November 11, 2008

'Literary' vs. 'Genre' Fiction

At 'Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind,' Kyle Minor offers some thoughts on the relationship between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction:

I did not set out to be a mystery writer or a crime writer, nor am I sure I am one now. That’s not to say that I don’t admire the genres, because I do. If forced to trade, I’ll take one Dennis Lehane, one Richard Price, one George Pelecanos, one James M. Cain, one Big Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett—any one of them, any day—over any ten “literary” writers. I mean it. Because all of these writers do all of the things to which literature ought to aspire—vivid evocation of character, an intelligent reckoning with thematic material that matters, an acquaintance with the music language can make—while, at the same time, giving us a sock-in-the-gut story in a time and place of consequence.

(I also ought to mention, while we’re speaking of it, that contemporary crime and mystery writers are lately doing another thing that literature used to do more often, which is to work out intractable social problems on a big canvas and consider the workings of groups and systems as worthy as the individual of their attentions. I might argue, in fact, that the closest thing we have to Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Dos Passos these days is HBO’s The Wire, a television show helmed by nonfiction crime writer David Simon, with episodes penned by Lehane, Price, and Pelecanos. But that’s an argument for another day, another essay.) (read the rest here)

This is well-travelled territory for anyone who teaches mystery fiction, as readers of this blog will know. The remark about 'The Wire' sounds a bit familiar too... But the distinctions between varieties of fiction do matter, if only insofar as our assumptions about them affect our reading practices--something highlighted to great comic effect in Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery." The exercise of drawing up "a list of mystery stories that belong in the literary canon, and a list of canonical works of literature that are, at their core, mysteries" is fun, as drawing up lists always is. On the other hand, highlighting mystery novels that count as literary rather perpetuates the idea that most of them don't--an assumption I don't actually disagree with, but then, I wouldn't consider all "canonical" works equally literary either. Of Minor's list, I'd think the Hammett and Chandler hardly need defending on these grounds anymore. I haven't read Lush Life, but unless it is much better than Clockers, it wouldn't be on my list: I thought Clockers was well conceived and constructed, but not very well written. (Probably it would have seemed more original if I hadn't just watched all of The Wire.) Minor's list is also weighted towards American hard-boiled and police procedurals, but I would consider P. D. James one example of someone working within the British tradition who uses the strong structural frame of a detective story to do some very thoughtful and literary things (A Taste for Death comes to mind, as does An Unsuitable Job for a Woman). Ian Rankin, also, is an obvious example of a writer whose crime fiction shows both social and thematic reach and literary sophistication. But it's the conversation generated, rather than the lists themselves, that seems to me most valuable on these occasions: we should all keep thinking and talking about what qualities make some books better or more important than others, no matter where they are usually shelved in the bookstore.


1 comment:

Nicholas said...

I think you are quite right to observe that nowadays, the literary respectability of Hammett or Chandler is (deservedly) unquestioned, irrespective of the hard-boiled genre's beginnings in the pulps. I see more complaining about perceived genre biases than actual genre biases in action, which is probably encouraging. False distinctions that place "literary" fiction within the rapidly shrinking boundaries of not genre are shifting the definition of "literariness" to matters of formal craftsmanship, regardless of whether or not the stories themselves concern rocketships and private eyes.

Scholarship and discussion can show anything to be worthy of literary analysis, and that worth is apart from the question of "merit"; not "Is it good?" but "Is it interesting?" Still, we're not likely to be rid of genre anytime soon when it's such a convenient tool for publishers and booksellers to play to their market.