If you like debating genres, you will love this. We decided to add a bit more to the thriller/suspense/horror/etc. post by going beyond the definitions of genre and posing the question about who has and who does define genres over the years—readers or publishers? More importantly, who should?
We decided to do this because Sharene ran across an article in one of our must-read magazines in keeping up with publishing—Smithsonian. Oh, laugh if you will, but we have found more valuable information in magazines that are not dedicated to publishing or writing in any way than we have in those devoted to the industry and craft. Smithsonian is just one of those (PC World is another). In the June 2007 print issue, Sharene came across an article titled Presence of Mind: Risks and Riddles by Gregory F. Treverton, director of the RAND Corporation's Center for Global Risk and Security.
While there are many issues discussed in the article, what stuck out to us is that the author tries to define from a sociological perspective what a puzzle is and what a mystery is. The author’s premise is that a puzzle can be solved because it has an answer (like the Cold War Soviet Union), but a mystery cannot be answered in a definitive way because the solution depends on variable factors that may be known or unknown (like Al Qaeda, for example). If you translate that into publishing terms, then the sociological equivalent of a mystery is a puzzle, and the sociological equivalent of a thriller/suspense is a mystery.
Chew on that for a while…
If we go by the definitions in the article, then we can conclude that a mystery is not to be solved, only a puzzle is (a whodunit?). Did they ever find Jack the Ripper? Did the scenarios that Poe painted in his work have a solution, or were they only mysteries meant to haunt us?
The question that faces writers has recently been, is it a mystery or is it suspense? Because the lines between the two have blurred so much, it is difficult to really know. However, if we look at how people think about the two different concepts, then maybe that will help. After all, publishing is people and people drive publishing…
One last thought: How do you as a writer perceive publishing? Is it a mystery to be framed, as the article suggests, or is it a puzzle to be solved? The answer may be the key to your success.