Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Defense of the Trashy Novel

If a mind like G. K. Chesterton’s can produce an essay in defense of the detective story as a legitimate art form, then who am I to argue? Chesterton intrigues me; he is the definition of a polymath. Along with the seminal biography of Charles Dickens and several significant works of literary criticism, he wrote theology, detective stories featuring the wily priest Father Brown, a handful of standalone mysteries, biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas that are still respected by scholars in the area, novels, a little poetry and a lot of drawing.

I grew up on genre fiction, but I only recently learned this phrase. My parents supplied me with lots of nonfiction (biographies, mostly, Queen Elizabeth, George Washington Carver, Maria Mitchell, Mozart) but my fiction tastes were decidedly low to middlebrow. I read Stephen King , Dean Koontz (uck), Clive Barker, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and a little John le Carré. My mom is a Trekkie, so I read several of the novels inspired by the original TV series, some of which were very good.

Of course I read “literary” fiction in school and loved it (except for Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; I longed for the moment when Werther finally shot himself), but it didn’t occur to me to start reading it on my own until I met a few literary snobs in college and graduate school. I am late to the world’s great works of literature, and I have never lost the taste for my beloved horror, spy and mystery novels.

After being exposed to, say, Don Quixote or The Magic Mountain, it does get harder to find trashy novels that aren’t so poorly written I can’t stand them. Fortunately, a new sub-genre has arisen of late, which is referred to as the “Mediterranean cerebral detective/mystery novel” or “beach reading for smart people,” on the backs of a couple books. In other words, Umberto Eco, Arturo Perez-Reverte and a few others. I place Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy in this class, although much more “noir” than Eco or Reverte. His novels are of literary caliber; I’m sure he is genre because there are some policemen, a little bit of organized crime, lots of boozing, and a few dead bodies.

Izzo’s trilogy reminds me of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea) in which a city is a central character. Durrell’s Quartet is phenomenal, and better than Izzo’s books, but it also has mystery, spies, mass alcohol consumption, dead people and a few hangdog policemen. Durrell also wrote a less vaunted but quite enjoyable spy thriller called White Eagles Over Serbia.

Georges Simenon is another crossover hit—his Inspector Maigret police procedurals are beautifully written—and he also undertook more “serious” existential novels (none of which I have read, too depressing). Some big names (T. S. Eliot comes to mind) consider him a better writer than Camus, but Simenon’s popularity and output denied him a place as a writer of literary fiction.

Aside from the Star Trek novels, I was never really into science fiction until my mom bought me Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land one year for Christmas. Excellent book, and I learned that even (or especially?) weird geeks can produce novels of ideas that are wicked fun to read. I moved on to Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (less good) and through the Dune series (first three are great, the rest suck). Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was a revelation, as were William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition and Idoru. I would put Idoru and Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age up against any modern literary fiction on any axis of assessment. I am still digesting Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, after finishing it a few days ago, which means it’s got to be good.

It’s possible I am attempting to create an aesthetic or critical theory to justify my own tastes, but the categorization of fiction bothers me. Without even reaching the issue of sidelining brown writers into “African-American Fiction,” or “Native American Fiction,” or the nomination of “chick lit” as a new genre, I would like to add my voice to those who protest these divisions as based on a tired critical literary establishment that needs to justify its own existence.

But the “paranormal romance” sub-genre? That’s just weird.


  1. It's interesting, considering how much we have in common, how little we have in common.

    My literary background is very like yours - I discovered highbrow lit in my early 20s, and as you say, it does make it quite hard to read out-and-out trash. But there's almost nothing on your list, there, that I've read.

    I went through a Stephen King phase in my teens, but haven't touched it since. (I still have a soft spot for H P Lovecraft, but most horror simply doesn't seem to appeal any more.) I have read Stephenson and Gibson, and I think them both overrated. I would recommend, though I've probably mentioned them before, Kazuo Ishiguro and Iain Pears.

    A recent discovery for me - my dad sent me an omnibus collection of Charlie Chan, by Earl Derr Biggers. I saw a whole bunch of the movies, on TV, as a kid, and after that the books are a revelation. They're real quality detective fiction. Even the character of Charlie isn't nearly as racist as you'd think.

    Ah, happy reflections. Thank you, Ruby.

  2. Too much agreement is never a good thing, vet. I might have to fight you about Stephenson and Gibson though. As I recall you love Pratchett? I keep meaning to read the book he co-authored with Neil Gaiman, who is another "genre" guy I like.

    I've grown out of a lot of horror too; the new kids these days are way too enamored of languid Byronic vampires for my tastes. There's only so much of that you can take.

    I think you'd like Dorothy Sayers. I mean, Lord Peter Wimsey is pretty fantastic.

  3. I like how you say "my Mom is a Trekkie," as if to distance yourself from that particular classification, but then go on to admit reading all those Trek novels.

    Come on, admit your own Trekkieness. We won't judge.

  4. Genre or not genre, writers I've read with the greatest abandoned enjoyment:

    Len Deighton
    Ken Follett
    Jonathan Kellerman
    Arthur Conan Doyle
    Mark Twain
    Agatha Christie
    Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

    I assembled that list off the top of my head, leaving out the ones, like Stephenson, that you already mentioned. Many more will occur to me.

    Some serious fiction is just too serious. While I absolutely loved Remains of the Day, I could not read The Unconsoled.

    Oh, and: Charles Dickens. And Johns Updike, Irving, and Cheever.

  5. Ach! I can't believe I forgot Jonathan Kellerman. My favorite is the one with the genius kids project and the boy who is accused of murdering his sugar daddy but it's really his ethnobotanist stepmom poisoning him with belladonna.

    I read his wife, Faye, for a while too. His son apparently writes as well. Chatty family!