Thursday, February 3, 2011

Genre Fiction Becomes Classic Literature How?

There has been a long-standing feeling among the snobbish in the literary world that says such books as Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, or any genre book is hardly worthy of academic concern, that the mystery and horror novel in particular are inferior to what is considered actual "literature" which somehow has more dignity about it and is certainly a place for the classics. And yet the works we today consider classics were in the day of their publication condemned as "genre" or something less than "literature".

Certainly there are some people who point to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and call it a boy's adventure tale yet it has become the classic, even the pinnacle of the type of book that academics land on and like vultures pick apart and pluck out symbolism, irony, depth of characterization, important themes. Such matters concern academics just as a single short story by Pappa Hemingway can cause whole dissertations to be written to which Hemingway must laugh all the way to eternity. 

But somehow even today there are bastions of academia and readers who feel that a mystery, especially a murder mystery or a police procedural such as an Ed McBain novel does not come up to the level of importance to be called anything but a lesser creature than literature. The word literature must be used only for dead poets and ancient novels of the past, for the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, E.A.Poe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and too many to list here. However, novelists mining the same fields as Verne's science fiction, Doyle's puzzles with Sherlock Holmes at their center, Dickens' soap operas of human condition and contrition, Twain's humorist travelogues or young adult coming of age tales, Edgar Allan Poe's horror, Shelley's horror, Abraham Stoker's horror classic Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde -- these are somehow elevated due to the mastery of the author and their "genre" forgiven or forgotten.

I condemn no book that works, and mystery titles of today and recent years deal with huge issues such as what it means to be an honorable man in a less than honorable world; mysteries cover the gamut of modern life and its alienating nature, the disenfranchisement of mankind from his true nature, and the stripping away of individual freedoms. Lord of the Flies, a British classic, is horror of the first order, one of civilization's worst nightmares. Bradbury's fiery tale of burning books while science fiction is a study in governmental controls gone amok,and yes, the intellectuals are the first to be imprisoned in a theocracy or a dictatorship. Mystery, Horror, Science Fiction, even romance from Shakespeare to the thinnest of modern day romance novels touch upon psychology, good vs. evil, the ripple effect of gossip and miscommunication.

I submit to you that genre fiction, including my own historical thrillers, deals with the most complex of human desires, needs, goals, desires. Just as the core story within the pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick deal with aberrant human psyche so perfectly, just as Dickens' Christmas Carrol deals with the human condition and its complexities, so to does Hammett and Leonard, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, the Bronte heirs - a long, distinguished list of female authors from across the modern landscape such as Laura Lippman, Charlaine Harris, Tess Gerritsen, and Patricia Cornwell.

Tell me Dr. of Literature and Professor of Classics, how will the modern 'masters' of these various genres from science fiction to historical fiction be regarded by academia, and in the end, will they not square up with the elder statesmen of early "genre" fiction classics thanks in large measure to their popularity?  Dickens was writing a series of serial novels with each installment in the daily newspaper there in London, Mark Twain writing for a San Francisco newspaper, and today as with the huge crowds waiting for the next installment, so too hordes of readers anxiously await the next King installment.

I recall how The Catcher in the Rye suddenly was in every freshman English class across America. I don't see that so much nowadays. I wonder where The Catcher went. I see more copies of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - a mystery surrounding a character who refuses to change because something inside him cannot change. An African village mystery man, a book of great physical battles as well as mental battles written in English by an African author--a modern day "classic" for what reason? It is considered great literature, great writing.  Recall Flowers for Algernon and 2001 - A Space Odyssey, books that were also finding their way into every college English class and considered "high-filuting literature.

It may be true that for a genre piece of writing to rise to the level of literature and especially classic literature that it be read by more than one generation and so not easily forgotten by time itself. Few books rise to this level, but in calling out whole genres such as mysteries  as somehow lesser than literature is in fact a strange attitude and behavior, for all great literature come out of popular acclaim as much if not more than critical acclaim which often lags behind discoveries made by readers of every stripe and not the critics.

Robert W. Walker (Rob)
 follow popular acclaim for my own Children of Salem and Titanic 2012


Unknown said...

What's surprising to me is that what people have called literature rarely gets read today. These classics are read only for the sake to indulge into snobbery of academia. But some classics like All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, which won the Pulitzer, are great novels in their own right - without the pressure of academic attention. In fact, it has lost its academic attention almost entirely - sadly. The books I lean towards are accessible, though, like The Scorpion's Bite by Aileen G. Baron - an enjoyable historical fiction read. That is the main point: it should be read with pleasure and not over analysis.

J. H. Bográn said...

I thought classics are determined by the next generation, thus the authors seldom live to see it.

Tribute Books Mama said...

thanks! for sharing.

Robert W. Walker said...

damn, I just wrote a huge long involved response to JR in particular and LOST capsulize: a book of Lasting worth and value, a book that has a lasting effect on vast numbers of readers -- this is what makes a book a classic once it has arrived, but that vast number of readers who love it has to be the starting point.
This is a piss poor answer compared to what I had but am too much without sleep to recreate the shapely response I had....But the idea that a story is so great that generation first reads it to the next, and the next be it Charlotte's Web or Ben Hur is what makes it and keeps it a classic. That does not mean it is on some snobbish academic's shelf never to be read. More often it is retold in every medium as with Christmas Carol and Moby Dick and all the classics. Literature is not precisely the same as classic literature; my point is that many a popular genre-rooted novel as in a mystery (Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doye) can and does become high literature and a classic.

Rob Walker

jenny milchman said...

Hear, hear, Rob.

I think the master, Stephen King, finally put to bed what I call the lie of the hack.

Just because you write prolifically doesn't mean you're a hack. Just because you write stories that grip people doesn't mean you're a hack. Just because you make reading fun--or even find the writing fun--doesn't mean you're a hack.

Some years ago SK began being taken seriously, or more seriously, by the critics and those who profess to value literature.

I think his early books were at least as good as those that won accolades and approval.

Norman Wilson said...

Excellent article, Rob. I have little patience with literary snobs.

Morgan Mandel said...

If I like a book, I don't care what it's called!

Morgan Mandel