see, produced a constable very like my fictional one and an interior design that made what I had written plausible.

I will make some revisions, but fiction is fiction. The lovely little town Hainburg an Der Donau with be portrayed, umm, a little inaccurately.