RARA-AVIS: "Great Literature? Depends Whodunit"

From: Jay Gertzman ( jgertzma@earthlink.net)
Date: 04 Feb 2008

There was an article called "Great Literature? Depends Whodunit" in the
_NY Times_ Sunday. The writer, Charles McGrath, discussed the problem of
"thrillers" selling more than "literary novels." McGrath did not agree with the widely-held idea that "genre writing .. is a form of slumming," but seems a bit unfocused on why this distinction is made. Was it the 19th century "penny dreadful"? "The growth of pulp magazines?" McGrath allows that only a few authors like Hammett and Chandler transcended the "crude and formulaic" pulp stories. He goes on: mystery writers complain that reviewers "ghettoize genre writers and prevent its practitioners from being taken seriously." [The Times Book Review does this itself; with its mystery column.] But McGrath says "highbrow authors are sometimes complicit in frequently adopting pseudonyms when they want to dabble in crime writing." [I thought this was their agents' or publishers' idea]. The writers realize that formula (McGrath seems to believe this term is synonymous with "genre") is an easy, quick read and also "reassuring in a way that some other writers are not."

McGrath concludes that one can be just as good a writer of genre as of high lit. Well, if one is Henry James, anyway. But the article seems to reveal a lot of confusion about genre, and to accept the distinction between "literature" and "thriller" even when it half-heartedly tries to reject or modify it. I wonder what others think of it.

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