Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fighting words from Andrew Gelman

Or at least a fighting summary of someone else's...

[I've got a meeting coming up so this will have to be quick and ugly and leave lots of plot threads dangling for the sequel]

From Andrew's reaction to Triumph of the Thriller by Patrick Anderson:

Anderson doesn't really offer any systematic thoughts on all this, beyond suggesting that a higher quality of talent goes into thriller writing than before. He writes that, 50 or 70 years ago, if you were an ambitious young writer, you might want to write like Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Salinger (if you sought literary greatness with the possibility of bestsellerdom too) or like James Michener, or Herman Wouk (if you sought fame and fortune with the possibility of some depth as well) or like Harold Robbins or Irving Wallace (if you wanted to make a business out of your writing). But the topselling authors of mysteries were really another world entirely--even though their books were ubiquitous in drugstore and bus-station bookracks, and even occasionally made their way onto the bestseller lists, they barely overlapped with serious fiction, or with bestselling commercial fiction.

Nowadays, though, a young writer seeking fame and fortune (or, at least, a level of financial security allowing him to write and publish what he wants) might be drawn to the thriller, Anderson argues, for its literary as well as commercial potential. At the very least, why aim to be a modern-day Robbins or Michener if instead you can follow the footsteps of Scott Turow. And not just as a crime novelist, but as a writer of series: "Today, a young novelist with my [Anderson's] journalistic knack for action and dialogue would be drawn to a crime series; if not, his publisher would push him in that direction."

1. I'd argue (and I think most literary historians would back me up) that in terms of literary quality, crime fiction was at its best from about the time Hammet started writing for Black Mask to either the Fifties or Sixties, a period that featured: Chandler; Ross and John D. MacDonald; Jim Thompson; Ed McBain; Donald Westlake; Joe Gores; Lawrence Block* and a slew of worthies currently being reprinted by Hard Case.

2. Crime writing was fairly respected at the time. Check out contemporary reviews (particularly by Dorothy Parker). It was even possible for Marquand to win a Pulitzer for a "serious" novel while writing the Mr. Moto books.

3. There is an economic explanation for both the drop in quality and the surge in sales, but that will have to wait. I have a meeting at one of the studios and I need to go buy a pair of sunglasses.

*Those last three did their best work more recently but they were a product of the pulps.

p.s. Here's an illustrative passage from the NYT on the literary respect a mystery writer might achieve back before thrillers were the dominant genre:

Ross Macdonald's appeal and importance extended beyond the mystery field. He was seen as an important California author, a novelist who evoked his region as tellingly as such mainstream writers as Nathanael West and Joan Didion. Before he died, Macdonald was given the Los Angeles Times's Robert Kirsch Award for a distinguished body of work about the West. Some critics ranked him among the best American novelists of his generation.

By any standard he was remarkable. His first books, patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a postwar California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classic myths. Gradually he swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery. By the time of his commercial breakthrough, some of Macdonald's concerns (the breakdown between generations, the fragility of moral and global ecologies) held special resonance for a country divided by an unpopular war and alarmed for the environment. His vision was strong enough to spill into real life, where a news story or a friend's revelation could prompt the comment "Just like a Ross Macdonald novel."

It was a vision with meaning for all sorts of readers. Macdonald got fan mail from soldiers, professors, teenagers, movie directors, ministers, housewives, poets. He was claimed as a colleague by good writers around the world, including Eudora Welty, Andrey Voznesensky, Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Berger, Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Laurence, Osvaldo Soriano, Hugh Kenner, Nelson Algren, Donald Davie, and Reynolds Price.

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