Death Letter Blues
I've mentioned before
that I read a lot of what is often referred to (and in a condescending tone) as genre fiction. Westerns, science fiction, fantasy - I've read my way through them and often found works in these 'pulp' fields (another term often used in a perjorative sense) to be far more entertaining and thought provoking that what we're told is 'real' literature. To be sure there are plenty of duds in these genres - but what field of creative endeavor doesn't
produce it's share of duds?
Along with the genres mentioned above, I've read and loved a lot of mysteries, specifically private-eye novels. So naturally I disagreed with everything Ben Yagoda wrote in his article The Case of the Overrated Mystery Novel
(link requires you to click through some damn fool ad).
Yagoda kicks off his essay by opining that "Amid the logrolling and endless hype, one thing gets obscured: Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald did it first, and did it a lot better.
" He's barely begun and already he's wrong. Dashiell Hammett (who is conspicuous in his absence from an essay about series detectives) did it first; The Maltese Falcon
was published in 1930, while Chandler's first novel The Big Sleep
was not published until 1939. Yagoda also refers to Chandler as "the greatest worker in this field
" without offering any evidence to back up this opinion - we're simply expected to take his word for it. Well, as one of my high school teachers once told me, unsupported generalizations are bullshit. You can tell me you think Chandler is the greatest, but without giving me more than that I'm not necessarily going to be convinced. And in this case, I'm not.
Yagoda does go into detail as to why he finds Macdonald a superior writer compared to today's crime novelists:
"...Macdonald kept the sense of the private eye as a flawed knight patrolling the mean streets, but toned down the emotional volume and the verbal extravagance: Chandler averages one simile a paragraph, Macdonald one a chapter. What the latter writer offered, more than his literary mentor, was, first, coherent plots; second, an almost journalistic interest in the social and economic strata of contemporary Los Angeles; and, third, a consistent and compelling theme: the power of the past to influence the present.
The first thing that popped into my head after reading this paragraph was 'what about James Lee Burke?' His series of novels featuring Detective Dave Robicheaux contains all the elements mentioned above. Plotting is indeed coherent; his descriptions of Louisiana and New Orleans past and present, and the people who live there, are quite evocative. And from the first novel in the series, The Neon Rain
, the past - both Robicheaux's own and that of his community, is always reaching out to touch the present. I should mention that Yagoda notes in his essay that he has "read through" James Lee Burke, but offers no criticism or information on why he found the Burke's writing to be lacking.
In all fairness, Yagoda offers further criticism of the detective genre beyond whether or not the elements he praises Macdonald for are present in a work. His issue with detective stories is that they " to require two items that run counter to literary values and that, no matter what the author's skills (clean prose, social or psychological observation, plot construction), will artistically doom it.
The first issue concerns the detectives themselves, namely that they are " is invariably romanticized or sentimentalized
" and that they are "always a combination of three not especially interesting things: toughness, efficacy and sensitivity.
" Yagoda also notes that without these traits, characters end up "being bland.
The second issue touches on plot. Yagoda states that series detective novels have a "very formulaic quality that lets a book be part of a series. Similar things happen in similar ways, which is probably as apt a definition as you'll ever find of how not to make good literature.
Now Robert Parker's Spenser series fits the above description pretty closely (and interestingly enough Parker is heavily influenced by Chandler, to the point of taking on the task of completing one of Chandler's unfinished novels.) But consider James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential
. His plots are hardly formulaic - in fact they tend towards the byzantine and unusual. To say that L.A. Confidential
is about prostitution, pornography and police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles barely begins to describe the plot; a far cry from a lone detective cracking a case. Nor do his characters all fit the mold Yagoda describes. Some are brutal; some are unscrupulously ambitious, some are flat-out corrupt. There are other writers - James Crumley comes to mind - who are also quite adept at playing with the conventions of noir/detective fiction. Yagoda references neither Ellroy nor Crumley in his article.*
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Yagoda and I view books and reading in different ways. I intensely dislike the practice of anointing certain works as 'literature' or having 'literary value' and therefore being worthy of some sort of reverence, as opposed to other works that denigrated as 'pulp' or mere 'genre fiction', suitable for fleeting entertainment but not really 'respectable' or worthy of serious consideration. This simply makes no sense to me, since I never figured out what, beyond subject matter, makes something 'literature' or not. Dickens was considered a hack in his day, and The Iliad
sung for pure entertainment; now both are studied in schools. Go figure. I certainly can't. To me, a book is either well-written or it's not, regardless of setting or subject matter or genre. Yagoda writes that he looked for a mystery author who was not a simple genre writer but a "purveyor of literature.
" He sees a boundary where I do not. If a piece of writing is superior to others, regardless of whether the author's name is Hammett or Hemingway, it will continue to be read and enjoyed. You may take a book, call it literature, even inflict it on students, but that won't make a difference as to it's merits. Silas Marner
On the other hand, I enjoy Miller High Life as much as I do Anchor Steam. So your mileage may vary.
*Crumley did write to Salon
in answer to Yagoda's essay. The response
was as follows:
"Gee, Ben, I don't disagree with your take on the mystery novel, but I hate to be left out. I haven't written a lot of novels or won a bunch of prizes, but I think my books stand nicely next to Chandler and Macdonald. Give us guys on the side a chance to be included. Or insulted.