Re: transcendence (was Re: Fwd: RARA-AVIS: JDM)

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 16 Jun 2006

I've a problem, stated before, with the notion that genre fiction needs to be transcended to be considered literary. My difficulty results partially from the multiple definitions of "literary", ranging from the concept of literature as anything to do with writing (marketing departments across the Americas are constantly sending me their "literature") to good, or worthy writing. Ask what makes the writing good or worthy, and the slope quickly becomes slippery. I recall a recent criminal prosecution of a child pornographer, whose defence included testimony from an English department academic proclaiming the works employed "literary" techniques as metaphor and allusion, and so had literary merit. At other times I've heard literary defined to mean that the work tackled larger themes of human existence, often at multiple levels of interpretation of the writing.

I can go with that, but on the flip side there are genres whose characteristic themes are the big ones of human existence: power, for instance, necessarily followed by corruption and violence, in many settings, from the home to government, to business, to social and sexual relations. Throw in the human weaknesses that provide opportunities for power and corruption to flourish and it seems to me that noir is automatically "literary." But we know some noir is better than other examples. Does this send us back looking for the use of literary devices, such as metaphor and allusion, as singular examples of literary merit?

Chandler's and Hammett's metaphors have become overworked to the point of self-parody. But I think that leads us to a more useful definition of worthy literature: originality. The hardboil style was fresh when Chandler and Hammett used it, and updated, argot remains a useful and creative device. The categorization of genres is largely, I think, a marketing device. "If you liked this story, you might want to buy these three others." This results in a lot of formulaic writing that can be quite enjoyable, but not necessarily great literature, while "literary" becomes just another genre, with its own characteristics. In this context I don't think fresh, creative writing so much transcends its genre, rising to a another level, as it uses the genre's characteristic devices, and perhaps some new, additional ones, to burrow more deeply into the genre's themes, exploring new depths, bringing new awareness.

Certainly Ross Macdonald was not the stylist that Chandler and Hammett were. He improved with practice, but I don't think he reached their level. And I'll admit some bias here. Macdonald grew up about thirty miles away from where I live and we share some Puritan heritage. Always nice to see the locals do well, so I'll argue his literary merit.

 From my first readings over thirty years ago I recognized some thematic qualities in Macdonald's work that I didn't find in other, mostly American examples of crime writing. Not that I read or was even aware of everything in the genre, but Macdonald linked a background setting of environmental exploitation and decline to a foreground of human corruption and I think he was at least among the first in the genre to do so. Certainly he made use of literary allusion. One of his books, at other levels, is a study of the cultural and psychological study of the femme fatale. And there was that whole, painful exploration of the sins of the fathers being visited on the kids theme. Chandler hinted at it when Marlow helped the Colonel with his spoiled, wonky kids, begging the question as to how this superficially nice guy ended up with such amoral offspring, but Macdonald rolled up his sleeves and dug for the answers, over and over again.

Macdonald made Archer do much of the spadework with Freudian psychology, and he may have been first in the genre to do that. Many followed, but that isn't serving him well just now. As a doctor, examining and categorizing humanity in admittedly primitive fashion, Freud was a necessary step toward a science of human behaviour that would, in the long run, discredit him.

I have a feeling he will be back, in a modified form perhaps, along with his own, numerous literary and cultural allusions that science and the existentialists have disproven. A person may just be the sum of their actions, but among their behaviours is the persistent belief in a self separate from the body and mind, a spiritual self from which our values are derived. The whole notion of corruption is pointless without these values. Science now answers many of the questions once directed toward religion, but science isn't especially good at comfort and solace. Not much at confession, science and the behaviourists. Archer and Freud, as judgmental observers and reluctant actors, were more priests than detectives.

Of course this may all be crap, but it's been fun in the passing. Kerry

At 05:24 PM 15/06/2006 -0700, you wrote:

>Mark wrote:
>Not that there's anything wrong with telling a good
>story. In fact, there's a whole lot right about it.
>I'll choose a good story over the concerns of "Big L"
>Literature almost every time. On rare occasions,
>though, you get both. And I'd place Sallis among
>those few who even attempt (and in his case, often
>succeeds at) this.
>I've only read three by Ross Macdonald, but I don't
>see him anywhere close to the Big L category, in style
>or content. Hammett and Chandler absolutely.

------------------------------------------------------ Literary events Calendar (South Ont.) The evil men do lives after them

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