Wednesday, June 03, 2009

On Genre and Respect

I got a very interesting email today from someone writing a PhD in the UK, asking me about garnering literary respect with "genre" fiction.

Here's what I wrote back:

When it comes to genre and respect, I like to rip off Oscar Wilde: "Books are well-written or badly written. That is all."

I am, at heart, a story guy and a structure slut. I studied Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies, because they are terrific thrillers. Macbeth - great mob tale. Hamlet: ghost story. Othello: pre-noir. Etc. Stateside, I love Faulkner - the corncob rape scene in Sanctuary? Need we say more about lurid classifications? I collect his paperbacks from the 50s for their great pulp covers. I enjoy terrific stories where I can find them, and one can find them in all sections of a bookstore. There's a lot of poorly written stuff as well, both "literary" and "commercial," the only distinction seeming to be that commercial crap actually makes the authors money (if you write in cliches, get published, and DON'T make money, well that's an even sadder state of affairs). I also like to point out that "commercial" writing extends across the boards; Updike did okay for himself. Dickens never had trouble paying the rent -- and his literary reputation has survived relatively well. James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice was the inspiration for Camus's The Stranger. When Gertrude Stein came to California, she only wanted to meet Dashiell Hammet (okay, Chaplin too, but that dilutes the anecdote).

I think crime fiction has replaced the social novel. I'd press someone to find a better practioner of the craft than, say, Poe or Chandler or Lethem or Lehane -- or to find someone who better reveals to us a city or a family or a moral conundrum.

But I find it's no use getting defensive - one can't really win arguing that he or she should be taken more seriously. Better to write as goddamned well as one can manage, and let people sort it out a couple hundred years hence.