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Fantasy Island

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It’s a little cold this morning.  I’ve got to get all my stuff done here and then head out to a local community college for a writer’s conference, where I’m supposed to be speaking–to classes, mostly–as their first mystery writer, ever.  I know there are people out there who get all huffy about the disdain with which academics greet genre fiction, but what strkes me about academic attitudes to the mystery novel is how thoroughly they’re based on hearsay.

By that I mean that very few academics ever seem to actually read mystery novels, and when they do the mystery novels they read tend to be Golden Age rather than recent.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that most of them are also great fans of Mystery! and the A&E productions.  Those are Golden Age, too, but you’d think they’d at least generate some interest in seeing what’s out there on the shelves recently.

In general, the better the institution, the more likely the academic will be to have read Andrew Vachss, say, or Martha Grimes.  There used to be a guy at Yale who knew the field backwards and forwards and was a great champion of all modern mystery writing, pretty much inclusive.  (And–disclosure–wrote reviews, and gave my books very good ones.)

But the very worst of the academic approach to mystery writing does not come from professors who don’t read the stuff and just look down their noses at it.  It comes from the ones who have taken up the mystery as Art, and identified that Art squarely with Chandler, Hammett, and company, sunk deep in a well of Forties “noir” and endless hardboiled cliches.

When I was younger, I used to think that the reason for this was that the hard boiled school was so repetitive, so precious and so fake, there was no chance that it could ever be confused with real Literature, thereby giving the academics who took it up a chance both to indulge their guilty reading pleasures while posing no challenge to their professional commitments.

Now, I’m not so sure.  I wonder sometimes about people’s fantasies.  I’ve always had a very active fantasy life, a place where I sort of star in my own movie, but my fantasies tend to be practical.  Rather than a form of escape, I fantasize as a way to prepare for something I hope I’ll be able to do in the future.

And, me being me, I often do do it in the future.  It may take me longer to get there than I think it will, but if I really want it, I make it happen.  This may be due to the fact that I’m very unlikely to fantasize about things like having J.K. Rowling-sized best sellers or winning the lottery. 

I tend to think myself into places.  That almost always happens when the place I’m in has become too restrictive to me.  And I suppose that’s where I am now.  My phone is full of songs like “Ain’t Back Yet” and “Some Beach, Somewhere.”  That last one sums it up most of the winter these days.

But I wonder if the academics who are so drawn to Forties noir are the kind of people who fantasize about being somebody they are not, without any intention of becoming what they fantasize being.  It’s hard for me to understand what other fascination is to be had in the Golden Age hard boiled novel.  Hammett is at least a writer.  Chandler isn’t even that, and he’s so self-consciously, self-righteously “serious” he’s hard to take seriously.  Then there’s Ross McDonald, who wrote excellently well, but also just reproduced the same book over and over again, with the names changed to protect the overexposed.

I always thought that the choice of a genre was actually the choice of an audience.  When I was first working, my decision to write mysteries rather than go in for more “literary fiction” had nothing to do with liking to read mysteries more than literary fiction.  In those days, I liked quite a lot of what was coming out of the literary end of the business, and that was certainly the direciton I was encouraged to go in by everybody around me.

What pushed me into a different direction was the realization that I couldn’t write literary fiction without pretty much restricting my audience to people just like me–people who’d grown up upper middle class and gone to “name” colleges and worked in either academia or the arts. 

That wouldn’t have been true in the Thirties or Forties.  Hemingway sold to a wide audience.  Fitzgerald sold to a wider one.  Now literary writers not only don’t sell to wide audiences, they don’t even want to.  Witness Jonathan Franzen and that flap about the Oprah Book Club.

But although I sometimes use the books I read to fantasize about being in different places, I almost never use them to fantasize about being different people.

I don’t think I’m perfect, and even at my age, I think there’s a lot I could improve about myself–but I don’t actually want to be anybody else.  I don’t think I ever have.  Even in childhood, when being me was not a walk in the park, I didn’t want to be somebody else. 

And I don’t know why that is.  Certainly lots of people do want to be somebody other than who they are.  That’s why there are people in costume at science fiction and fantasy conventions and why Hogwarts uniforms and toy wands sell to adults as well as children. 

Maybe I’m just flabbergasted that anybody would want to be a Forties hard boiled detective.  Down these mean streets, yes, and with a bottle of Scotch, too, and a sex life that’s something out of a serial killer’s fantasy–if they sleep together, she’s either the murderer or she’s dead, and in either case the affair ends with a corpse instead of a commitment. 

The chances are good that the people I talk to today, unlike the ones I spoke in front of on Sunday, will never have read a modern mystery in their lives, and their teachers–in this case, there will be students from classes who are there as part of an assignment–will want to know if I’ve ever read Agatha Christie. 

So it ought to be interesting.

Written by janeh

April 14th, 2010 at 6:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Fantasy Island'

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  1. I never really thought about whether I fantasize about being another person. I think I always assumed that whatever I imagined that was different than the real me, the real me was still there at the core. At the same time, although my fantasies are influenced by whatever intractable mess is annoying me most in real life, I have no trouble at all imagining myself in places I can never be and will never be. I don’t dress up in costume, but I do read science fiction and fantasy. As someone I know said as tactfully as possible (and very puzzled) about my liking for the works of Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless – aren’t those kind of stories just for children? Maybe, maybe not, but I enjoy them anyway.

    The only English lit academic I know well reads mystery novels, and I think some of her colleagues do, although I get the impression it’s not the sort of thing they keep at the office. She’s been asked often (once the cat is out of the bag) if she likes Ian Rankin’s books, since her academic interests involve Edinburgh, but he’s not one of her top favourites. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what is top on her list these days – she passed on one by an Icelandic author a while back, but I think she considered it merely ‘OK’ (I did too), and I’m sure she’s read all the Golden Age stuff decades ago, although she may well have a few somewhere on her many bookshelves even now.


    14 Apr 10 at 7:38 am

  2. I’ve not been around English department academics in decades. Library and Information faculty, however, tend to be more open-minded. One of my professors was a great fan of Elizabeth Peters.
    Generally I read literary fiction these days because the book discussion group I lead at my library often selects them. I just finished one, a National Book Award finalist, that left me wondering why the author approached it as she did. Possibly there was a story in there someplace. The stream of cnnsciousness technique was bad Faulkner and even worse James Joyce. It didn’t fit with her characters.
    I so didn’t want to be me growing up but with some exceptions the older I get the more I appreciate who I am.


    14 Apr 10 at 10:41 am

  3. I tend NOT to read anything that’s identified as ‘literary’. I’ve just had too many experiences with boring stories where nothing very much happens to people who aren’t even very interesting, or in which the style very self-consciously gets in the way of the story.

    Every so often someone will pass one to me – at one point, I think my mother wanted to improve my taste by exposing me to ‘good’ literature – and there have been some I rather liked, but I never seek them out, and if something’s won a major literary award I almost certainly won’t read it.


    14 Apr 10 at 10:52 am

  4. Robin Winks? He was a great guy, cared about mystery fiction and didn’t look down his nose at popular literature.


    14 Apr 10 at 12:18 pm

  5. Tend to agree with Cheryl here. Somewhere along the line the powers that be decreed that writing in a clear prose style or having a character DO something about a problem made a story “genre.” “But things were now always so.” Use the plots of Shakespeare or Marlowe today, and the literary people wouldn’t touch you with a stick. Which is why I don’t take their criticism seriously. The ratio of analysis to snobbery is altogether out of hand.

    I’d also note–though I’d be happy to be proved wrong–that relatively few mysteries are written today. There are a lot of crime novels, but that’s very different. (Hammett–mostly–wrote mysteries. Chandler and his heirs wrote crime fiction. A caper novel is fun, but it is NOT a mystery, even if Donald Westlake wrote it.) I don’t scorn modern mysteries, but they’re hard to find. Perhaps if they went back to putting a magnifying glass on the spine? And were serious about mysteries only?

    But the main point. I tend to keep my fantasies and my ambitions in different closets. Ambitions change with time and must, sometimes, be recognized as impossible. But the best places to visit aren’t found on Rand McNally maps. Burroughs, Tolkien, Howard and STAR TREK got me through some bad years, and I still visit Barsoom, Middle-Earth, the Hyborian Age and Federation Space on a regular basis.(And I still have a JOHN LOVES DEJAH button tucked away. Not all fantasy involves disposable mates.)

    Tolkien was right to distinguish the escape of the prisoner from the flight of the deserter–and to point out that the people most opposed to escape are jailers.

    English Lit to a T.


    14 Apr 10 at 4:43 pm

  6. I misworded my post above. What I meant to say was that I only read literary fiction these days WHEN I’m leading a discussion on that book. I read lots mysteries–cozy, hardboiled and everything in between– crime fiction, suspense (as long as it’s not romantic)


    14 Apr 10 at 4:51 pm

  7. Well, I dress up in costumes, but not as someone else. I dress up to visibly represent parts of myself. I am seldom allowed to wear weapons at work, but they are always there symbolically!



    14 Apr 10 at 7:34 pm

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