Great Literature? Depends Whodunit
IN a British court recently, an author said, in effect, that glue-sniffing had made her write a thriller. The author, Joan Brady, is a 68-year-old American who has lived in England for the last several decades and in 1993 became the first woman to win the Whitbread book prize. She received a £115,000 out-of-court settlement after arguing that fumes from the glue and solvents used in the Conker shoe factory next door to her home in Totnes had poisoned the air and made her sick. She suffered nerve damage, she said, and a loss of concentration that caused her to abandon the literary novel she was working on, “Cool Wind From the Future,” and instead crank out a potboiler called “Bleedout.”
“Fumes Made Me Go Lowbrow, Says Writer” was the headline in The Times of London, and Ms. Brady took exception, claiming that the voice in the new book was exactly the same as the one she had used in her highbrow Whitbread winner. You have to wonder, though, how many literary novels have flap copy like this, from “Bleedout”: “Even after Hugh Freyl lost his sight he was invincible. But late one night, in the library of the elite law firm that bears his name, he was beaten to death.”
You also have to conclude that Conker or its lawyers don’t know much about the publishing business — that is, if they really believed that Ms. Brady had suffered from turning to thrillerdom. Thrillers by and large do much better than literary novels, and though the title “Bleedout” turns out to refer, disappointingly, to kosher butchery rather than human carnage, it has done pretty well, selling some 50,000 copies in Britain alone since it came out in 2005. An author seeking damages would do better, one would have thought, by claiming to have become so addled that she had decided to forsake a certain payday for the vain hope of literary success. In that case the Times headline might read: “Fumes Float Author’s Fantasy.”
But what’s behind the Brady controversy, of course, is the assumption that genre fiction — mysteries, thrillers, romances, horror stories — is a form of literary slumming. These kinds of books are easier to read, we tend to think, and so they must be easier to write, and to the degree that they’re entertaining, they can’t possibly be “serious.”
The distinction between highbrow and lowbrow — between genre writing and literary writing — is actually fairly recent. Dickens, as we’re always being reminded, wrote mysteries and horror stories, only no one thought to call them that. Jane Austen wrote chick lit. A whiff of shamefulness probably began attaching itself to certain kinds of fiction — and to mysteries and thrillers especially — at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the “penny dreadful,” or cheaply printed serial. The market and public appetite for this stuff became even larger in the early years of the 20th century with the tremendous growth of pulp magazines, which specialized in the genres and eventually even added a new one: science fiction.
Pulp writing, amply on display in “The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps,” a new 1,000-page anthology edited by Otto Penzler, was often crude and formulaic, but it could also be thrillingly racy, taking on themes that politer fiction ignored, and eventually a few of the pulp writers — Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, for example — got promoted into the mainstream. The puzzling thing is that such promotions don’t happen more often. Both Ian Rankin, the British mystery writer, and Stephen King, the horror-meister, have complained about a double standard — a conspiracy, in effect — among critics and reviewers that tends to ghettoize genre writing and prevent its practitioners from being taken seriously.
But if there is a conspiracy it’s one that authors — highbrow authors, anyway — are sometimes complicit in, frequently adopting pseudonyms when they want to dabble in, say, crime writing. The most curious case recently is that of John Banville, the Booker Prize winner who has published two highly regarded mysteries under the name Benjamin Black but hasn’t taken any pains to keep his true identity a secret. For a Web site, he has even interviewed his alter ego. Perhaps not so surprising is that what makes the two Black novels, “Christine Falls” and “The Silver Swan,” so good — their atmospheric descriptive writing — is precisely Mr. Banville’s great strength, while Benjamin Black, whose third novel is currently being serialized in The New York Times Magazine, is still learning some of the ropes when it comes to plot and suspense.
The Black novels belong, in fact, to that interesting category of novels that are often said to “transcend” or “almost transcend” their genre. This compliment, however backhanded, used to be awarded all the time to John le Carré’s cold war thrillers. Mr. King hears it a lot now, especially from reviewers who want to imagine that he is gradually abandoning his horror roots. To transcend its genre, a book has to more nearly resemble a mainstream novel — it has to be less generic, in a word. A good example is the mysteries of P. D. James, justly praised for a characterization so rich and detailed that for long stretches you can forget you’re reading a crime story in the first place.
But is that always what we want — to forget why we’re reading what we’re reading? In a review a couple of years ago of a Robert Littell thriller, John Updike wrote about genre writers — Mr. le Carré and Ms. James included — who sometimes give signs of wanting to be “real” novelists and seem restive about living up to their implicit contract with the reader, which is to deliver on the promise that a particular genre entails — whether it’s a murder solved, a cold war plot thwarted, a horror unmasked, a love requited.
What we look for in genre writing, Mr. Updike suggested, is exactly what the critics sometimes complain about; the predictableness of a formula successfully executed. We know exactly what we’re going to get, and that’s a seductive part of the appeal. It’s why we can read genre books so quickly and in such quantity, and happily come back for more of the same by the very same author. Such books are reassuring in a way that some other novels are not.
Does that make them lesser, or just different? Probably both on occasion. But it doesn’t necessarily make them easier or less worthwhile to write. Henry James’s story “The Next Time” is a tragicomedy about Ralph Limbert, an author who desperately wants to be popular and write potboilers but can’t for the life of life of him manage, as the narrator says, to turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear. Like Ms. Brady, he even moves to the country, but without the benefit of fumes, he is doomed to being highbrow. The story is partly autobiographical, and not without a twinge of both snobbery and self-pity — James, too, wanted to be more popular than he was — but is also informed by a sense that for most writers there is no such thing as slumming. You write, by his lights, what you have a gift for writing; anything else will be revealed as fakery.
James talked a lot about “trash,” and whether he knew the difference between good trash and bad is doubtful. Yet he understood all about genre writing. “The Turn of the Screw,” one of the best things he ever wrote, is an unabashed ghost story.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
A Defense of Art, Part 2, or More on the Trashy Novel Stuff
The Apple was so kind as to email me this article from the New York Times. Instead of providing a link, I just copied and pasted the whole thing, you if you want the link, it's here.