Friday, October 5, 2012


I'm reading Dostoyevski's The Demons, mainly to get some idea of how politics drove people nuts in the early 19th century.  It's always a little dangerous to read Fyodor when one is writing a book.  One is tempted to say, oh, why bother?  But actually, any comparison would be unfair, because no one can write a Dostoyevsky novel nowadays.  He's far too dense and multilayered, and just, well, better that anything in modern literature, and far, far better than anything in the kind of popular books I write.  One is tempted into trying for unmarketable psychological depth; but I believe I can resist.

Nicolas Freeling, the late, great writer of European policiers, had a take on this subject.   In his volume of essays, Criminal Conversations, Freeling asked a question about the ultimate purpose of genre writing, using genre painting as an analogy. He describes a visit to the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, which has one of the world's great collections of 17th century Dutch genre paintings.  (Genre is a term of art criticism that is now applied to certain forms of popular writing.  It refers to interior scenes of ordinary life, as opposed to religious, mythological or historical themes.)  So he describes the line of wonderful genre paintings by the best artists in the field--De Hooch, Gerard and the rest--in which all the aspects of the life of those times are expertly rendered. The porcelain and pewter, the lace and brocade, the tiles, the colored glass, the food on the tables, the jolly ladies and gentlemen at leisure are all as they should be, vivid and charming.  And then, he says, you come to a painting that is not like that, that partakes not of the transitory genre world, but of, in a sense, eternity.  This is The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Vermeer.  It's hard to precisely describe the difference, but I've been in that museum and I know what he's talking about.  Somehow, Vermeer has managed to capture mortality itself, to convey the beingness of his subject in a way that the other genre paintings do not for theirs.  And so Freeling says that as the existence of genre painting provides a backdrop against which the genius of Vermeer shines forth, so does the work of genre writers like him (and me) enable a truer appreciation of Dostoyevsky's grandeur.

It's the case that when genre writers gather and talk to one another, there's a certain spite in the air with regard to literary fiction.  You hear people say that genre writing is good writing, or can be good writing, or is better writing than some of the writing sold as literary fiction.  All this can be true, but it's also true that literary fiction has a higher and more important aim than genre, which is ultimately mere entertainment.  Literary fiction is about changing the life of the reader, or rather explaining their lives to them, giving them a different central narrative by which they can understand their existence.

I actually try to do this, to the extent allowed by the constraints of a genre novel, but basically the constraints block the effort from developing too far.  Meanwhile, being the backdrop to Dostoyevsky seems a reasonable purpose for my career as a writer.

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

Late at night to be intelligent, he excused himself...

But is the INTENT different, at least for writers like you (I won't presume to say like me)?

That is, one sets out to tell a story. I do not think it is cheap to want to entertain. The impulse is "storytelling".

The vehicle art or craft at least?The intent for any "homme serieux" (or femme) is to do more, to make the reader or hearer think, "to move the customer to pity or horror" (which I actually think is a paraphrase of Wodehouse of all people!)

Shakespeare set out to entertain and still does, however more he does-- would we listen otherwise? Jane Austen...

Trick (ish) question: what about my utterly underrated and misunderstood hero Kipling? Was he great? Henry James thought he was, though "vulgar" (not an uncommon James criticism). FWIW I think him, albeit unevenly, greater than "The Master".

You know Hemingway's remark about Eliot and Conrad and the sausage grinder?

Thesis, tentatively offered: great art emerges from the entertainment that forms the backdrop you speak of; we do not always know what it is; making it is a pleasure (Yeats "Lapis Lazuli"; screw "metier triste"); and genre despite your & Freeling's skills describing it may not mean much since, oh, 1848 or so...