Thursday, September 27, 2012

Figuring it Out: Genre Fiction & Literature


There’s been a small flurry of writing about genre fiction and literature lately – Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker, Lev Grossman in Time magazine. As I try to write in both worlds, and having set opposing heavy weights Lawrence Durrell and Len Deighton against each other in my MFA graduate thesis, I feel the need to add a small comment to the discussion. Krystal feels as do most academics, that literary fiction is different and essentially better (or more important) than genre fiction. Grossman takes a lot of words and a fairly tortured set of rationales to make the case for horror and mystery and crime and romance. Of course there’s plenty of horror, mystery, crime and romance in literary fiction.  But what are they doing there, and why?
 I saw one answer to this question in my own work this morning.  Trying to sell a mystery and working on a piece of mainstream fiction at the same time, I can’t help noticing how the techniques of the detective story have penetrated my ‘literary’ prose. 
In the mainstream book, two old friends who loved the same woman many years before come to a rapprochement in the days before one of them succumbs to cancer. The presentation of this material started out static and verbose – two old geezers slinging what my MFA professor Douglas Glover distastefully refers to as ‘backfill’. When I decided to dramatize this material, to have at least some part of it take place in the present, with the momentum and impact of on-going events, I found myself rooting around happily in the mystery writer’s toolbox.  Some aspect of the infidelity had to have remained a secret, and that secret had to be revealed. This is the basic conundrum of the detective story: the hero figuring out what’s really going on, usually well in advance of the police, the villains and hopefully the reader. The basic unit of this mental transaction is the clue. Of course the trick of a clue is that it must not present any obvious relevance to the case at hand It must ‘hide in plain sight’, its true significance concealed, but organically. Any hint of contrivance feels like a cheat to the reader matching wits with the hero. While Gregson and Lestrade busy themselves looking for a woman named Rachel (all but the last letter of her name was written in blood at the crime scene), Holmes knows that “rache” is German for revenge. We know in a soothing way that when Harry Bosch goes through the ‘murder book’ one more time he’ll find the little detail he missed.  This process, the intellectual work of figuring things out, is fascinating and compelling wherever we find it, and whatever the purpose.
 If I wanted my widower Harlan Mallory to grasp the full extent of his friend Oliver’s betrayal, he would need a chain of clues. Oliver had spent two summers with Harlan’s wife in her little beach house on Nantucket, while Harlan was away traveling and their son was at camp. All this took place in the early nineties. I needed Oliver to say something perfectly innocuous that would give his illicit visit away to Harlan but not to the reader. So I did some research, looking for a restaurant that came and went on the island during that brief time frame.  I found one, and when Oliver suggests stopping by ‘that frozen yogurt place’ he gives himself away. So he was on the island during the years when he was supposedly in exile. But did he ever go to Ruth’s house? Harlan takes him there during a rain storm, and Oliver automatically side-steps the drip from a perennial leak over the front door. But the leak is long gone: Harlan had the roof replaced years before.
A casual request and an unconscious physical gesture reveal everything, and the long delayed confrontation begins.
At some point during the planning stages for this sequence I realized that I was thinking like a mystery writer, organizing my clues, setting the story up back to front so that everything would pay off at the big reveal without the reader feeling cheated. I was grateful that I had practiced the craft of crime fiction for so many years. It came in handy.
So does that mean genre fiction and literary fiction are in fact the same? No, and it all comes down to the purpose for which these devices are used. A mystery story is ultimately an artificial construct, a puzzle, devised for the amusement of brain-teaser fans. Grossman takes some pains defending Agatha Christie’s prose in his Time magazine article, prose which Krystal dismisses as utilitarian. But finally the quality of the prose doesn’t really matter. Ford Madox Ford (the representative of  authentic literature in Krystal’s formulation) writes in richer detail, but that matters less than the fact that he’s using his prose and the tricks of plot and the chimera of character development to show us some essential truth about his life and our own. Agatha Christie just wants to build a Chinese box we can’t open.
And sorry, Lev, but that’s not enough.

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