Friday, March 6, 2015

Writing at the Border

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Have you noticed that the jacket blurb for a lot of literary novels has been saying 'a great mystery' or 'a nail-biting thriller' recently? As a mystery writer, what do you think is going on?"—touches on so many other issues about literary vs. genre that it's hard to know where to start in answering it.

Two stories pop to mind any time this question of literary and genre and boundaries and blurring comes up. The first comes from a panel at the 2010 AWP Conference in Denver, one devoted to the teaching of genre writing in the MFA classroom. At one point, one of the panelists (I wish I could remember which now! Anthony Neil Smith? Brian Evenson? Stephen Graham Jones? Tod Goldberg?) made a comment about the difference between literary writing and genre writing: In the latter, he said, the action is at the level of the plot—what happens next?—while in the former, the action is at the level of the sentence, in the prose itself. (The obvious question: Why can't you have both? And the answer: Clearly you can... and about half the time some critic will praise such an effort for "transcending the genre," right?)

More recently, at the 2012 Fall for the Book Festival, the National Book Critics Circle hosted the panel "On Literary and Genre Fiction" with writers including Julianna Baggott, Louis Bayard, and Alma Katsu, and at one point Baggott said that literary and genre (several genres) were indeed distinct parts of the larger geographical landscape, but she argued that  the most interesting writing was increasingly being done in the border areas where these various terrains met—whether that was the sci-fi mystery or the literary mystery or the whatever whatever. (I'm paraphrasing at best, obviously.)

I think that it's easy to complain that genre distinctions are arbitrary or that they're just the work of publicists and booksellers trying to classify and categorize and shelve and sell these books? But I do think that most of us are aware of genre when we write. I write crime fiction, not science fiction, for example, and most readers can recognize some of the general elements of each to know whether they're reading either of those or epic fantasy or Regency romance. And in some ways, literary fiction might be defined less by what it is (domestic drama? suburban angst? existential grumblings?) than by what it's not: not a corpse and a set of clues, not robots and laser guns, not a lusty kiss between a swarthy gent and a busty lass. Conventions are real, expectations are real...though, of course, that doesn't mean that writers can't play productively with those elements or "rules," any more than it means that literary fiction can't or shouldn't include them or address them as well. Which brings us back to that idea that something fun is happening there in the wild border areas—not by authors trying to cash in or slumming for a change of pace, but by really being excited by certain kinds of storytelling (so-called literary writers who really love mysteries, like Michael Chabon with The Yiddish Policeman's Secret Union or Jonathan Lethem with Motherless Brooklyn) or by the ambition to be the best stylist they can (so-called genre writers who think that it's not just action piled on action, cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, but something about the prose that can truly excite, like Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, just to choose one of many examples) or by the thrilling possiblities of crossing genres in interesting ways (William Gibson's Neuromancer anybody?). And hey, don't get me started on Cormac McCarthy with his own crime novel (No Country for Old Men), his jaunt into post-apocalyptic science fiction (The Road), and then all those westerns (Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy among them). 

We think of this as a new thing maybe, but it really isn't, I don't think. Faulkner was a fan of mysteries, and his Intruder in the Dust is a great crime story, as are the stories in his collection Knight's Gambit. Even more, Cleanth Brooks, one of the great literary critics of the 20th century, called Faulkner's great masterpiece Absalom, Absalom! "from one point of view a wonderful detective story"—and if you re-read it with that in mind. it surely is. Similarly, no one would argue with Jorge Luis Borges' place among the world literary elite, but did you know that his introduction to English-speaking audiences was in the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine? "The Garden of the Forking Paths" appeared in EQMM in August 1948, translated by Anthony Boucher himself, right alongside authors including Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon, and some fella named Anton Chekhov.

Good company, if you ask me.

As for the second part of this week's question—"what non-genre novel do you think is a great mystery?"—I want to add that almost every time I've taught a lit class at George Mason University focused on crime fiction (whether detective stories or noir or whatever), I always throw in at least one title on the syllabus that would likely not have been categorized in the genre on most bookstore shelves. Here's a sample of the ones I've included:
  • Walker Percy's Lancelot in a course on detective stories
  • Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle as true crime
  • Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men in the course "Crime Stories from Page to Screen"
  • Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts in an American noir class
  • and both Borges' "Death and the Compass" and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in a survey of short mystery fiction
Each of these has provoked interesting discussions, to say the least—both among those students who supposedly already know the genre and among those who are coming to it fresh and have no idea whether these works are canonical mysteries or not. 


Paul D. Marks said...

Some great choices, Art. Lots of which I'd love to revisit. So many books, so little time. But one in particular is Borges' story "The Garden of the Forking Paths." Love that one! Will probably read it over the weekend -- thanks for the inspiration.

Catriona McPherson said...

Your metaphor of a landscape with clear settled areas and border skirmishes is so much more accurate and less snooty than the hierarchy approach. In it, no one transcends the genre, right? They just get deeper into border country.

Art Taylor said...

Yes, Catriona! Absolutely.

And Paul: Yes, every time I write anything about Borges (blog post, email, etc.), I always want to dive back into another of his stories.... In fact, I'll do that this weekend myself.