Thursday, May 31, 2018

Take ‘Genre vs. Literature’ Out Back with a Shovel, and Bury It Alive

My reaction to the recent Book Riot article, 12 Mystery Novels for Fans of Literary Novels by Heather Bottoms, was "Oh, dear God." Nick Kolakowski, the author of "A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps" and "Slaughterhouse Blues", also tweeted of his displeasure of the absurdity of Bottoms's article.  And when the Book Riot Twitter account awkwardly defended their article, I offered Kolakowski some space here at Do Some Damage to examine the issues of the literary world's behavior toward genre fiction.

Photograph by Eli Duke (CC BY SA)

By Nick Kolakowski

The debate over the merits of genre isn’t new, particularly in the context of crime fiction. Many decades ago, the Times of London couldn’t resist including this little zinger in an otherwise-stolid obituary for Raymond Chandler: “Working the common vein of crime fiction, [he] mined the gold of literature.”

“Common vein”: Let’s take a sip of that phrase, with its implications of shoddy style and rough plots, and roll it around in our collective mouth for a minute. We shouldn’t give the pulp of the 1930s and ‘40s too much credit—flip through an omnibus of short stories from the period, and chances are good you’ll find most of them borderline-unreadable. Nonetheless, the Times neatly summed up an assumption that has stuck with the literary world for decades: that nearly all noir, regardless of author, is worth dismissing as somehow hacky, pulpy.

And just in case you don’t think this bias has endured to the modern day: at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto, a prominent fiction critic who will go unnamed—I’m not interested in setting too many brush fires this week, although the idea has a certain warped appeal—sat in front of a sizable crowd at one of the more well-attended sessions and pronounced Jim Thompson “trash,” and went unchallenged. Never mind that Thompson was a collaborator with Kubrick and Peckinpah, and hailed as a master by any number of literary lions; in the eyes of this critic, he wrote “pulp,” and that was enough to disregard any possible merits.

Nor is noir is the only genre of mystery or crime fiction afflicted. Take the unfortunate instance of a recent Book Riot column that defined “literary mystery” as books with “substantial character development, stunning narration, and a storyline that reaches for broader emotional or social depth”; the implication being, of course, that “regular” mysteries lack such things. That column listed works such as “Rebecca” (80 years young!) and “Everything I Never Told You” (a brilliant and heartbreaking work, but not really a mystery!) as prime examples of “mystery reading” that offered “a little more heft,” while ignoring a huge swath of contemporary mystery fiction. (As I told the lovely person operating Book Riot’s Twitter feed, I found the article disappointing mostly because the website is usually so attuned to genre.)

This sort of behavior really is too bad. If these critics bothered to crack open a broader selection of crime-fiction novels—either classic or contemporary—they’d find character arcs and philosophical nuance to rival whatever passes for literary fiction most days. Moreover, the line between “literature” and “pulp” has blurred considerably; for example, you would be hard-pressed to explain how Garth Risk Hallberg’s “City on Fire” has more or less artistic “merit” than, say, Jordan Harper’s “She Rides Shotgun,” even though one is supposedly “literature” and the other “genre.” And I’ll further suggest that Jen Conley’s “Cannibals” or Kem Nunn’s “Tijuana Straits” (just to pull two books off my nearest shelf) plunge deeper emotional and social depths than some book that made its biggest cultural impact when FDR was still chortling over his fifth martini in the Oval Office, much less some of the stuff clogging up the New York Times bestseller list.

But maybe that’s just my opinion.

The fact is, “bad” pulp is largely a figment of pretentious literary critics’ imaginations. The genre magazines that once stuffed newsstands—and maybe featured a prose diamond or two amidst their dreck—largely disappeared decades ago. The same with the paperback publishers that churned out endless westerns and urban shoot ‘em ups of questionable quality. In the contemporary publishing environment, where margins are squeezed and publishers are looking for pretty much any sort of quality advantage over their rivals, there’s little room for the overtly subpar, even if many publishers firmly smash certain “hot” trends (erudite serial killers, dead girls with big secrets, and so on) into enduring clichés.

Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, North American Review, and Carrier Pigeon, among other venues. He lives in New York City.

The photograph, Attleson Farm: Digging a Grave by Eli Duke, can be found on Flickr.


Les Edgerton said...

Like Nabokov, I subscribe to two genres: good writing and bad writing.

Anonymous said...

Shades of Edmund Wilson.