Sunday, February 03, 2008

Here We Go Again...

Today’s NYT has an “Ideas & Trends” piece by Charles McGrath: Great Literature? Depends Whodunit. The pull quote recycles an ancient myth beloved by the literati:

Today's novelists feel as if they have to choose either pedestal or plot.
"Oh please!" I groaned, to the complete uninterest of two women deep in conversation in an unknown (to me) language at a Las Vegas Starbucks this morning.

In the 4th graf, McGrath states:
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.
Not exactly. Novels and their mostly female readers were decried as "frivolous" long before penny serials made their appearance--in the 1850s, according to Wikipedia. Austen's NORTHANGER ABBEY, written in the late 1790s and published posthumously in 1818, lampoons sensational Gothic fiction as exemplified by Ann Radcliffe's 1794 THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO. In NORTHANGER ABBEY, teen protagonist Catherine and her new best friend Isabella rapturize over Udolpho et al. the same way I and my friends did over our favorite books--first Nancy Drew mysteries, then as we grew older, works by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. The clothing and hairstyles may be different, but girls are still the same. That's what makes Austen timeless.

McGrath discusses how genre writers, such as Chandler and Hammett, are "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....

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?
Why not? To me, a hallmark of a good book, no matter what genre, is that it makes me forget why I'm reading it, even if it's been assigned to me for review, or for a class. In fact, a really good book makes me forget myself entirely: I'm totally immersed in the world the author has created, to the exclusion of everything else. I don't care about what John Updike, per McGrath, describes as the novelist's "implicit contract with the reader, which is to deliver on the promise that a particular genre entails."

The promise of any novel should be to hold the reader in thrall from beginning to end. I couldn't put down A VERSION OF THE TRUTH by Jennifer Kaufman & Karen Mack (and not because they took my publicity workshop for their first novel, LITERACY & LONGING IN L.A.). Whereas that's just what I did when THE WINTER ROSE by Jennifer Donnelly brought my suspended disbelief crashing to the ground. I was all the more disappointed because I loved A NORTHERN LIGHT, her (very grown-up) YA take on the case that inspired Dreiser's An American Tragedy.

McGrath ends with Henry James, who wrote a story about an author who wants to write potboilers, but can't manage "to turn a silk purse into a sow's ear."
...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.
Exactly. Which is why I have given up on writing The Great American Novel. Now I have my sights set on writing The Great American Potboiler--and not feeling guilty or ashamed about it.

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