Re: RARA-AVIS: Of Lumpers and Splitters

From: Doug Bassett (
Date: 03 Sep 2000

Well, Dr. Centor (I guess it's "Dr.", right?), I don't think I can comment on your "lumpers and splitters" analogy until you tell me a little bit more about what a "splitter" does. But as for your final questions:

--- Robert Centor <> wrote: I've just
> finished listening to the unabridged tape of Loren
> Estleman's "A Smile
> of the Face of the Tiger". This book meets my
> criteria. I offer Amos
> Walker as a classic example of the protagonist that
> I favor. Is this
> hard-boiled?

I've only read one Amos Walker book, SUGARTOWN, and I definitely consider that hardboiled. I didn't much care for the book, but that doesn't make it any less hb.

Does defining hard-boiled help us find
> authors to read?

Well, it can. In my local library they have some reference books entitled something like "I've Read This, Now What?" which tries to make associations between authors: "If you like Loren Estleman you might also like x, y, z." I think the process of definition can be a more slightly highbrow version of the same thing.

> What purpose does the definition of that genre
> serve?

Ah, one of those simple questions that have really complicated answers. On some basic level, of course, all this definition stuff doesn't have any purpose -- it's just a way to pass the time. Occasionally I indulge myself here because I enjoy doing it -- I like thinking about things like this.

That said, I would also say this. Presumably if you're here you care enough about hb fiction to want to talk about it, discuss it, etc. -- and the process of definition can help you do that, because it makes you more aware of what you like out of the genre, what you value in it. I don't think there's anything wrong with knowing that.

Also, I personally see cultural life as basically the establishment and working through of traditions. When I take my crack at defining "hb", I'm taking my crack at describing an existing tradition that I like and value. To my way of thinking, a tradition is vital when new writers continue to contribute to it, extend it further while retaining the heart of what made it important. So for me, personally, the process of defining hb is important because it enables me to see the outlines of the tradition clearly, gives me a sense if things are going well or badly, basically gives me a place to plant my feet.

Unlike some others here, I don't fear that the hb approach is in danger of becoming fossilized, a museum piece, etc. In fact, I fear just the opposite -- I fear that the hb approach is in danger of being vitiated, that too many writers who aren't hb are going to pass as hb, and that the sense of what is hb is going to get muddled. If that happens, we might get our fair share of good books -- hell, statistics being what they are, we probably will-- but I still think something important will be lost.


===== Doug Bassett

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