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The Really Interesting Question

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I’d like to start off by pointing out that I never said that genre was synonymous with badly written–in fact, I’ve said the exact opposite, several times. 

What I did say was the genre fiction before World War II was almost universally badly written, and it was.  Go back and look at the mysteries of the supposed “Golden Age,” and what you find is not only the predictable plots and predictable characters, but writing that sounds almost cartoon-y.  I sincerely love Hercule Poirote, but he’s a caricature, not a character. 

There were, as I said, a number of reasons for that, not least of which was the fact that you could simply make more money as a mainstream novelist.  These days, it’s obvious that you can make more money as a genre novelist–outside the ranks of the high end of the literary, genre novelists make more money and sell more books than any other kind. 

The interesting question, for me, is what it was that happened in those twenty years after the War to change the tastes of the vast majority of the American book reading public–or to change the composition of that public.

In the Fifties and Sixties, genres were still the stepchild of publishing, largely issued as paperback originals and unreviwed in the mainstream press.  If you went into a bookstore, the novels prominently displayed at the front would most likely be “big” mainstream items like the works of James Michener, Irving  Wallace, an Arthur Hailey.

And it did look, for a while there, as if the higher levels of education promised for my generation and after would increase the audiences for the intellectual end in fiction.  It certainly seemed to be doing that on stage and in the movies, with things like Becket and Lawrence of Arabia sweeping Doris Day off the map.

When  I sat in my room at my ancient typewriter writing the first things I put real effort into, the role models I saw in the pages of The New Yorker–I had a subscription to The New Yorker when I was ten–and even on the bestseller lists in The New  Y ork Times were all “serious” novelists.

I don’t know when this started to change.  I wasn’t paying attention to best seller lists at the end of the Sixties and into the Seventies.   Unlike a lot of the people who comment here, I don’t think the Sixties was the worst thing that ever happened to  America and  I don’t think it was a bad thing overall–I had a good time in the Sixties, without having too good of a time, if that makes sense. 

And by the time I graduated in 1973, it was obvious that the other change was happening–that students were less interested in politics and protesting than they were in finding careers that would pay a lot of money.  It was an odd juxtoposition on the campus where I was.   People even started to dress differently, and my senior year there was a freshman who became mildly famous because her habit of changing ball gowns midway through deb parties made the New York papers as a “hot social trend.”

But in that long stretch when I was in college and graduate school, I just wasn’t paying all that much attention to what was being published, at any end of the market.  If you think of being in graduate school as being in orbit and leaving as a kind of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, I can tell you exactly when it happened.  For me, at any rate. 

I had just taken an enormous series of tests preliminary to the dissertation, and I wandered into the big bookstore in East Lansing, Michigan looking for something to take my mind off it all.  What I found were two novels by Charlotte MacLeod, The Family Vault and God Rest Ye Merry

At that point, I don’t think I’d read any mystery fiction at all for about fifteen years.  A lot of what I did read was then–as now–older stuff, Victorian novels especially.  I had a run on Balzac one year, and a run on Dostoyevski another.  If I read contemporary fiction at all, it was to make a point of picking up first novls to see what they wree like.  I wanted to be a first novel myself one day.

Charlotte MacLeod got me started in another direction, and a month or two later I left Michigan for New York and my first “real” job.  By then I was reading mysteries by the barrelful in a way I hadn’t since I was very young.

And what occured to me, at the time, was:  I could be happy writing this.

I look back on myself and I have no idea why this was the case.  I get the impression that the mainstream novels I did read at the time seemed to lack energy in some way.  They still do, now, when I pick the up.

The “literary” novel has largely become a genre of its own, with the drawback that the people who write it and the people who read it live in a very insular and constricted world about which, it seems to me, enough has been said already.

But the writers of serious novels–not to be mistaken for the “literary” production about a bunch of upper middle class people wandering around feeling alienated and miserable–seem to come increasingly from outside the United States.   There’s  Saramago, certainly, and V.S. Naipaul (although is “travel” writing is better), and the British writer with the Japanese name whose name I can never remember who wrote Remains of the Day.

For whatever reason, not just American readers but American writers seem to have changed direction around 1980, and that’s curious, because the exact opposite seemed to be happening in film.  The rise of genre movies-action-adventure, space opera, horror–has not led to a coresponding loss of interest in serious subjects.  Spielburg did Schindler’s List as well as E.T.

Maybe it’s just the obvious again, and I don’t give the obvious enough credit:  there’s a lot more money to be made in films than in books, so the best talent gravitates there.  Think of John Sayles, who was a remarkable writer of serious fiction (check out Union Dues, if you can ever find it) before he abandoned it for directing movies. 

And it wasn’t that Sayles was unsuccessful as a novelist.  Union Dues was nominated for a National  Book Award.   He had serious if not spectacular sales.   In fact, he had a career most novelists would envy, even now.

I have no idea what to make of all this, in case you’re wondering.

But on the subject of the western, I have a suggestion.

Check out John Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique. 

Written by janeh

August 27th, 2009 at 6:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Really Interesting Question'

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  1. I think it’s an example of the pendulum effect, which I am becoming more and more convinced is a basic characteristic of human society. We don’t at anything in a straight line; we bounce back and forth between one extreme and another in just about every part of our lives. Naturally, a period in which personal freedom is seen as freedom to be informal and free from the burdens of wealth and privilege is going to be followed by one in which personal freedom is seem as the freedom to dress formally and gain all the wealth and privilege you want. Societies change like crabs, sideways, and sometimes accidentally dragging along some bits when they change direction…that’s a terrible metaphor, actually, because I don’t know if crabs actually take along bits and pieces of the past as they scurry along….

    And I’ve thought of an exception. As a society, we tend to lurch from one extreme to the other on accepted views on almost anything, but as individuals we often follow patterns, as I was reminded when someone expressed surprise that an acquaintance, upon divorcing an alcoholic, chose another alcoholic as her next partner. And I thought, that’s to be expected. People tend to follow patterns in choosing partners, and if it’s a bad pattern, it takes a lot of self-knowledge and strength and self-discipline to break it.

    And yet, as a group, we’re like pendulums, swinging back and forth between philosophies, sometimes shifting our base a bit like that pendulum that demonstrates the earth’s movement – Foucault’s pendulum.

    Cheryl

    27 Aug 09 at 9:18 am

  2. I think you may be right, Cheryl – it does seem to go in cycles, and it’s probably related to what else is happening in the country (countries) at the time. I couldn’t begin to formulate HOW they’re related, though.

    Kazuo Ishiguro, Jane.

    MaryF

    27 Aug 09 at 9:34 am

  3. I tend to think of literary veins being “played out” like mines. You reach a point at which there is still ore left, but it’s not worth the price of extraction, and people go on to the new strike. This doesn’t mean some talented people aren’t at work in the “stale” genre, but there aren’t so many of them, and the new talent tends to go elsewhere. And without new people to respond to, there is, as you say, a lack of energy. Real fair-play mysteries just aren’t what they were between the wars. Science fiction–either as setting or plot–may be 30 years past its best days. But we’re seeing some pretty good romantic comedy lately. If you think of “mainstream” as a loose genre or a bundle of sub-genres, it may be played out for now. Switching the metaphor, the generational sagas of Mitschner and Jakes, the political crisis and impending war of late Drury or THE CHINESE ULTIMATUM may be lying fallow–waiting for enough time to pass for a different perspective, and for new authors to bring a different approach.

    But don’t despair. In the 1980’s no one had done a respectable romantic comedy movie since Doris Day, and maybe not a really clever one since BRINGING UP BABY. (WHAT’S UP DOC? proves my point.) After PRETTY WOMAN, we got about a good one a year for more than a decade.
    Some time back, a noted Hollywood director wanted to do a western. Every studio in Hollywood–every money man–told him to forget it. No one had done a big-budget western in more than a decade, and no one ever would again. But he kept persisting, so finally more or less to shut him up, a studio agreed to back him, and even went along with casting his has-been “B” movie drinking buddy in one of the leads. And so John Ford went ahead and put John Wayne in the 1939 production of STAGECOACH.

    When a good enough author wants to do a generational saga or a political thriller again, I expect someone will take a chance on it.

    But as for the intellectual life of that “golden age,” I enjoy my copy of THE LION IN WINTER as much as the next man, but ZHIVAGO and company were mostly just pretentious. More actual thought went into a Campbell era issue of ANALOG.

    Art Buchwald, as usual, hit it on the head. Something had gone wrong for LBJ, and Johnson had come back with a crack at “pseudo-intellectuals.” Buchwald then published an interview with the President of the American Association of Pseudo-Intellectuals, with 50,000,000 members. The Association was taking no action at this time, he said. He believed it was a misunderstanding and Johnson meant to insult REAL intellectuals, of whom there were 27, and who cared?

    robert_piepenbrink

    27 Aug 09 at 4:49 pm

  4. There must have been something about that picture of the skeleton as Santa–my first contemporary adult mystery, picked up at random from the shelves of the bookstore across the street from my high school, was Rest You Merry, which had just come out. And during grad school, which was otherwise devoid of recreational reading, I still kept up with Charlotte MacLeod. I read all the contemporary authors–Uris, Susann, Michener, Hailey, & others–in high school, but I found them tiresome. I remember thinking of them as grownups behaving badly. MacLeod, on the other hand, has protagonists with intelligence, common sense, & humor, trying to solve problems instead of make them (however improbable their problems may be.) Those are my kind of people, and I still look for those qualities in a protagonist.

    I agree with both Cheryl & Robert. I think society generally does go to extremes. Just look at the stock market–it’s always either exuberance or despair. Or politics, careening from conservative to liberal & back again. Whatever is in the ascendant becomes exhausted from the effort, or complacent, & starts losing altitude, and the pendulum starts swinging back. As a community, we don’t seem to be able to do anything in half measures. In books, it seems to only take one new author, with a unique voice or point of view, at a time when the top sellers have been on top forever, and seem to be just rehashing the same old thing, to start the pendulum on its return swing.

    Lee B

    27 Aug 09 at 10:28 pm

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