Magazine | May 4, 2015, Issue

Genres without Borders

Charles Dickens

Everything changed in 1922.

Until then, novelists were novelists. End of story. So to speak.

Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë wrote beautiful, moving narratives that examined the relationships between men and women so powerfully that they continue to resonate to the present day. Reviewers of their time did not identify them as romance writers.

On the mystery front, Charles Dickens, the most beloved and popular author of his age, created the first fictional police detective in literature when he invented Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1852–53). Later, hoping to outdo his friend Wilkie Collins, who had had great success with such mystery novels as The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), Dickens planned what he thought would be the greatest detective novel ever written, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Ironically, he died with barely a third of the book produced, frustrating readers and scholars ever since with a mystery that would remain unsolved forever. One would be hard-pressed to find obituaries of Dickens in which he is identified as a mystery writer.

No matter what the subject of a fictional work may have been, it was reviewed on its merits and its creator praised or derided for the quality of the production, no biased decision already having been reached about its worthiness because of the centrality of a specific genre. (When discussing genre fiction, I will limit observations to mystery fiction because that is what I know about. I have not recently read romance novels, science fiction, or westerns, but a similar sensibility applies.)

Writers understood that a crime novel, like any other work of fiction, needed to be an entertainment but also a reflection of society and a documentation of it, told in an original, colorful, thoughtful manner.

Then came 1922. Boni & Liveright published The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot, and the Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co. published Ulysses, by James Joyce. Although they are critically admired, almost revered, the rewards of these literary milestones are not immediately evident to the average reader. O frabjous day for literary critics! They suddenly had a role. They could interpret what an author had produced, explain what it meant, then dig even deeper to expound on the subtle, hidden messages that could be gleaned only with intense concentration and laborious study.

To the new arbiters of literary taste, readers would no longer walk into a bookstore, select something from the shelves, and immerse themselves in the happy experience of being transported by a wonderful story, filled with irresistible characters who had beautiful (or horrid) things to say and said them in ways nobody else had ever said them. Readers of Dickens hadn’t needed guidance to understand what his writings were about, nor did those who read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Homer, or anyone named Dumas. Not all readers may have been fully aware of every nuance of every relationship in a novel, or of the books’ connections to events of their era, but they had a splendid time and perhaps saw greater depths to the work upon contemplation, or after a second or third reading.

For ensuing decades, popular fiction was largely ignored by “serious” critics and academics. With the elevated perspective brought to bear on virtually impenetrable works (if I may mention Finnegans Wake), literary critics flourished. They filled magazines, books, and academia with their collective wisdom, selecting the authors and titles deserving of their attention and bestowing on them a status often directly correlated to their obscurity and arcane characteristics. Thus, Gravity’s Rainbow, Foucault’s Pendulum, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld received long, glowing reviews in the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines, and found themselves on the required-reading lists of comparative-literature courses at the better (or more pretentious) universities. That they are tedious and incomprehensible to most readers ideally suited those who mined their pages for the nuggets of genius they were eager to ferret out and explain to the proles.

The divide between literary fiction and popular fiction, begun in earnest in the magical 1922, widened year after year until such publications as The New York Review of Books and most literary journals ignored the books that people actually read but devoted thousands of pages, millions of words, to expounding on the genius of, for example, a plot patterned after a large sheet of graph paper (as Gravity’s Rainbow was).

In recent years, however, there has been a little ripple of change hopefully battering its tiny wavelets against the ramparts of snobbism. Quietly sneaking up on the guardians of esoterica, some authors of crime fiction began to be noticed for the originality of their prose and the profundity of their observations.

Detective fiction was invented by Edgar Allan Poe (who, in a single short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” created most of the tropes of the genre) and Dickens, but it was not identified as something separate from an author’s body of work; it was merely one more part of his oeuvre. It was not until Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes in 1887 that the detective story achieved an independent popularity. “After Holmes, the deluge,” as the bibliophile Vincent Starrett famously wrote, as authors and publishers raced to emulate and cash in on the staggering success of the Great Detective.

For the next six or seven decades, detective stories — that is, books conceived of and published as genre fiction — were mainly (though not exclusively) puzzle stories. In a typical and familiar construction, a person is murdered in a confined area (a city, a village, a ship). A detective arrives at the scene, investigates, makes observations and deductions, and points his unerring finger at the guilty party. Readers, unable to recognize the same clues that the detective unearthed, or to understand them sufficiently to unravel their secrets, had the puzzle satisfyingly solved for them by the hero. Order is restored.

The genre reached its zenith in what has been described as detective fiction’s golden age, the years between the world wars. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, and the other masters of the era began selling in massive quantities at precisely the same moment that they were being ostracized from the literary mainstream by the publishers who profited from them and by the critics who felt justified in ignoring them.

Mostly, critics were right to do so. The vast majority of mystery novels and stories were formulaic, produced in an endless stream for an insatiable reading public. Puzzles, without literary merit, were the norm. Of course, the same criticism of being utterly pedestrian and predictable could easily have been leveled at mainstream fiction, both then and now.

However, exceptions should have been made to the dismissal of detective fiction in the 1920s. Certainly Dashiell Hammett was a major literary figure of his time, a genre writer whose work in all likelihood influenced Ernest Hemingway, as an American prose style developed its own sound, its own muscle, separating itself from Henry Jamesian wordiness.

For evidence of the lasting significance of Hammett, I draw your attention to the Pulitzer Prize, which, at one time, was regarded as the ne plus ultra of literary achievement. Neither Hammett’s superb Red Harvest nor The Maltese Falcon won it, and I’d wager Alfred Knopf, his publisher, failed to nominate them.

Winners in the years proximate to Hammett’s publications included The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson, Early Autumn, by Louis Bromfield, Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin, Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge, Years of Grace, by Margaret Ayer Barnes, The Store, by T. S. Stribling, Lamb in His Bosom, by Caroline Miller, and Now in November, by Josephine Winslow Johnson.

Show of hands. How many have read these books, the epitome of success in the 1920s and 1930s? Right.

Yet Hammett’s novels, produced while the prize-winners were being published, have never been out of print, and remain as fresh and captivating today as they were more than 80 years ago. Raymond Chandler came along right on Hammett’s heels with Philip Marlowe and his memorable poetic style. All remain in print and read to the present day.

They, and occasional other mystery writers, were tainted by their association with a genre that had defined itself as pure entertainment, nothing more, ever since Holmes strode onto the scene. In addition to the elements required of all good fiction, the detective story had demands of composition that are as strict as those of a sonnet or sonata. Even with those firm boundaries, Hammett and Chandler, and a few others, produced work of enduring literature that was largely ignored by major critics and academics. The genre had a reputation for stick-figure characters, stilted dialogue, and predictable plots; and no reputable university dared consider assigning students a book by what it regarded as back-of-the-bus hacks.

However, just as 1922 drove a wedge between allegedly serious literature and genre fiction, the chasm that had widened between them over the years began to be breached in a landmark year of the opposite kind. The erosion of the distinction began in 1969, when a few journalists embarked on a crusade to bring deserved attention to an elegant novelist whose form happened to be the detective novel. The author was Ross Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) and the campaign was spearheaded by John Leonard, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, who commissioned a front-page review of Macdonald’s The Goodbye Look, by William Goldman, and added a lengthy interview with Macdonald to the same issue. Two years later, Leonard continued his support by requesting a review from an ardent fan of Macdonald’s Lew Archer series, placing Eudora Welty’s paean on the front page. (This year, Macdonald’s novels are joining those of Hammett, Chandler, and Elmore Leonard in the canonical Library of America series.)

This acceptance broke the dam for a new deluge. Recognition that a mere mystery writer could also be a serious novelist encouraged newspapers and magazines to devote review attention to them, resulting in dramatically increased exposure and commensurate sales. The popularity of large numbers of crime writers persuaded universities to add occasional mystery novels to literature classes, soon followed by entire courses devoted to the subject. By the 1990s, more than 300 universities offered courses in mystery fiction.

In much of the 20th century, a minuscule number of mystery writers were regarded as significant novelists. After Macdonald’s breakthrough, many were welcomed into the hall of letters. Robert B. Parker was one. A disciple of Macdonald (as Macdonald had been of Chandler), Parker wrote his doctoral dissertation on Hammett and Chandler. He involved Spenser, his primary protagonist, in cases that raised significant political and philosophical subjects within the strictures of the detective novel.

Elmore Leonard forged his dialogue brilliantly, and Stephen King described him as the great 20th-century American writer — an appraisal supported by London’s Guardian and numerous other publications and readers.

Once the door was opened, the guardians of the literary pantheon welcomed more and more authors clamoring for admittance. Mystery writers in recent years have attempted, successfully, to focus on character and prose style rather than simply relying on plot to define their books. Richard Price, Thomas H. Cook, Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, P. D. James, George Pelecanos, and Daniel Woodrell, to name a few, have succeeded in moving the crime novel farther into the mainstream of literary fiction.

From the other end of the spectrum, so-called literary writers have often turned to mystery and crime fiction. John Banville, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Thomas Pynchon, and Michael Chabon, among many others, have centralized murder and other crimes to drive their novels and stories. The lines are blurring between the more ambitious authors in the mystery genre and those who have been defined as authors of literary fiction.

What a modern, sophisticated method of judging a novel: on its merits, not on a pre-evaluated definition. To the critics and academics at the vanguard of this movement, I say: Welcome to the 19th century.

– Mr. Penzler is the owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, the founder of The Mysterious Press, and the editor of more than 70 anthologies.

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