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Friday, May 21, 2010


Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 05/21/10 at 08:22 AM

I’ve been exploring options for an upcoming seminar on ‘women and detective fiction.’ Frankly, right now I’m feeling tired of the whole project and wouldn’t mind not reading any more mystery novels for a long time: after a while, the machinery just seems so creaky. Start with a prologue introducing the crime or the criminal. Sound an ominous note to create suspense (from the book nearest to hand, for instance, “If they’re the ones who killed Mary Claire, why wouldn’t they kill me?"). Introduce the detective, more or less alienated from work or partner or family or society. Start investigating. End lots of chapters with ominous notes, of the “little did she know how things would turn out” variety ("Things seldom went this swimmingly for me, which should have been a clue"). Reach putatively thrilling denouement. Fade out.  Repeat as necessary. I know, I know. The good ones are not like this, or do it well. Still, genre fiction is, inevitably, formulaic. A particular phenomenon I’ve been struck by lately, though, that actually bothers me more than the essential predictability of the form (which is, as P. D. James has argued, in some ways a strength of the genre as it establishes a firm structure within which the author is free to explore themes and characters as desired): there seems to be a trend towards overwriting, providing lots of unnecessary literal detail that contributes little to either plot or atmosphere but is just there. Now, I’m a Victorianist, and I like details: I’m not one to argue in favor of brevity for its own sake. But I like the details to be somehow resonant, whether with thematic or symbolic significance or with literary interest or pleasure. Dickens’s details, for instance, hum with life. But I don’t feel any life in this kind of writing:

I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. The 1967 edition was there and I toted it with me, riffling through pages while I activated the On button and waited for the machine to warm up. The first twenty-five-plus pages were devoted to the graduating seniors, half-page color head shots with a column beside each photograph, indicating countless awards, honors, offices, interests. The juniors occupied the next fifteen pages, smaller photographs in blocks of four.

I flipped over to the last few pages, where I found the lower school, which included kindergarten through fourth grade. There were three sections for each grade, fifteen students per section. The little girls wore soft red-and-gray plaid jumpers over white shirts. The boys wore dark pants and white shirts with red sweater vests. By the time these kids reached the upper school, the uniforms would be gone, but the wholesome look would remain.

I turned the pages until I found the kindergartners. I checked the names listed in small print under each photograph. Michael Sutton was in the third grouping, front row, second from the right.

I’m no best-selling author, but I can’t see why a reader needs to know most of this. We’ve seen yearbooks, after all. The uniforms are, I suppose, period details and class markers, but the number of pages, or rows, or photographs per row, seems tediously irrelevant. How about this, instead:

I dropped my shoulder bag near the copy machine and crossed to the shelves where the yearbooks were lined up. I found Michael Sutton’s kindergarten picture in the 1967 edition . . .

The whole book is padded with this kind of excessive, and excessively literal, description of mundane objects and activities:

As long as I was downtown, I covered the seven blocks to Chapel, where I hung a left and drove eight blocks up, then crossed State Street and took a right onto Anaconda. Half a block later, I turned into the entrance of the parking facility adjacent to the public library. I waited by the machine until the time-stamped parking voucher slid into my hand and then cruised up three levels until I found a slot. The elevator was too slow to bother with so I crossed to the stairwell and walked down. I emerged from the parking structure, crossed the entrance lane, and went into the library.

I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that once she is actually in the library and has spent a couple of paragraphs explaining about the directories she’ll consult, she reaches into her bag and “remove[s] a notebook and a ballpoint pen.” The blow-by-blow description slows down the action without developing anything else--not atmosphere, character, or theme. In other ways, this particular book is well built: Grafton is clearly interested in experimenting with form beyond the journal-like first-person narration she has used in most of her novels, and here she varies her point of view and alternates between past and present events in a fairly effective way. Still, the novel could have been much shorter and not lost anything valuable if someone had edited it more strenuously. I’m reading The Girl who Played with Fire and feel very much the same way about it: it just goes on and on and on.


My ungenerous theory is that most of these writers have nothing profound to communicate, but they need to meet a certain word count, and so they fill out the pages with thematically irrelevant and mundane reports of physical action.  It’s like opera composed by the tone deaf.

It’s depressing.

What are the prime candidates for your syllabus right now?

By on 05/21/10 at 11:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You might want to look at Dashiell Hammett to see if someone who’d actually been a working detective used similar strategies in his own work.  Does Grafton only do this when the POV character is a detective?  Is this perhaps a less than first rate attempt to show a presumed necessary tedium of paying excruciating attention to details?  Is part of the comfort of mysteries their formulaic reliability, the reader on a smooth gaited old horse who can be trusted?

By on 05/21/10 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rebecca, I teach The Maltese Falcon regularly and I have never felt the same sense of tedium there, at least. But yes, the reliability of formula is certainly part of the appeal--the difference between this aspect of genre fiction and the expectation of “originality” in “literary” fiction is one of the topics we often discuss when I’m teaching these courses. Some writers use the formula in more interesting ways, though (and some are just better stylists).

Tony, I teach “serious fiction by women” in a lot of other classes, but this particular course does focus on genre fiction--of course, one of the things we kick around a lot is how firm that distinction is (I’d make the case for at least Gaudy Night and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, for instance, both on the list for this course, as “serious fiction") as well as how or why genre fiction might deserve attention on its own terms.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/21/10 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By this time, I think it’s safe to assume that regular readers of any fiction have been exposed to literary scholarship and theory, and all the editors have. 

Are these tokens of anti-literature actually scholar repellent?

People who have large audiences are doing at least a few things better than most people who fail to attract large audiences.  Commercial fiction publishing, much to its own horror, can’t make best sellers.  Nick Mamatus wrote an essay recently on what one best selling urban fantasy writer got right which is worth taking a look at.

If the narrative and stylistic strategies validate that this is not a literary novel, then perhaps the more interesting question is what is a popular novelist with obvious failings by academic standards doing right that people who aren’t so popular are either failing to do or are deciding not to do?

Reading is pleasure; pleasure can be varied, simply or complex, even tinged with pain.  We can make the pleasure greater or more complex by introducing students/readers to things they hadn’t considered before, but if scholars make serious reading a painful self-improvement project with no pleasure in sight, they kill most intelligent people’s interest in reading what scholars approve of.

The interesting thing is to consider what the writer is passing on the reader as validation tokens for the kind of experience the reader wants to have.  In popular fiction, are any of them deliberate “not literature” tokens?

We just expect different formulas in “literary” fiction.  It’s almost proverbial that when someone actually does do something different in literature that earlier or more conventional practitioners have a fit about it (see James Dickey on Allen Ginsberg, for example, the old school s.f. writers on the New Wave, any number of people, including one academic s.f. person, on William Gibson, whoever it was at Harvard who had a fit about T.S. Eliot, Higginson on Dickinson and Whitman both, Robert Greene on Shakespeare and Marlowe, etc.).

What tokens signal quickly to the reader that this writing is the sort they’re looking for? 

I probably should look at The Sot Weed Factor again and figure out why that was so exciting when I read it.  I suspect I loved it because I was being flattered for being able to pick up the references.  That is also one of the pleasures with Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger for people who pick up both the philosophical references and the computer gaming references (I like Dorn for his style, but a friend who was a computer person and Borges reader loved the gaming references).

The reader is in the bookstore or on line looking at sample pages—how does the writer signal that this is one kind of experience or another quickly enough to get an impulse sale?

Grafton could simply be writing too fast, but assume that’s a thinking woman’s strategy (it looks from the samples to be too calculated to be simply bad writing).  What all could the flat heavy detail be signaling to the reader?

Grafton got a BA in English.  Dashiell Hammett left school at 13.  What did getting a BA in English bring to Grafton’s strategies and to her reader’s choices in accepting those strategies?

By on 05/21/10 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If Raymond Chandler had possessed no particular talent as a stylist, I think he’d have produced prose very like that Grafton prose....

By on 05/21/10 at 04:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, I think there’s more than marketing involved, imperfect as any genre definitions are. All writers work with conventions, but the categories we mark off as “genre fiction” (including science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, and mystery/detective) are more governed by--and/or more aware of--specific conventions, conventions their readers also enjoy and expect. Writers of detective fiction often work very self-consciously and explicitly within a tradition of other writers, though some (Ian Rankin comes to mind) claim to have ended up almost accidentally and not altogether happily with the label “crime novelist” or “mystery writer.” The marketing, then, at least in part responds to something real--and something with its own “intellectual expanse.”

Rebecca, I think by this time Grafton has a ready-made audience (it includes me, as I read each new book in her series). I have taught ‘A’ is for Alibi quite a few times and consider it a very smart book, very savvy about the ways it intervenes in the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction. It also shows a good sense of humor, and it is not written nearly so dully as the bits I’ve quoted here from ‘U’ is for Undertow. My complaint is not that Grafton’s book is popular fiction, not “literary” fiction, but that these passages strike me as lame, not by any academic standard, but in a general way, e.g. they are boring and add nothing to the book they are in.

I completely agree about reading as a source of very various pleasures, and about the ways writers of all kinds signal their intentions or issue, as it were, invitations to their prospective readers (as Booth says, we as readers have to decide how far along we’ll go with them). I do resist the (perhaps unintended) implication that as a scholar, what I’m out to do is make reading a “painful self-improvement project.” I have a long (OK, very long) archive of blog posts about my courses which I hope suggest the opposite (of the ‘painful’ part, anyway--’self-improvement’ might occasionally come up as being a good thing).

Nick, I agree!

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/21/10 at 06:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, I don’t think all academics do that. 

Writers aren’t always on form, and publishers may or may not give first rate editors the time they need to really work on books.

Maybe it would be fun to see where Grafton is not doing as well as she did, see if there’s a pattern there.

By on 05/21/10 at 08:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, do you really think that any novel with a cop or a detective in it is a detective novel?  That’s like saying any play with marriage is a comedy; or any play with suffering is a tragedy; or any novel not set right now is historical fiction; or any novel with technology is science fiction.

True detective fiction—or mystery fiction—begins as a marketing ploy and remains one.  Poe invented the genre to make money by playing on his audience’s thirst for sensation.  This remains true for Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, Hammett and Chandler, etc.

By on 05/22/10 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

the police state type of novel the genre functions greatly as

Would you like to explain how you see this working, with some specific examples, and some examples of novels you think would be “exceptions”?

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/22/10 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not aware that I’m saying anything controversial here

Not exactly, though like all sweeping generalizations, that description gets less accurate and useful the closer you get to specifics, and it allows for no nuances or differences--it makes no distinction, for instance, between the many subgenres of crime fiction. This account (we could call it the “restoration of order” or “reassurance” theory of crime fiction) works reasonably well for works in the “cozy” form but far less well for hard-boiled detection, or for social realism of the Ian Rankin type, for instance, with the former offering little by way of reassurance about legal lines, the police, or the restoration of order, and the latter investigating diverse causes of crime as well as the limits of the “police defined state.” One of the most common tropes in crime fiction is the conflict between legality--as defined by the state and enforced by the police--and other ideas about justice (social or economic, for example). Much crime fiction by women authors looks at ways the “state order” reinforces patriarchal assumptions or priorities, or shows the inadequacy of the formal law for preventing crimes against women (Sara Paretsky provides some interesting examples here). PI’s are often called in precisely because the official instruments of “justice” or authority have failed, sometimes because of their implication in corruption or oppression, sometimes because they are no better than the people who embody them. Hard-boiled detectives and other private investigators also often act outside the law. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, to give just one example from my reading list for this course, Cordelia Gray colludes to cover up a murder.

Though individual cases are (usually) solved, often the books make clear that there are systemic problems against which the lone investigator or the police or state apparatus is close to helpless--or with which the supposed crime-fighter is (willingly or inadvertantly) colluding. Sometimes the detective is very, and sometimes painfully, aware of this (Rankin’s Rebus, to give one example); sometimes we as readers are more knowing than the novel’s protagonists (with Collins’s The Moonstone, for instance, we know something almost none of the English characters acknowledge, which is that the diamond was never really Rachel Verinder’s, or her uncle’s, to begin with, and so the whole idea of its “theft” from her bedroom as a discrete crime to be solved is highly problematic).

Even a classic “cozy” like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is not nearly as reassuring as the “restoration of order” theory would suggest: we see the village community in that novel not as an idyllic space violated by an aberrant criminal but as a place already characterized, before Ackroyd’s murder, by greed, cruelty, and class envy, where crime (blackmail and other suspicious deaths) already flourishes. The villain of the specific case is removed but in such a way that his guilt is not known by the wider community, so there’s no deeper correction, and this is the solution advocated by Poirot, in the interests of preserving a kind of faux innocence that is quite transparent. How far that allows Poirot to stand as a “hero” is something that certainly generates discussion, in my experience, just as Cordelia’s decision to obstruct a police investigation does--or, for that matter, Sam Spade’s decision to turn Brigid O’Shaughnessy over to the police in The Maltese Falcon, which is a gesture, in a way, in support of law and order (she did kill Archer, after all)--but the world she lives in is so corrupt that hardly seems a sufficient principle. Sam is certainly not acting in order to “restore...the basic law and order of the state.” He’s acting because he’s decided on a principle to live by ("when a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it") that Hammett makes clear is at once arbitrary and destructive to Sam’s humanity--but in a world of falling beams, you either stand still or find a reason to go forward.

As for the “countless” films and TV shows that focus on crime and its investigation and/or prosecution, again I think that once you zoom in it becomes fairly unsatisfying to make no distinctions between Law and Order and, say, Prime Suspect or The Wire.

Do any of these examples “show the fundamental illegitimacy of the state”? I don’t think so, if by that you mean that they take the extreme view that no state authority can ever be legitimate.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/22/10 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fortunately, English Department leftists have little power in the real world or we’d be going from a partial meritocracy to a rigid class stratification and ruthless political maneuvering within the Revolutionary Party, and re-education camps of anyone who read genre fiction that wasn’t approved by the Party.

By on 05/22/10 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So it’s fair to say that the genre either largely preserves, fails to challenge . . .

Now that you have clarified your point (not “the” point, perhaps) it seems to me that you would probably be willing to substitute almost any genre for detective fiction in this sentence, so your initial objection to detective fiction as a genre, or to the particular ‘popular’ strand of it, rather loses its force.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/22/10 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Detective novels are about the detectives, not about the crime(s). Doyle, if I remember, usually started his stories with something like “Ah, Watson, I see you have been to La Boheme with a retired Sikh general.” Totally gratuitous to the real plot.

Do we get too much about orchids, elevators, fine cuisine, red leather chairs in Stout? It is about how are protagonists, how they observe the world, how they detect.

Grafton has always had this excessive amount of finely observed quotidian detail. Iy has been a while, perhaps ‘L”, and perhaps she has too much now, but it is more important to her detective and her novels than for example the interplay with the neighbor. I can’t say for sure what Grafton is doing or trying to do, alienation (Nausea?) is one, but I did get a feeling of being oppressed by a world of trivial things and actions that deadens feelings and makes the sudden violence, cruelty, and horror seem inexplicable.

Could Kinsey Milhone be slightly autistic or Asperger’s?

By on 05/23/10 at 05:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What about fiction that glorifies, not the detective, but the criminal?

Raffles the gentleman burgler. Fantomas. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.

Ruth Rendell writes two sorts of novels. In her standard, genre, mysteries, the police often win; in her darker books, she often writes from the POV of the criminal or the sociopath.

I wonder if Rohan’s flagging interest in the topic of women’s detective fiction might revive if she expanded the topic to women’s detective and criminal fiction.

By on 05/23/10 at 06:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, Stephen Knight makes your argument for you in his excellent book on mystery and detective fiction.

However, you overstate your case.  Catching criminals is not the same as supporting a “police state.” I admit to getting satisfaction from watching Holmes catch murderers, blackmailers, and thieves.  I seriously don’t think he’s stopping the revolution.  (Then again, Doyle was quite up front in stories like “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Yellow Face” that when it comes to race, sexual desire, and gender, Holmes’ all-seeing eye was rather blind, suggesting the limits of any total knowledge.)

Dupin pretty much despised the State.  Holmes had an ethical code that he held above that of the State.  Hammett was a Red.  Then there’s Ellroy and Mosley, who are utterly critical of the State.

By on 05/24/10 at 02:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe the level of detail is not meant to be “symbolic” or especially evocative.  Perhaps it’s just (extraneous) detail, detail about the kind of stuff we see everywhere, all the time, around us. The author creates from within the rubric of “genre fiction” a world that all of us see. Doesn’t seem like an unimportant accomplishment, if you ask me.

That would be my modest defense of genre fic, anyhow.  But no, I don’t read that shit! ;-)

By on 05/24/10 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, Tony, there’s a difference between Knight’s articulation of all these ideas and those ideas being true.  I’d say he overstates the case too.

Ultimately, anyone not bombing D.C. is stopping the revolution, so that point doesn’t hold much water with regard to detective fiction in particular.  Literature by its very nature is conservative, even those texts that overly celebrate revolution or attempt to persuade its readers to rebel. 

So no, I don’t think detective fiction is one big celebration of the Police State, especially given the fact that the the US and the UK haven’t been police states (except perhaps England in the time of Elizabeth I).  And no, I don’t think detective fiction has had any effect whatsoever on the political thought of its readers, one way or the other.  With the exception of a few books, I’d say literature in general has had no effect on the political attitudes of its readers.

By on 05/24/10 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hilarious! Criticise genre fiction for being “formulaic”, and then criticise it for doing anything that’s surplus to the requirements of the formula!

That’s genius!

No, hang on… no, that’s right: it’s not extraordinary insight, just everyday cliché.

If we’re going to talk about the “creaky machinery” of popular fiction, let’s go the whole hog and talk about the creaky machinery of popular fiction criticism. Start with a decision to consider the intellectual or literary merits of popular fiction, despite having already decided that you find the whole thing wearisome at best. Think of it as “exploration” to kid yourself that the exercise is replete with intellectual curiosity and openness to what the plebs seem — inexplicably — to like. Start reading. Look for everything that you always expected would be there, and be sure to appeal to every critical cliché you can ("formula", “one-dimensional characters”, “an unrefined prose style”, “plotholes”, “mass market”, etc.). Reach putatively informed conclusion that you were right to think the whole thing wearisome at best. Fade out. Wait for similarly high-minded literary types to sadly nod their heads in agreement.

An ungenerous theory would be that most of these critics have nothing profound to communicate, but they need to meet a certain productivity measures, and so they set up forums on topics they have no real expertise in or curiosity about and fill them with mundane reports of their lack of imagination.

An ungenerous theory, that is.

By on 05/25/10 at 09:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob, that strikes me as a perverse characterization of what this discussion (or the larger inquiry it comes out of, which was which books to add to the syllabus for my course on women and detective fiction) is about or like. Speaking for myself, anyway, I don’t find “the whole thing wearisome at best” if by that you mean popular fiction, and I don’t think of it as something “the plebs” like but I am somehow above. I am a regular reader of detective fiction, and I also teach courses about it with a lot of enthusiasm as well as, I hope, intellectual rigor and even some expertise. But I don’t think that means being undiscriminating: there are better and worse examples of all kinds of writing, and the weaker examples of detective fiction, on my reading, are those that offer little to compensate for their formulaic aspects. I think the approach that would in fact be patronizing is not one that takes the premises and promise of the genre seriously enough to scrutinize them or to look carefully at specific examples, but one that considers them inappropriate for discussion by “high-minded literary types.” If you think the conversation so far has not been insightful, I’d be happy to get your perspective on the examples or broader issues that have come up.

Anyway, just so you know, contributing to The Valve (or blogging in general) is not something anyone does, as far as I know, to “meet certain productivity measures.” Blogging is not the kind of thing that counts for that. We do it, basically, because we find it interesting to try out and exchange ideas.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/26/10 at 07:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

*sigh* Academic blogging is just no fun at all. Where’s the blood?*

Okay, let’s mark out some boundaries. These are boundaries that we may well want to trample all over once we’ve marked them out, but hopefully we’ll be in a better position to decide which forms of trampling each one of us would prefer to endorse.

Is the upcoming seminar on “women and detective fiction” an academic seminar, or something else? Are the observations drawn out in the post and the subsequent comments preliminary observations made with a view to writing them up as a contribution to that seminar, or are they something else? In other words, is this an academic discussion of popular fiction or is it a conversation amongst cultural consumers about what they like and don’t like?

Someone — a would-be trampler — might want to ask why it can’t be both, or they might want to insist that, for someone who is both an academic and a popular reader of popular narrative, the two modes of discussion can’t be separated. And there’s a certain degree of truth at the basis of that insistence.

But you’ve really got to ask yourself the question: what exactly is academic about the academic study of popular fiction/narrative/culture, if it’s not doing anything that everyday readers of popular fiction, etc. aren’t already doing? Or, am I to believe that everyday readers are “undiscriminating”, that they do not take “the premises and promise of the genre seriously enough to scrutinize [it] or to look carefully at specific examples”?

To be sure, there are probably many everyday readers/cultural consumers who feel that they have far better things to do than to re-read their copies of Sue Grafton with the aim of pursuing a close textual critique (though, I doubt there are many who don’t, as they read, make to themselves some kind of observations about whether the book is any good or not, which bits don’t work, etc.). More power to ‘em, I say. Equally, though, readers can and routinely do reflect on and talk about such texts in a way that “takes the premises and promise of the genre seriously enough to scrutinize” it. Not just “fans” and “avid readers” of a particular genre, but also people who read eclectically, and even people who just read.

Crucially, such popular reflection and criticism is very often informed by the same kind of mass culture discourse that permeates the OP and the subsequent comments — deploying the same ideas of genre and formula, escapism, commercialism, and the same criticisms of stereotype, trashiness, plot-holes, coarse style, etc., etc. as we see above.

So, again: if your “average” reader can do this kind of Leavisite critique perfectly well, then what is the point of academic criticism doing the same?

You say that the point of blogging (presumably, in this context, academic blogging) is to “try out and exchange ideas” — but exactly what “idea” is being tried out and exchanged (as distinct from being merely assumed) in the argument that “the blow-by-blow description slows down the action without developing anything else--not atmosphere, character, or theme”? I mean, precisely this literary device — which is what it would be called, if we were talking about a properly “literary” (i.e. “serious”, “non-generic”, “non-formulaic”, “non-commerical") work — screams for some engaged thinking, in a word, for some ideas. To give as an example just one question that could be raised, I repeat: what exactly is going on in or with the ideas of genre and formula when a text can be — let’s be generous, here, and not say “criticised” — identified as generic/formulaic (the two terms seemingly interchangeable) and at the same time criticised for featuring something that is surplus to the formula, i.e. for not being generic?**

So, when I take a shot at utterly banal forms of “academic” criticism of popular narrative/culture, it is hardly because I consider them inappropriate for discussion — and certainly not inappropriate for discussion by academics. Quite the contrary! I am calling on academics to be academics, and not simply everyday cultural consumers who conduct an everyday kind of aesthetic evaluation.

Seeing as you asked for it, then, I’ll out myself and point you towards just two previous attempts at recounting my perspective:



It would be easy enough to read these (the first, especially) as though they were attempts to speak directly to (hence to criticise specifically) the comments in this topic, and then find them inadequate because, e.g., the first paper talks about questions of genre, formula and originality, whereas your observations turn on the question of style. On another reading, however, I hope that you may find they raise questions and develop ideas that speak more generally to the mode of criticism deployed in the discussion thus far.

*By the time this post is over, I hope it’s apparent that I’m not really attacking any one person in particular here, let alone accusing them of not reading/caring for popular fiction. I’m countering a specific discourse and the deployment of that discourse in academic contexts. When that discourse is so pervasive that it takes over even people who might otherwise be critical of received ideas, I find that a polite and measured contribution is not the right tool for the job.

**I could take a number of issues with Tony’s form of ideology critique as well (e.g. for its potential to override the singularity of the text), but at least it’s going beyond a form of criticism that is by today’s standards utterly commonplace, and in doing so raises an idea that is somewhat less than everyday — even if all else it can do is ceaselessly repeat the same every time it encounters another “instance” of the “genre”.

By on 05/27/10 at 01:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Check out tvtropes. It’s a bunch of fans waxing descriptive and analytical about TV, movies, novels, and whatever else. From the site intro:

What is this about? This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. We dip into the cauldron of story, whistle up a hearty spoonful and splosh it in front of you to devour to your heart’s content.

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

The wiki is called “TV Tropes” because TV is where we started. Over the course of a few years, our scope has crept out to include other media. Tropes transcend television. They exist in life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.

We are not Wikipedia. We’re a buttload more informal. We encourage breezy language and original thought. There Is No Such Thing As Notability, and no citations are needed. If your entry cannot gather any evidence by the Wiki Magic, it will just wither and die. Until then, though, it will be available through the Main Tropes Index.

By Bill Benzon on 05/27/10 at 08:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill — yes, that’s exactly it. And the same kinds of observations are made thousand fold at least, in more everyday, ephemeral spaces.

Tony, I agree. Call it another polemical exaggeration for rhetorical (but also critical) effect.

The kind of arguments you’ve been putting forward are absolutely worthwhile, and I don’t doubt your capacity to take them in innovative directions. That just goes to show that the kind of ideology critique I took a swipe at does not at all need to be so reductive as to see every instance of a genre in identical terms.

The problem lies less in the form of critique than in the concept of genre that gets deployed. To the extent that the form of critique hinges on a banal concept of genre, there’s a real potential for the critique to be overly reductive. But there’s also no getting away from genre, which is as much as to say that genre criticism, in some form or other, is as necessary as it is fraught with problems.

By on 05/27/10 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, at what point does the entire concept of genre get so bagged out of shape that it’s completely useless?

“Crime Fiction” is a crazy term.  I mean, what *isn’t* crime fiction?  Odysseus committed a crime against Posiedon—*The Odyssey*.  Helen committed a crime, as did Paris: *The Iliad*.  Oedipus committed a crime; Claudius committed a crime; Don John committed a crime; and so on and so on.

For genre to be a useful concept, it must be fairly strictly delimited.  I’d say that the mystery/detective genre begins once literature is written with a protagonist who is either a professional crime-solver or a hobbyist crime-solver.  And I’d say that “crime fiction” begins once the sensationalism of the crime takes over from anything like an attempt to analyze the psychology of the criminal.  *Crime and Punishment* is no more a work of “crime fiction” than *Paradise Lost*; those two share far more in common than they do with Jim Thompson’s *After Dark My Sweet* or Cain’s *The Postman Always Rings Twice*. 

Not all literature with mysteries is mystery literature.  Not all literature with sinning or rule-breaking is crime literature.

By on 05/30/10 at 03:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, I’m not talking about marketing genres.  I’m talking about genre as a literary-critical concept.  I care nothing about the sociology of literature, the relationship between literature and history, or the politics of literature.  I care about literary form and style and the ways in which symbolic form structures the process of thought.

Poe developed a new form in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” This meant a new type of protagonist, which in turn necessitated a new relationship between protagonist and narration, which in turn necessitated another new type of character, all of which brought about a new approach to structuring the heroic adventure plot.  It didn’t prove immensely popular until much later—and until other writers cut out a lot of the philosophical baloney that Poe thought essential to his idea of the tale of ratiocination. 

I’m interested in the literary history of that genre, of that symbolic form.  It does not include *Les Miserables* (’tho I love that novel) or *Bleak House* or Godwin’s novel or Dostoevsky or Jim Thompson. 

And I’m not sure the prisoner-writing genre was killed.  People still eat up narratives of Soviet and Nazi prisoners.  And the slave narrative is healthy, despite the end of slavery!

By on 05/30/10 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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