February 19, 2014
Isabel Allende insults, and then asks forgiveness from, mystery writers and readers
by Julia Fleischaker
It’s probably not a great idea, when dipping your toe into a new literary genre, to malign the people already swimming there. It’s a lesson that acclaimed author Isabel Allende is learning the hard way. Lauded for works including The House of the Spirits, Allende decided to try her hand at mystery with Ripper, but admitted on NPR that she did it as “a joke.”
In a January 25 interview with Arun Rath on “All Things Considered,” Allende said:
The book is tongue in cheek. It’s very ironic … and I’m not a fan of mysteries, so to prepare for this experience of writing a mystery I started reading the most successful ones in the market in 2012. … And I realized I cannot write that kind of book. It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people. Very entertaining, but really bad people. So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.
Though it’s this interview that provoked a reaction, it’s worth noting that a Reuters interview from February 13 quoted Allende as saying something similar. “I had approached this book tongue-in-cheek because I’m not a fan of mysteries. I read a few mysteries to prepare myself for this book…Mysteries and romance novels are fantasies, and their characters tend to be caricatures. For a writer like myself, who is so much into character, relationships and research, I needed to write this book in my style and make fun of the genre.”
Needless to say, her remarks haven’t gone over so well with mystery writers and readers, and the blowback has been swift. McKenna Jordan from Houston’s mystery bookstore, Murder by the Book, who returned the 20 copies her store had ordered, in the Houston Chronicle:
Mystery and genre writers deal with this all the time from so-called literary authors…But for her to have gotten paid to write a mystery when she doesn’t even like the genre – how would she expect mystery readers to react to that?
Erin Mitchell at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room:
Look, if Ms. Allende wants to sneer down her nose from her stepstool at the rest of us, that’s her prerogative. But this interview insulted a lot of people, many of whom are influential when it comes to recommending books.
Bestselling author Charlaine Harris:
She thought she would write a mystery “as a joke.” Though I don’t want to put words into Allende’s mouth, to me this translates: I’m so amazingly ‘literary’ that condescending to write a genre novel is incredibly funny.
British authors Val McDermid and Mark Billingham had thoughts too, as quoted in The Guardian:
“It’s great to see the crime-writing community rising up in its own defence,” said McDermid. “For years we’ve been the butt of ignorant prejudice from the literary genre and we’ve taken it on the chin, muttering in corners and up our sleeves about how misunderstood we are. But clearly we’re not going to stand for it any longer. The great thing about this backlash is that it’s coming from readers as well as writers – it can’t just be written off as wounded amour propre. (Is that a bit too literary? Using French?)”
Billingham added that “as a crime writer I’m obviously not well inclined towards any writer who professes to ‘make fun of mysteries'”, but speculated if Allende was “only now describing her book as a ‘joke’ after seeing the universally savage reviews it’s received”.
The savage reviews that Billingham references include Oline Cogdill calling it “overwrought,” “uninteresting,” and “sluggish,” and Clea Simon calling it “tedious” and “disjointed” in the Boston Globe.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Allende apologized, claiming that her comments were meant to be funny, a joke that admittedly didn’t work. “I am so sorry that I wasn’t clear. I take my writing very seriously and I have tried many genres and I’ve always done it in a very serious way.” Claiming respect for the genre, she also pointed out that she was married to William C. Gordon, a mystery writer.
It may be too little too late, as NPR noted on their follow up. According to their website, Jordan McKenna “called the apology ‘halfhearted and self-serving…She was probably pushed into the apology by her publisher…I understand she may have had a bad day when she spoke to NPR, but when you’re doing a national interview, you don’t have the opportunity to have a bad day.'”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.