RARA-AVIS: Re: The definition of literature

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 05 Nov 2007


Re your comments below:

"I'm not sure who 'we' is, but I'm also not sure that whether Crime Fiction can be literature has been our question. The question is, I think, WHICH pieces of crime fiction are literature, and which authors do others as well as we on Rara consider literature?"

"We" are devotees of mystery fiction. And it's NOT a question here. It has been in the groves of academe, as the reference to Edmund Wilson's two anti-mystery shows. In fact, for many years, it wasn't really a question in the groves of academe. Crime fiction was trash, whatever its intrinsic literary qualities.

And if it wasn't, it, in some mysterious way, wasn't really crime fiction at all. In the second of his two articles, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd," Wilson admitted that he found Chandler worthwhile, but insisted that, in spite of the plots involving the investigation of and solution to a crime, Chandler wasn't really a mystery writer at all.

Silly comments like this led to that famous phrase so beloved of academics, "transcends the genre!"

"Remember that part of the m-w definition of literature: 'Writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.'"

Fine, let's say we use that definition, instead of the more general one. To this day, you still get some mucky-muck in British letters declaring that Conan Doyle, who didn't do anything but but create the most famous and enduring character in all of fiction, to be not a significant contributor to the tradition of British letters.

The first part of my point is that there's still a resistance to the idea that mystery writing, or any genre writing, can have "excellence of form" or that it can "express ideas of permanent of universal interest." That, by its nature, genre fiction, no matter how good, is incapable of this. And if it does manage reach these heights, then it somehow stops being part of the genre.

Since this is clearly silly on its face, the second part of my point is why do we still care what they think? Despite the still-enduring attitude towards genre fiction among a shrinking number of academics, the fact is that the number IS shrinking. Enough academics have been converted that we ought to be able to declare victory and stop worrying about it.

"Hammett and Chandler have already made the grade, at least I think they have. I'd bet dollars to dimes, that most on Rara consider them lierature."

What most on Rara considered them wasn't the point. Obviously we care about the genre or we wouldn't be on this list.


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