A writer I admire who among other interesting things writes historical fiction has got hot about what she regards as rubbishing of the genre in the New Yorker while science fiction was given a thumbs up. It seems there is a sci-fi writer the New Yorker author concerned admires for his political commentary, while at the same time he seems to dismiss historical fiction as unworthy, implicitly unable to shoulder the burden of contemporary political or social analysis or comment.
The New Yorker is not, sadly, what it once was. The air of superiority cloyed for me sometime in the 1990s, and I seldom read it. Yet even when the magazine was roaring along in the 1930s, art critic Clement Greenberg dismissed it as “kitsch”* and if the mag had to wait nearly sixty years to get its own back, it relished the moment. The “Critic At Large” feature in 1998 begins, “When Clement Greenberg was five years old, he beat a goose to death with a shovel” before going on to describe the “power critic” as “repellent”. That’s a long cultural memory.
Anyway what someone says in the New Yorker about anything seldom interests me these days**,
That doesn’t mean that what is talked about is not interesting, but in this case it’s not really. Dismissing any form of “genre fiction” (or for that matter any non-fiction genre) as intrinsically low-grade is not just wrong, but ignorant. Every genre without exception, however poor its standard fare, can be a vehicle for great art, and it is amazing to think that anyone would think otherwise.
For starters, William Shakespeare was a genre writer, as the organisation of the first folio of his works makes clear: history plays! Are these not “historical fiction”? They are indeed. Tragedies! Comedies! and the odd one out, Troilus and Cressida, sandwiched in between two categories as if no one could decide which it was/is. Anyone who imagines that Shakespeare did not use these dramatic forms to analyse and comment on the society and politics of his day needs help.
And as far as modern writing goes, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was an attack on McCarthyism, set in the Salem of the witch trials in the late 17th century.
Now, I write thrillers and I was attracted to this genre partly as a holdover from early days when they fascinated an adolescent mind, but also because some aspects of the better thriller writers showed that they could be a vehicle for “big ideas”. The best of the genre when I was reading deeply in it, in my opinion, was Dashiell Hammett, followed by Raymond Chandler. Hammett was very unusual in that he had been a real detective, and even more unusual in that he was a Marxist/Communist. It wasn’t that his politics were good or bad, but that they were explicitly counter to the ethos of the society he lived in, where his heroes lived and worked. The moral dilemmas confronting someone cynical about society are quite real, and Hammett explored these in ways that were, er, novel. Critics at the time – especially in Britain – picked up on Hammett’s social criticism, with one saying after reading his first, Red Harvest, that if it was an accurate reflection of reality, and it seemed to be, “there ought to be an investigation”! Those were the days..
But it was not just exposing abuse that Hammett was on about. He explored sticking to the rules, obeying and enforcing the law, even though he regarded that law as an instrument of oppression of one group in society by another. The cynical manipulations by detective Sam Spade in his most famous book, The Maltese Falcon, went hand in hand with an analysis of Spade’s moral compass, how he kept a sense of self-worth in a festering cesspit of corruption, how his own apparent corruption was a means of navigating these treacherous shoals.*** This or may not be great art but it is far removed from typical detective story, or more broadly, thriller fare.
Not being Dashiell Hammett – and not wanting to be – my own approach to thrillers has been my own. With any genre, there are rules, and if a writer can bend and even distort them almost out of recognition, they have to be acknowledged and worked in somehow.^ My plots for example contain labyrinthine “puzzles” owing a debt of gratitude as emulation to a number of crime writers, from Agatha Christie onward, But however bad my books might be in comparison to theirs as stories, they definitely presume to attack “big issues” ranging from the holocaust to euthanasia. If I couldn’t have dealt with issues like these in the genre, I wouldn’t have written in it.
For me, however, the real problem for our time is that “literary” reading, what I would call reading for the pleasure of engaging with an author’s mind, is itself under threat. Sure there are plenty of people who read now, but it seems to me that the trend is toward being formally literate but only for more mundane purposes than pursuing “big ideas”. The magic of wrestling with a mind that dwelt hundreds or even thousands of years ago (Shakespeare and Euripides for example) is increasingly lost on today’s readers, as people turn to films, to Playstation-style games, and the like. Novels today often appear to me to be written for the inevitable film (I’ve seen a few “thank you notes” stuck at the end of novels including the person marketing the film rights), and if it is not actually a new phenomenon^^, it is as if novels today should be aimed at the small circle of those people who turn them into vehicles for celluloid. Naturally I wouldn’t mind at all if this happened to my books, and it would also be true that this would send readers back to the source. But over time I think reading for pleasure could be a social dinosaur.
Thanks for taking the time to get through this.
* In his famous essay “The avant-garde and kitsch.”
** I don’t feel as arrogant as this reads, but the rag has really gone downhill. See an earlier post in this blog “Something completely different”, and there is more where that came from.
*** Spade enters into an affair with “Miss Wonderly” knowing she has killed his partner, and patiently explains to her why he is tossing her to the law just before the cops arrive.
^ Genres can be and often are mixed. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are both nominally science fiction, but the latter is also historical fiction. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is another form of historical fiction that mixes in a healthy dollop of sci-fi..
^^ One critic saw that The Maltese Falcon was a film script, and Hammett wrote for film and the stage. But it is a trend much more prominent today.