Armchair BEA: Genre: from Literary Theory Snob to Mystery Lover

Okay, so let me come clean. My previous post on the classics made me sound like I’ve always been judgement free when it comes to books and reading. The truth is, I was once a literary snob. I came close to disowning my earlier love of horror and I absolutely, flat-out, thought disrespectful things about the mystery genre. I thought people who read mystery series were rather mindless, thoughtless people who were no better than people who watched sitcoms. I also went through a kill-your-TV-phase. Now I’m older and wiser (at least when I comes to mysteries and sitcoms).

This slow transformation into a literary snob started in college in the early 1990s. The main cause wasn’t the formal study of literature, but the hysteria surrounding literary theory. My first literary theory class as an undergrad was co-taught by an English professor who regularly reminded students of her background in Mathematics to seem like a more muscular intellect and a Comparative Literature professor who reeked of desperation to seem European with a Marxist edge. It reached its height in the mid-to-late 1990s when I realized I probably should have left graduate school after earning my masters degree and not gone on to a Ph.D. program. After ten years of higher education it got to the point that when reading anything, even a cereal box or beer bottle, I zeroed in on opportunities for the application of various theoretical interpretations.

Reading for the story, for the beauty of language, or for the joys and challenges of life that the writer was exploring were not what mattered. I was on the verge of no longer enjoying reading. I certainly started losing interest in what I was supposed to be reading all the while holding it up as the must important stuff to read. The only important stuff to read. Sure, you can talk about Walt Whitman but only through a theoretical lens. Empathizing with what he was trying to do in Leaves of Grass was okay if you were in high school, but not here.

Francine Prose hit it on the head for me. In Reading like a Writer she says,

“Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading “texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written” (8).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not putting down graduate school or academic scholars (at least not all of them). If you’re considering graduate school, good for you! I have friends who are happily living their lives as tenured English professors. It just wasn’t for me at that time.

What saved me? Who saved me? Nevada Barr saved me. A mystery writer.

My Aunt Sandy saved me, too. I told her I was having thoughts of quitting graduate school but felt like I should–that I had to–finish what I started. The last time we talked before she died way too young from cancer she advised me not to spend another day doing something I no longer enjoyed. Eventually I understood and heeded her advice, but it took a while.

Anyway, one thing I did not give up in graduate school was my love of the outdoors and living in Reno, Nevada, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range provided many opportunities for outdoor activities. If I wasn’t reading, writing, or watching the X-Files, I was out hiking or mountain biking. One day I came across a review of a book in one of the outdoorsy magazines that I regularly read. It was for Nevada Barr’s first novel, The Track of the Cat. I was intrigued and went out and bought the book and loved it. I told a friend who was a big mystery reader that I read a mystery and liked it. (At least I was open minded enough to have friends who read genre.) She gave me Patricia Cornwell’s Postmortem to try. I was hooked and read all the Cornwell that was published at the time. Soon I was blowing off coursework. I justified reading Michael Connelly’s The Poet as something close to research because the serial killer in that novel uses lines from Edgar Allan Poe and I was specializing in 19th century American literature so, hey, it was relevant.

Anyway, long story not so short, I fell in love with mystery and thrillers. They got me back to the joy of reading. After I left graduate school I went through a phase where I read them almost exclusively, but then they started creeping me out a bit. Everyone started looking like a potential murderer and I started noticing good places to hide a body when I was out hiking. Now I’m back to reading rather eclectically. I can even read novels by 19th century American writers without dwelling on how the text will or will not fit into my next seminar paper or dissertation.

My top 3 favorite mystery/thriller writers are:

  • Nevada Barr: each novel in her Anna Pigeon series is set in a different National Park. The parks aren’t just pretty backdrops, but rather Barr makes the unique features of each park integral to the murder/mystery. Barr was a park ranger once upon a time, so there’s unquestionable authenticity here.
  • Patricia Cornwell: her Kay Scarpetta novels helped popularize forensic work. Cornwell always introduces and/or incorporates some of the latest forensic tools or techniques and her characters seem like old friends to me.
  • Louise Penny: I finally started reading Penny two summers ago. Although the first couple books in her Three Pines series were a bit hard for me to get in to, I was soon swept up by the knack Penny has for gently laying out on the page both the worst and the best of what its like to be a human being.

Mystery/thriller writers I want to read more of:

  • Rebecca Cantrell: I’ve only read the first in her Hanna Vogel series. Recently picked up Blood Gospel which she wrote with James Rollins.
  • Sara Paretsky: Cannot believe I haven’t read more of her. She’s a feminist and social justice advocate who lives in and writes mysteries set in Chicago. What’s my problem?
  • Matthew Pearl: I loved his first novel The Dante Club (it features 19th century American writers) and The Poe Shadow was pretty good, too, but I’ve yet to read The Last Dickens or The Technologists.
  • Jacqueline Winspear: Have been following her career since she hit the scene but have not read her yet. Actually own the first three books in her Maisie Dobbs series and she’s up to ten now.


  1. I have to admit to being not a big fan of mystery / thriller, although I do like other genre fiction like fantasy & historical fiction.
    However, I loved reading your story about how your thoughts on reading changed with time. Thanks for posting 🙂

  2. I tried to comment and somehow messed it up, yikes! But I'm glad you still enjoy reading! I used to be really into mystery but haven't read much lately! I'm going to bookmark your post for recs later!

  3. Thanks, Sam! I have definitely learned to say 'never say never' when it comes to reading and what I might get in to next. Fantasy is one genre that I haven't yet explored. Thanks for visiting!

  4. Reading is such a journey! I've found that when I judge a genre it usually says more about my own ignorance than anything else. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I think it's always fun to try a new genre that you wouldn't usually pick up before. Book blogging has really helped me branch out!

  6. This is such a great post! 😀 I go back and forth with my snobbishness. Will I judge you on what I see on your bookshelves? Probably a little. But will I try to read almost anything? Sure, why not!

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