Saturday, October 11, 2014

My guest today, Judy Alter, one of my favorite writers

My guest today is Judy Alter, writer extraordinaire. She gives a thoughtful post on Gone Girl and her own The Perfect Coed. --Kaye George

Make Mine Mystery

I’ve been following a lengthy thread on a crime writers’ list about Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has been on the best-seller list for two years now. The comments on the thread range from “literary masterpiece,” “wonderful prose and careful construction,” “satire, not mystery” to “I could get into it,” “I gave up after twenty pages,” and “I didn’t like the characters.” The latter interests me most. I’ve not read the book—and probably won’t—but I’ve heard a lot about how unlikeable both the husband and wife in this book are. It leads me to wonder why people read it and why it’s been on the best-seller list so long.
There seems to be widespread consensus that Gone Girl is not a mystery. Several readers classify it as a suspense thriller—but is that not a mystery subgenre? I’m a little confused here.
Many readers will tell you they tire of light fiction—cozies where there are few dark moments, often lots of humor, and usually a satisfying ending. They want deeper, darker stories that challenge them to think about the nature of mankind. I saw one suggestion that we live in such time of turmoil that our reading tastes reflect the times we live in. I’m not sure I buy that argument—certainly, we live in dark times of political dissatisfaction, world terrorism, racism at home, difficult dilemmas for all of us, not just our leaders. But if our reading tastes reflect our times, is the darkness of the Middle Ages what made The Canterbury Tales great? I suspect today, like all ages, it’s different strokes for different folks. The one principle that I find most commentators agree on is that a novel has to have a satisfactory ending with some sense of morality triumphing.
But that leaves another question about Gone Girl.  How important is character to your reading interest. And which comes first—plot or character? Do you get involved in a book where you either don’t like or don’t care about the characters but the plot fascinates? I don’t. I like to feel I’ve been into the world of the characters, that I care about what happens to them, just as I would care about what happens to a good friend. And I want to feel sad when I come to the end of the book because I don’t want to leave the world of the characters. They’ve become friends. If I don’t like the characters or feel some identification with them, plot doesn’t matter. I don’t care what happens. This is not to say that characters should be without flaws. Heaven forbid! Even in the lightest cozy, I want characters to be true to life…and there’s not a one of us without a whole bunch of flaws.
Passing judgment on  Gone Girl when I haven’t read it borders dangerously on arrogance, and I wouldn’t even bring the topic up if it weren’t that I’ve read so much about it, mostly negative, and I’m puzzled about its lengthy run on the best-seller list. It’s set to me to thinking about what I really like in a book when I read, and I confess—I like, and I write, cozies. I identify with the (usually) single female sleuth even if I am a tad older. I dislike violence and am not particularly interested in graphic sex and plain don’t like erotica. But I enjoy a good puzzle, so a well-plotted cozy mystery with likeable characters is my choice for escape reading. Bad confession for one who has written and edited all her life: I don’t want to read a book just to admire the skill of the prose. I want to become involved in the story.
Lest you dismiss me as a lightweight, let me say that my latest book, The Perfect Coed, is barely a cozy, if at all—I’m thinking of promoting cozy noir as a subgenre—and the protagonist, Susan Hogan, professor of English, is likeable but prickly—that’s the best term for it. But I hope you’ll like her.

Judy Alter is no stranger to college campuses, like the one she invented for The Perfect Coed. She attended the University of Chicago, Truman State University in Missouri, and Texas Christian University, where she earned a Ph.D. and taught English. For twenty years, she was director of TCU Press, the book publishing program of the university. The author of many books for both children and adults, she retired in 2010 and turned her attention to writing contemporary cozy mysteries. She is the author of the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and the Blue Plate Café Mysteries.
She holds awards from the Western Writers of America, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Texas Institute of Letters. She was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and recognized as an Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth and a woman who has left her mark on Texas by the Dallas Morning News. Western Writers of America gave her the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Twitter: @judyalter

Blurb for The Perfect Coed:
Susan Hogan is smart, pretty—and prickly. There was no other word for it. She is prickly with Jake Phillips and her Aunt Jenny, the two people who love her most in the world. And she is prickly and impatient with some of her academic colleagues and the petty jealousies in the English department at Oak Grove University. When a coed’s body is found in her car and she is suspected of murder, Susan gets even more defensive.

But when someone begins to stalk and threaten her—trying to run her down, causing a moped wreck that breaks her ankle—prickly mixes with fear. Susan decides she has to find the killer to save her reputation—and her life. What she suspects she’s found on a quiet campus in Texas is so bizarre Jake doesn’t believe her. Until she’s almost killed.

The death of one coed unravels a tale of greed, lust, and obsession.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I didn't read the book, but did see the movie--the assessment everyone made about the characters being unlikeable is true in the movie too. I thought there were lots of twists and turns, but hubby and I began guessing what was going to happen next and were always right. At the end of the movie--which was yet another twist--the audience laughed. Not sure what that means, except that I didn't really like the story at all.

Anonymous said...

After reading Gone Girl, I read Gillian Flynn's other mysteries, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. I plan to see the movie and not just because it stars Ben Affleck. My reading tastes - and writing genre - match those you describe as yours pretty closely. (Cozy noir is a brilliant description.) I'm going to check out your latest book, and you might want to give Gone Girl a chance. Who knows? You might like it.

Judy Alter said...

Thanks, Marilyn and Patricia. I'm not a moviegoer so I won't be seeing Gone Girl, and I may read it but it would be reluctantly and there are so many many books out there I burn to read. I'm happy for Gillian Flynn and her success--she set a high bar to follow with her next novel. If nothing else, controversy sells a book.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for the post, Judy. All I hear is Gone Girl, lately! Very timely.

Patricia Gligor said...

You sound like a woman after my own heart. For me, it's character before plot. If I don't care about a character, I don't care what happens to her.
I'm putting "The Perfect Coed" on my TBR list right now!

Terry Shames said...

I really disliked the book, but actually found the characters intriguing. I don't mind "bad" characters. But what I do mind is feeling cheated, and I didn't feel that Flynn played fair.

It seems to me that your important question is: Why has this book been on the best-seller list for two years. I think the answer is something about "buzz." We usually think of buzz as good stuff, but the controversy over whether people admire or detest the book has made for big buzz.

On another note, I was on a panel at a conference last spring, the topic of which was (ta da) Cozy Noir. So I think you're onto something.

Polly Iyer said...

I read Sharp Objects, and the characters were the same, unlikeable and actually pretty #%$#@^ up. I decided not to read Gone Girl. Terry has it right. Buzz is everything. People don't want to be left out of the controversy. I personally like dark books, write them too, but I want the characters to have a reason to be the way they are, not for shock value alone. Maybe I'll see the movie for the performances, which I've heard are very good.

carl brookins said...

I tend to think of Crime Fiction as the overall genre label. mystery, police procedural, cozy, etc. are all segments of that umbrella. Gone Girl is, in my view, a crime novel.
My problem with the book, and I agree with nearly everything you write, is that it isn't only the couple who have nothing to recommend them as even casual acquaintances. Their immediate families fall into that kettle as well. Consequently, there are no major characters with whom an ordinary reader can identify or care about. I managed to read just past the mid-point before my queasiness got the better of me.

Morgan Mandel said...

I haven't read Gone Girl, but would like to see the movie. Lots of good actors in it. I'm not a plot reader. Character is primary for me.

Judy Alter said...

I can't add much to what has been said here. Obviously I agree--I don't read for plot, I read for character involvement. As for cozy noir, I hope others like the idea. And yes, buzz is everything-that's what catapulted Gone Girl into such notoriety. Any talk, even if negative, if better than none. It should happen to all of us. And that's the clue to Gone Girl's success.

Susan said...

What an interesting group of comments on various elements of this book/movie. I read "Gone Girl" when it first came out, and I finished it because it was like that cliche of not being able to take your eyes away from a train wreck. I believed the characters because I have known a person like the character Amy in the book--charming when she wants to be, and dark and ruthless underneath. I didn't enjoy the book because, like some of you, I want to cheer for someone in a book.There was no one to cheer for in this novel. I saw the movie last night and came away with the same feeling. The end left me dissatisfied, but I found the characters intriguing. However, it wasn't a warm, fuzzy feeling!

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