I mentioned in an earlier post (way back when...) that I'm a down-to-earth kinda guy in terms of the manuscripts I like to read and publish. I am a proud publisher of commercial fiction: For everyone's sake (including that jar of black ink that pays my salary, as well as authors' royalty checks), I want my books to sell. I want people reading them, buying them, requesting them at the library.
We all know of those rare instances when a "literary" book hits the best-seller list: I'm thinking of (for example) The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco; or, more recently, 2666, by Roberto Bolano.
Despite certain aspects of American society that are the remainder of our English heritage, for the most part I think that the U.S. is a mostly egalitarian society that frowns upon pretension and "airs." (We share that characteristic with the Australians, who are even more sensitive to, and intolerant of, those who attempt to place themselves above others.) This leads us to the interesting question: How can a writer (whether of mysteries or otherwise) be ambitious without being pretentious? It's an important question, because ambitious books are very much to be encouraged, while pretentious books are to be tossed out with the bathwater.
As a commercial editor, all I can do is list those qualities in a book (usually a published book) that for me are the hallmarks of pretension. As I flip through a book and see these devices, all sorts of alarm bells go off, shrieking "PRETENSION! PRETENSION!"
1. Present-Tense Narratives. I do loathe these self-conscious attempts to be "literary," which is exactly what they are, 99% of the time. I've heard all the usual reasons given for choosing that tense: It makes the prose more "immediate," etc., etc. Sorry, but no. It sounds ridiculous. Think of Pamela Andrews literally writing a letter as she flees the sexual advances of Mr. B in Samuel Richardson's classic (but less than technically believable) Pamela. Things haven't changed since the 1740s, folks...what sounded ridiculous then sounds ridiculous now. I know there are plenty of people who will disagree with me (quite actively, given the number of published present-tense narratives I see on the shelves), but I've never bought a book written in present tense and I never will.
2. Nameless Narrators. Something is really wrong when I get to the end of the book and I realize that the writer has never deigned to give his/her protagonist a name. Fiction does bend the rules of reality, and it does allow for a nice amount of suspension of disbelief, but one thing it shares with reality is that people have names. Why would you want to distance me from your narrator or protagonist so massively that you would choose not to give or reveal his or her name?
3. Chapters without Numbers. You know what these books look like. Chapters start on a new page with some sort of flourish--a large, ornate capital letter, or some sort of horizontal rule, or just a lot of white space before the first paragraph. These are clearly chapter breaks, but the book has no chapter numbers. Why? Again, it's because the writer (or editor) is trying to appear "literary" in that sort of Proustian way. Next!
4. The Barest of Plots with Endless Description. There are those who believe that good fiction is basically character-centered, and that a story is not really necessary--that a book can be carried purely by the internal monologue of a somewhat f***ed-up, highly egocentric/neurotic main character. Wrong! Fiction is the intersection of character and plot. Without a story, you have a pretentious mess; without action you have pages of self-impressed prose and a very bored reader.