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Monday, May 10, 2004

That Dreaded Subject 

I was reading a piece from the New Republic, on Le Carre's Absolute Friends, which ends up being a critique of his career. The central question: Is he a "literary master", or just a very good genre writer whose works "were so enthusiastically mistaken for literary novels"? James Wood goes for the latter option.

Now I know most readers would immediately toss this off as the superiority complex of academic fiction whenever it turns its head to look at anything with an exciting plot. As a fan of Le Carre, particularly his earlier books, that was my reaction as well.

But I think Wood makes some interesting points.

One is reminded of Arnold Bennet's contention, with which Virginia Woolf had such play, that Sherlock Holmes was a real and rounded literary character. Woolf was right to point out that, in any deep sense, Holmes is just a "sack filled with straw." He functions perfectly, vividly indeed, within the modest requirements of his genre, which is why his characteristics barely change. Le Carré has said that George Smiley changes over the course of the several books in which he appears, but in truth his character remains exactly the same, and is limited to two or three essential elements: he is calm, he is donnish, he is gently crafty.

This kind of critique of character is what he uses, in part, to bash Absolute Friends. I haven't read it myself, so I can't comment. But I've read enough Le Carre to try and consider the critique of his oeuvre. I'm not entirely convinced, but on the other hand I think that, if any novelist is considered part of the elusive literary canon, he or she must be treated roughly by critics.

I recently re-read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I was excited, as I hadn't read it since before I began writing crime fiction, and it had made a lasting impression. It's extremely good, there's no doubt, but is it "literature"? I simply couldn't say. I had criticisms I didn't have before, and some sections felt, of all things, a bit sentimental (though to be fair it was written in a time where it couldn't have been viewed as sentimental, but on the other hand "literature" that lasts is not allowed this kind of excuse).

I bring all this up because it's an obsession with me, this definition of high literature, and because I'm hoping to get others' thoughts on the backblog. I went to grad school with professors and peers who did look down on crime fiction; it took me a while to clearly see their arrogance, and to get rid of my own. But despite my move into crime fiction, the basic impulse to create something lasting has remained, and I think most writers feel similarly.

I suppose my only point, if there is one, is that while it sometimes hurts, if we want our books to last, crime writers should be open to the rigors of intense and sometimes unfair criticism -- this is what all literature must face. We simply have an extra hurdle to deal with, unlike those writing in the accepted domain of academic fiction. But maybe that means we'll be writing better than them when our work makes it "over there". It certainly means that, if we're interested in those kinds of accolades, we'll have to try.


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