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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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THE LITERARY SPHERE: TAKING CRITICISM ONLINE

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THE IDEA OF LITERATURE

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LITERARY AESTHETICS

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LITERATURE IN THE UNIVERSITY

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LET'S REVIEW: BOOK REVIEWING AS LITERARY CRITICISM

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07/22/2005

Comments

Chris

A writer is under no moral or ethical obligation to write at the height of his or her powers. On the other hand, one wonders exactly why a writer might choose not to (let's assume for the moment that NO COUNTRY doesn't represent a sudden falling-off of McCarthy's abilities, though authors of his age seem frequently to scale back their ambitions). It usually comes down to money, though I'm not prepared to "censure" McCarthy for wanting to consolidate his fortunes.

I think Wood may have made an unfortunate choice of words. I believe he means simply that one shouldn't have a bifurcated set of critical values, leaving one branch for "serious" work and the other for what Greene would have called "entertainments." I think a "literary author" can certainly write "a successful thriller, one that both fulfills the expectations of the genre and can be admired simply for its superior literary qualities." Faulkner did it, in a complex and interesting novel that he worked quite hard on, despite the disparaging things he may have said about it later. Yet I don't think we seriously judge SANCTUARY to be among Faulkner's greatest works, and it serves neither Faulkner nor his readers to give it a free pass. Still, this is far from censure.

Does a critic have "moral authority"? A critic, at least a critic of Wood's stature, has the moral authority to select the books he feels are worthy of discussion, and to ignore those that aren't. Why it is that Wood would devote that much space to a book he feels isn't worthy, whose author's motivations he feels are suspect and shabby?

John Kenyon

I'm continually amazed that critics (or anyone, for that matter) can use the broad brush of the word "thriller" to lump together and then dismiss a staggering range of work from writers both talented and not. There are some horrible, formulaic and predictible thrillers like those of James Patterson and Stuart Woods, but there are other well-written books from folks like Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, etc., that are compelling, well-written and deftly plotted. Speaking of which, isn't "thriller" just shorthand for "a book where the plot drives the story"? There is plenty of introspection in the best thrillers (or at least those considered mysteries), but it is the plot, and not this quest to learn something about the self, that drives these books. I like Cormac McCarthy's work, but do find him a bit dense at times. Hearing that his new book is a thriller excites me, because it means there is likely a plot to help keep his sometimes diffuse writing on point.

Justus

Why is the thriller a limited, maimed, reduced genre but the family drama, the coming-of-age, and the western aren't? (All genres McCarthy has published to critical acclaim in, I believe.) Do we complain that Bach kept his music in a carefully circumscribed style or are we amazed by the creativity and beauty he demonstrated within it? Even if you grant that some genres are fallen how can you make the leap that they are beyond redemption? Isn't the critic really saying, "McCarthy is an okay writer but not actually good enough to do anything interesting within the thriller genre." You would think a truly great writer would be able to take a moribund genre and breathe new life into it.

Trent

I'm of the firm conviction that all novels should be patterned after the Harry Potter series because they are a hugely popular phenomenon, which means that people like it, and people should like books. Since reading is good for you and puts hair on your chest and since people aren't reading books but HP (i.e. usually running about without hair on their chests), people would read more books if all books looked and read like HP.

David Milofsky

Having read No Country for Old Men, I'd say it isn't really a thriller in the classic sense, but more a novel in the noir tradition, a perfectly respectable American genre. The problems with the book don't have to do with this, but with McCarthy's execution, which isn't up to past novels. Beyond Wood's snobbishness in denying thrillers legitimate literary status, it's just silly to pretend that such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Patricia Highsmith and, more recently, James Ellmore, aren't important writers. They are, though it's true that they chose to work in a limited and therefore limiting genre. That's all right, so did the minimalists and many experimental writers. I would insist on making distinctions between thrillers (even good ones like those by Connally and Lahane)and the tough-guy novels of the Depression era and following years. Those are just good novels, even if they are limited by genre.

Trent

David,

Every art form is limited. Every art form seeks these aims and not those others.

David Milofsky

Sure, but genre fiction is limited in additional ways, i.e. by having set pieces appear in most works, characters who behave in predictable ways, etc. My point is that writers like Hammett, McDonald, Jim Thompson, and others manage to overcome these limitations and produce literature. What I choose to call serious literature, however, doesn't have the limitations of genre fiction regarding situation, characterization, plot, etc. Which is why Faulkner in the end trumps Hammett, no matter how great Hammett can be.

Chris

The work of genre writers tends to inform the most superficial aspects of the popular culture while the work of "serious literature" is adopted at the procedural level by other serious artists. The Faulknerian aspects that persist, that continue to influence contemporary fiction (like, for example, McCarthy's), have nothing to do with the lengthy latinate sentences that crop up in Faulkner parodies (though, as Wood points out, McCarthy can come damned close to parody). Whereas there is little to be done with Chandler, as influential (and enjoyable) as he may be, except to parody him.

Michael

As far as Wood's comment "that the thriller genre is a limited, maimed, reduced thing, and unworthy of a writer of McCarthy's powers" I will say this: I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, but I don't agree with the logic. I agree with the sentiment in the sense that when you love literature as much as Wood surely does, as much as we all do, you certainly want to see its more able practitioners performing within a framework that will not only bring out the best of the writer, but will also bring out the best for literature itself. I know I have had moments when I've felt that this or that writer, or this or that film director, or musician, or what have you, could have done much better, and was limited by something, whether it was a genre, or a flaw in their vision, or a mistake in execution, or something else. The way I read Wood's statement is that the sentiment primarily extends from a passion for literature and its possibilities, and I don't think it's a mistaken or overstated or unfortunate sentiment. I could be wrong about the motivation, but I like to think that this is what animated it.

Logically, though, I feel differently. A genre is only as good as those who practice it, and, logically, the two are not mutually exclusive. I wouldn't say that, in all cases, a genre can't be resurrected or expanded, or that a supremely gifted writer shouldn't come along and do something with it. One could make the case that the novel itself was sort of moribund until the Modernists came along and did something with it, and I think once can trace similar phenomena in certain types of poetry, theater, the short story, and so on (I mean, epic poems were profoundly boring, stunted, and dead, and then Milton made the ultimate epic, or anti-epic to be even more precise). To illustrate this further, I can refer to the medium I know best, which is film. The Western was one of the most limited and maimed genres in all of cinema, and then Eastwood made "Unforgiven." And think about Godard. So many of the genres from which he borrowed had all had better days: the crime saga, the musical, the gangster film, the b-movie, the love story, the war picture, and so on. But Godard managed to take these overworked genres and create some of the finest art of the twentieth century. After all, what is "Vivre sa vie" but nothing more than a b-movie, a "bad" film about a woman's descent into prostitution? What is "Band of Outsiders" but nothing more than a "bad" buddy/heist picture? And yet my experience of these films and of cinema tells me that few films are more visionary, groundbreaking, and beautiful. Had Godard been censured for his ambitions, the history of cinema would have been the poorer for it.

Of course, the rejoinder is to say that McCarthy wasn't doing something akin to this, but that doesn't negate that logical point that writers or artists should necessarily work only within those areas which will seemingly serve their abilities the best.

Steve

Wood writes: It [No Country] rips along at great speed but it has no affective power, and hence no aesthetic power apart from an abstract one, and this is because the mode it has chosen -- the thriller mode -- allows no character any important freedom. People die by the dozen but nothing is importantly at stake. And this is what I read for: I need to know what is at stake (morally, aesthetically, philosophically, humanly).

I'd suggest that this is Wood's basic premise or point of view and that there's nothing wrong with a critic "reading" with this "realist" criteria in mind. But the "thriller mode" comment complicates things. Can a thriller have "affective" power? Why not? Can its characters embody "free will"? Surely.

I'm not a habitual reader of book reviews, but I wouldn't want to have to run to a novel to verify a critical position. However, what if I read McCarthy's new novel and couldn't find the thriller in it but did find plenty of "affective" power. Then what? Since David has read the novel, I'm wondering if he found the novel interesting beyond "affect" in the sense that Wood may mean it.

David Milofsky

I'm just guessing that what Wood means (it's by no means clear) is that the novel is plot-driven (hence the thriller appellation)and the interior lives of the characters is seldom on display, as it is generally in the best fiction. I didn't feel this was entirely the case. That is, we know quite well how terrified Llewellyn is after he steals the drug money and certainly the sheriff gives us more than we want to know about his despair at the way things are going, both in his county and in the world. At the same time, this is not the focus of the book, plot is, so if that's what Wood meant, I'd have to agree. At the same time, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing or that a novel narrated at break-neck speed is without aesthetic appeal. Speed, after all, can be an aesthetic, too. My problem with the book had more to do with craft, with the last section of the novel specifically. But I won't go into that because it would ruin the novel for anyone who still intends to read it.

John Kenyon

David draws the distinction between "serious literature" and, one assumes, all other forms, and says that people who work within what he considers the constraints of a genre simply can't compete with the likes of Faulkner. Can you really so quickly dismiss The Dain Curse or the Last Good Kiss or other mysteries because they are genre fiction? Isn't it possible for those works to be better than Faulkner, or can you really see the word "mystery" on the spine and know that it doesn't compare? For me, if a book is well-written and has compelling characters and a good plot, I'm in. Why spend so much time looking for reasons to dislike something?

Chris

They don't compare to Faulkner. Certainly not Crumley.

birnbaum

I 'm quite with John Kenyon's first post— I would add James Ellroy (I think that's who David meant), Michael Gruber, Alan Furst, Chuck Hogan, Phillip Kerr, James Carlos Blake and Elmore Leonard (though I suspect JK conscously didn't mention him).

When one is reading a book does one really think, "Oh this is like Faulkner." Or, "Hey, shades of Kafka?"
I don't.

Adam Ash

Two books on everyone's list of great 20th Century novels -- 1984 and Brave New World -- were written within a genre called Science Fiction and sometimes "speculative" fiction. I find the argument about genres being confining ("a limited, maimed, reduced thing") total BS. Just because most genres are practised by formulaic writers, doesn't mean the best aren't literature. By now, "literary" fiction has become a genre too, with as many formulaic practitioners as any other.

birnbaum

I forgot Charles McCarry who most definitelty should not be forgotten.

David Milofsky

First, I want to correct the implied suggestion that I'm a literary snob and don't like thrillers. I would think that what I've said before would counter that, but I'll just repeat that I read detective fiction all the time and even teach a course in so-called Pulp Fiction, in which I consider the authors mentioned above along with James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and others. Yes, James Ellroy, as Robert said. Still. Fitzgerald once said "action is character," and what I think he meant is that unless the action of a novel doesn't involve a character we care about, a character, that is, with depth and complexity, then the fiction suffers for it. Think about it. What do we really know about Sam Spade? Or Marlowe? Or my personal favorite, Ross McDonald's Archer? Not a hell of a lot, and not much more through a number of novels in a series. These running PIs don't get deeper, they just solve more crimes. Ditto Patricia Highsmith's Ripley. Probably my favorite 20th C. author is Graham Greene, who wrote great thrillers like This Gun for Hire and The Comedians, but had the good sense to label these books as entertainments as opposed to the wonderful Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock and other of his novels. My idea is not to create a pecking order in literature but rather to say that we read different kinds of books (including SF, incidentally) for different reasons but that the deepest satisfaction comes from novels in which character development is the primary aim of the author, not plot. Okay?

Ray Davis

Science fiction is not a "plot-driven" genre, and the crime novel is loaded with fewer conventions than the academic satire. But let's go on:

"My idea is not to create a pecking order in literature but rather to say that we read different kinds of books (including SF, incidentally) for different reasons but that the deepest satisfaction comes from novels in which character development is the primary aim of the author, not plot."

Please note the transition from "my" to "we" to that "the" in "the deepest satisfaction". Slippery stuff, prose.

I know only as much about Beckett's Murphy or Molloy as I do about Hammett's Op or Ned Beaumont or Flaubert's St. Anthony or Pecuchet. I know Chandler's Marlowe as I know Dostoyevsky's underground note-taker or Shakespeare's Iago -- as a character who compellingly embodies a set of otherwise incoherent writerly ambitions rather than as a "recognizable" "well-rounded" character "drawn from life."

Narrative art can do many things, yes, and "my"/"our"/"the" satisfactions aren't created in a pecking order, either. When ego-sickened by a surfeit of comfy "identification", I'll take some crisp distance, thank you.

David Milofsky

Eh? Comfy identification, etc, etc. I have no idea what you're referring to there, but if you truly think the characters in Hammett are equal in complexity with Doestoevsky's, then, yes, we're in complete disagreement. I'll say again, that there's nothing wrong with genre fiction, but it's limited, whether we're talking about my satisfaction in reading, yours, or ours. I'd grant that one doesn't read Beckett necessarily for character but not for plot either.

Adam Ash

Who says a plot-driven novel can't have Dostoevsky-complex characters? Didn't that master of character, Joseph Conrad, write some crackling thrillers? It's too easy, and quite useless, to make odious comparisons between Hammett and Dostoevsky.

David Milofsky

Okay, name one. Unless you're talking about Conrad's great novel The Secret Agent, which isn't really a thriller or plot driven but about Winnie Verloc, a fascinating character. I'm not making "odious comparisons" ( your phrase, not mine ), but rather distinctions between genre fiction and serious fiction. I sense a kind of defensiveness here that I don't quite understand. It's like saying popular fiction is different from Gass and Barth, which it is, and then saying why, which I did. Complex characters need not be likable (see Iago for that one) but they have to be interesting. Friends of mine who write crime fiction complain about this very thing: the limitations put on them by their editors who want them to stick to the form. Great writers create their own form; genre writers, no matter how talented, stick to the outline.

John Kenyon

I think the problem is found in the notion that there need be "distinctions between genre fiction and serious fiction." There is some amazing, rich genre work that has depth and character development, and also happens to offer a great read. There also is a lot of stilted formulaic and downright painful-to-read so-called "serious" literature. The point (as I see it, anyway), is that to reduce "genre" to "bad" and elevate "serious" to "good" does a great disservice to both. I'm willing to put Ellroy's "Black Dahlia" up against many, many "serious" books, but I also understand that when he turns in a 600-page telegram like the awful "The Cold Six Thousand," it's OK to consider it an exercise that failed. But to assume both are bad because they're on the thriller shelf seems downright silly.

David Milofsky

Well, just to go back to what I wrote a few posts back, I never said genre was necessarily bad nor that serious was always good. What I said was that genre fiction is limited and that the best of it, because of that limitation, can't approach the level of so-called serious fiction that succeeds, e.g. Faulkner. I think L.A. Confidential, for instance, is a novel that actually rises above genre status precisely because of its delineation of character, even though it's also the premier example of noir fiction in contemporary literature. Anyway, making distinctions seems fine to me; isn't that what we do when we read critically? And isn't criticism really a way to enjoy literature and reading more by looking into it in greater depth? That's the way I see it anyway, but thanks for the thoughtful response.

Adam Ash

"Great writers create their own form; genre writers, no matter how talented, stick to the outline." Yes, David, you're absolutely right. But one can really play with the distinction between "genre" and "serious" fiction so as to render the notion of "serious" fiction as something special beyond genre meaningless. What is Nabokov's Lolita if not a great piece of fiction in the romance genre? As is Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch and Stendal's The Red and the Black. If genre is used to denote the formulaic only, and serious fiction as that which transcends genre (the way the aforementioned classics transcend the romance formula, and 1984 and Brave New World transcend the Science Fiction genre), then I have no quibble with you. But if genre purely denotes a literary form -- mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction -- then any work in any genre, if it's the transcendent best in that genre, will automatically qualify as "serious" fiction.

David Milofsky

An interesting point of view, but I'd disagree that Lolita, Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary are in any way genre novels, though each is, of course, a romantic book--in one way or another. I think you have to distinguish (there's that word again) between a genre romance novel--bodice busting heroine, buff hero, exotic setting, etc--and a novel which may contain romance but doesn't use stock characters or settings. In other words, the simple fact that a novel has romance in it doesn't make it a romance novel. The fact that someone gets killed in a novel doesn't make it a crime novel. You see my point. In my opinion, you'd be on firmer ground if you used examples like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, cases in which the authors started with stock situations and then extended them further than others had. Austen, too, in Northanger Abbey. But to call Nabokov a genre writer--no matter how you define it--strikes me as being pretty far-fetched. To put it another way, to say, for instance, that any novel involving romance is a genre novel is to say that none of them are. I haven't read any of the Silhouette Romances that are out now, but I'd be willing to be that those have little to do with the kinds of books you mentioned.

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