Saturday, February 05, 2011

Classic Claptrap or Classic Literature - Where's the Line Drawn?

Genre Fiction Becomes Classic Literature How?
  by Robert W. Walker

There has been a long-standing feeling among the snobbish in the literary world that says such books as Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, or any genre book is hardly worthy of academic concern, that the mystery and horror novel in particular are inferior to what is considered actual "literature" which somehow has more dignity about it and is certainly a place for the classics. And yet the works we today consider classics were in the day of their publication condemned as "genre" or something less than "literature".

Certainly there are some people who point to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and call it a boy's adventure tale yet it has become the classic, even the pinnacle of the type of book that academics land on and like vultures pick apart and pluck out symbolism, irony, depth of characterization, important themes. Such matters concern academics just as a single short story by Pappa Hemingway can cause whole dissertations to be written to which Hemingway must laugh all the way to eternity.

But somehow even today there are bastions of academia and readers who feel that a mystery, especially a murder mystery or a police procedural such as an Ed McBain novel does not come up to the level of importance to be called anything but a lesser creature than literature. The word literature must be used only for dead poets and ancient novels of the past, for the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, E.A.Poe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and too many to list here. However, novelists mining the same fields as Verne's science fiction, Doyle's puzzles with Sherlock Holmes at their center, Dickens' soap operas of human condition and contrition, Twain's humorist travelogues or young adult coming of age tales, Edgar Allan Poe's horror, Shelley's horror, Abraham Stoker's horror classic Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde -- these are somehow elevated due to the mastery of the author and their "genre" forgiven or forgotten.

I condemn no book that works, and mystery titles of today and recent years deal with huge issues such as what it means to be an honorable man in a less than honorable world; mysteries cover the gamut of modern life and its alienating nature, the disenfranchisement of mankind from his true nature, and the stripping away of individual freedoms. Lord of the Flies, a British classic, is horror of the first order, one of civilization's worst nightmares. Bradbury's fiery tale of burning books while science fiction is a study in governmental controls gone amok,and yes, the intellectuals are the first to be imprisoned in a theocracy or a dictatorship. Mystery, Horror, Science Fiction, even romance from Shakespeare to the thinnest of modern day romance novels touch upon psychology, good vs. evil, the ripple effect of gossip and miscommunication.

I submit to you that genre fiction, including my own historical thrillers, deals with the most complex of human desires, needs, goals, desires. Just as the core story within the pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick deal with aberrant human psyche so perfectly, just as Dickens' Christmas Carrol deals with the human condition and its complexities, so to does Hammett and Leonard, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, the Bronte heirs - a long, distinguished list of female authors from across the modern landscape such as Laura Lippman, Charlaine Harris, Tess Gerritsen, and Patricia Cornwell.

Tell me Dr. of Literature and Professor of Classics, how will the modern 'masters' of these various genres from science fiction to historical fiction be regarded by academia, and in the end, will they not square up with the elder statesmen of early "genre" fiction classics thanks in large measure to their popularity? Dickens was writing a series of serial novels with each installment in the daily newspaper there in London, Mark Twain writing for a San Francisco newspaper, and today as with the huge crowds waiting for the next installment, so too hordes of readers anxiously await the next King installment.

I recall how The Catcher in the Rye suddenly was in every freshman English class across America. I don't see that so much nowadays. I wonder where The Catcher went. I see more copies of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - a mystery surrounding a character who refuses to change because something inside him cannot change. An African village mystery man, a book of great physical battles as well as mental battles written in English by an African author--a modern day "classic" for what reason? It is considered great literature, great writing. Recall Flowers for Algernon and 2001 - A Space Odyssey, books that were also finding their way into every college English class and considered "high-filuting literature.

It may be true that for a genre piece of writing to rise to the level of literature and especially classic literature that it be read by more than one generation and so not easily forgotten by time itself. Few books rise to this level, but in calling out whole genres such as mysteries as somehow lesser than literature is in fact a strange attitude and behavior, for all great literature come out of popular acclaim as much if not more than critical acclaim which often lags behind discoveries made by readers of every stripe and not the critics.

Robert W. Walker (Rob)
follow popular acclaim for my own Children of Salem and Titanic 2012


The Diva's Guide To Fabulous Living said...

Hey Rob, good thoughts, thanks.
It seems in order to be considered lit. the author must be dead and from another century, regardless of the content!
I vote Kurt Vonnegut into the classics, being a stout observer of Middle-American life in the last century and the first guy to include a drawing of an asshole in his work.
Don't know what or if anybody is reading in HS these days, but it would be great if the list also included Animal Farm, Brave New World, Huck Finn (with the N word please), King Lear, Indiana (arguably the first modern novel) a host of Guy de Maupassant and Edith Hamilton's Mythologies.
In order to lead the world young Americans need to be able to think critically, to understand "bigger pictures" and to see themselves in some sort of historical and world context.
However authors were managing to get paid for their work (ie: Twain & Dickens being serialized)they were still making statements that spoke for/of their time that also stand the winds of time.
Keep up the great work, Liz

Ubaid Raza said...

Lynne used to worry she had a serious problem with daydreaming, then she discovered she was supposed to write the stories in her head. A late bloomer, Lynne came to fiction writing after her children were nearly grown. Now she battles the empty nest by writing stories which always include a romance, sometimes medicine, a dose of mirth, or both, but always stories from her heart. She is a Southern California native, married for almost thirty years, has two adult children she is super proud of, is a dog lover, cat admirer, a power walker, and fellow traveler on this wild road called life!