It's a Mystery to Me
For the past six months or so, I’ve been reading a lot of what many term “crime fiction.” In many of the snootier literary circles, crime/detective fiction gets a bad rap. Formulaic. Two-dimensional characters. Stock devices. Sensational. Many other dismissals come to mind, but they all come down one thing: the idea that genre fiction cannot be serious (or even taken seriously). Although writers like Michael Chabon have exploited genre fiction with a lot of success, rarely do contemporary writers use an identifiable genre without commenting on it in the narrative. The genre becomes self-aware. For example, in Victor Gischler’s early novel Three On A Light, Detective Dean Murphy is a two-dimensional character in search of a third dimension. That dimension comes to him in the form a cursed Zippo lighter.
I don’t advocate for a celebration of genre without introspection. Good art always comments on itself in some way or another. Still, when the Modernist writers and critics elevated character-driven fiction to the status of “high art,” they missed an important point: character-driven, literary fiction is a genre, as well. And like crime fiction (or science fiction or any other kind of genre writing), literary fiction has its own set of stock characters and situations. Perhaps this stock set provides the backdrop for what has become known as a “workshop story,” meaning a competently-developed, character-driven short story that features (usually) some kind of epiphany for the main character. Note that I’m not against fiction workshops at all. All the current MFA-bashing makes little sense to me (but that's probably a different blog post). I merely want to highlight the fact that literary fiction is a genre, too.
All of which is to say that the work I’ve been reading lately has been both fascinating and in many cases artistically liberating. I started reading James Lee Burke’s fiction about a year ago, and I was immediately fascinated with his use of landscape and setting. In Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, New Orleans and southern Louisiana are more than a backdrop. The locale becomes a character. It’s impossible for me to imagine Robicheaux outside of his New Iberia, and even when Burke has him travel far away from home (as in Black Cherry Blues), the character constantly compares his surroundings with Louisiana. Indeed, Robicheaux himself is an outgrowth of Louisiana: a Cajun with liberal sensibilities and a moral code as certain as the Gulf of Mexico but often just as mercurial. He’s a fully-drawn, three-dimensional character whose psychology drives Burke’s fiction. It would be hard to dismiss Burke as a mere “genre writer.”
Writers like James Lee Burke, Victor Gischler, Anthony Neil Smith, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett fascinate me possibly because my academic instincts tell me that I shouldn’t take them seriously. Why? I’m not sure. No professor I ever had said anything resembling, “Do not read genre fiction. It’s bad for you.” I did have creative writing teachers say that students couldn’t submit genre fiction for workshop. Still, I wonder why for so many years I have crinkled my nose when I encountered detective fiction. There’s a lot yet to say about crime writing, and I don’t pretend to have scratched the surface in this scant blog entry.
As I often tell my students, “There’s probably a dissertation in all this.”
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O for a muse of fire,