18/01/2009

Edgar Allan Poe On Mystery Fiction: "I Found the Recipe, I Didn't Cook the Meal"

Being 200, even by the relaxed standards of our jaded times, is quite an achievement. It comes as no surprise, then, that Edgar Allan Poe was literally flooded with interview requests as his two-hundredth birthday approached. It's a great honour for At the Villa Rose that ours was the only one he granted.

Let's start with a stupid question: how does it feel to be 200?
Well, very much like being 100 or 150. You know, the first hundred years are the really hard ones. After that, your reputation is secured and you can stop worrying. Not that I, for one, ever worried. I knew people would recognize my genius sooner or later but I'd sure have preferred it to be sooner.

Mystery writers, critics and readers are particularly active in the celebrations as they regard you as the founding father of the genre; it is common wisdom that your "The Murders on the Rue Morgue" launched the whole thing on. Was it voluntary on your part?
It will probably pain a lot of people in the mystery community, but the answer is no. I had no intention, as I wrote "Rue Morgue" and my other tales of ratiocination, to set up a new genre. I realized they were something new, and so did the readers, but that was all and I never held them in much esteem. If you'd ask me at the time what part of my work I thought would last for the ages, my picks would have been my poetry and my critical work. I would have been half right as some of my poems survive, but hardly anyone reads the Marginalias today - and I'd dare to say that it shows. Returning to your question, I think my actual contribution to the mystery genre is not to have first cooked the meal, but to have found the recipe. All the ingredients later used by my "heirs" can be found in the tales of ratiocination, but their handling and the general purpose are not the same.

May you elaborate?
The "tales of ratiocination" label sums it up perfectly. Dupin's reasoning are the subject and the motor of the stories; one might say they are demonstrations rather than narrations. Everything else, including the puzzle and Dupin themselves, is subservient. Had for instance Sir Arthur Conan Doyle written The Hound of the Baskervilles following my method, the actual case would have been briefly outlined in the first chapter, with Sherlock Holmes spending the rest of the book explaining the logical process by which he discovered the truth. Holmes, by the way, would be a much less distinctive figure, just a name, one or two quirks and a brain to reason.

So who, according you, is the real father/mother of the mystery genre?
I don't think there is only one progenitor. All of the pionneers made significant, decisive contributions. I'm not even the first one to have written about cases solved by detectives, as your listmate Bob Schneider has found out. But if you really want one and only one name, then it has to be this fellow-compatriot of yours, Emile Gaboriau. He made actual if not always good fiction out of my little exercises and is fully responsible for the definitive form of the genre, including some of its worst features such as the need to fill hundreds of pages with unnecessary details about surroundings and people's lives.

You may know that the Mystery Writers of America have chosen to honour your memory by naming their annual awards after you?
It's very kind from them, but every year as the nominees then the winners are announced I wonder what it has to do with me. It's not only because of my weak ties to the genre; I have grown accustomated to be referred to as the Great Ancestor. No, the problem I have with the Edgars is that most of the works they reward are in almost total contradiction with my ideas on writing. Think of one Robert Louis Stevenson award given to Margaret Drabble and you will see how I feel.

What are your main objections to your namesake awards?
Well, first, they have four prizes for novels and only one for shorter fiction - I don't count the Robert L. Fish award. Now I have nothing against novels as such; I managed to complete one in my lifetime, though considerably shorter than most recent Edgar winners. But I repeatedly hailed the short story, the tale, as the purest of all art forms - which was not innocent in a time when novels reached and sometimes went beyond phone-directory sizes. So you might expect awards bearing my name to make some place for the miniature. The Hugos or the Bram Stoker awards have categories for short stories, novelettes, novellas and anthologies; why can't the Edgars? Also they like their crime fiction to be realistic, character-driven and socially conscious. My work was none of that. I wrote stories that were improbable at least and set them in places where I'd never been and knew next of nothing of. So much for realism. I didn't have much time for characterization either, at least if you use this word to mean three-dimensional, believable characters. Mine were nebulous entities, with only minimal physical and personality traits - most of the time I didn't even bother to give them names! My work, if anything, has always been effect-driven and characters as well as places and even situations were nothing but parts of that effect, mere cogs in the wheel. As for social consciousness, well, I am definetely not the author to read if you are looking for a reflection of American society in the early nineteenth century. My tales are atemporal, concerned only with themselves and, once again, the effect they seek to produce. This is, I guess, the reason why the late Jorge Luis Borges was such a fan of mine; we are kindred spirits.

Don't the Edgars just reflect the dominant mood in crime/mystery fiction today?
Absolutely. Modern crime and mystery writing is balzacian, dickensian, jamesian, hemingwayian, faulknerian, what you want, but definetely not "poesque" if this barbarious word ever had any sense. I have no problem with that, but maybe it would be more honest from the mystery community to acknowledge this fact, bid farewell and let me go.


Further reading:
Poe at 200 by Nick Mamatas.
The DNA of Detection by Andrew Taylor.
And don't forget the Poe Bicentennial Blog.

And also:
A beautiful slideshow on the New York Times website.

2 commentaires:

Mike Grost a dit…

Xavier,

This is a delightful "interview".
It makes many good points, both about Poe and our contemporary mystery fiction.

sexy a dit…
Ce commentaire a été supprimé par un administrateur du blog.