A Case of Identity

Being away from the Internet, I hadn't had the opportunity to read the debate between Patrick and Sergio about Julian Symons' perennial divider "Bloody Murder". There is much food for thought there, as can be expected from a discussion between two of the most knowledgeable and literate bloggers around. I'll add my two cents soon but for now I'd like to say some words about this comment from Patrick about Symons's insistence that mysteries are not proper "literature":

I find this point of view highly annoying, and I wonder why mystery fans are so tolerant of critics who insist the genre is sub-literary, nothing but entertainment, or not on the same level as other genres. If you tried saying this about science-fiction in the middle of a sci-fi convention, I guarantee you'd misplace several teeth that evening.

To which Sergio responds:

You are right that mystery authors have put up with that kind of superior crap in a way SF writers have not, but I will also say that the genres have tended to develop in less than equal ways - SF has always been a more literary genre by dint of its ability to deal with more complex themes which are hotwired into the conventions of the genre (who are we, where do we belong in the universe, is God real, am I real etc etc) so it was attractive to distinctive writers looking for original ways to express their ideas, not something you would often accuse Agatha Christie of - on the other hand, pulp writing is pulp whether its SF, crime, Western, horror or romance!

Actually, I think the main difference between Sci-Fi and the mystery genre (other than their respective popularity and visibility, which largely accounts for the difference in treatment) is that the former developed a culture of its own, with its own standards and values. Sci-Fi is primarily fan literature targeted to a fan audience, which accounts for its lesser accessibility to the average reader. Let's quote China Miéville:

I'm not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I'm a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I'm not writing them to make political points. I'm writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I'm creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have... I'm trying to say I've invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that's fantastic. But if not, isn't this a cool monster?

As a result, Sci-Fi people tend to be less worried by the judgment of the establishment than mystery folks are; neither are they much impressed when one of them is endorsed by the literati - Ray Bradbury is a prime example of an author with a large mainstream following but who is frowned upon by many in the SF fandom. A good Sci-Fi writer is one whose work pleases the fandom, no matter how "literary" it is in the end.

In contrast the mystery field tends to be obsessed with literary legitimacy. Authors emphasize the "serious" aspects of their work; critics tout any book that "transcend the genre" and is "more than a mystery". Both agree that the genre is first a medium for whatever moral, social or political concern the author may have; the "fan attitude" exemplified by Miéville is conspicuously absent. We're not in it for fun, we're serious people! Mystery folks are forever begging for respect from the establishment, bragging when it bestows some praise on one of them or when some noted literati adventures in the field, and having a tantrum every time some buffoon pours scorn on the genre.

So we have a genre with a strong identity and staunchly defending it versus a genre with a strong identity and trying to dilute it into the rigid canons of the establishment.Guess which one is the most fertile.

2 commentaires:

Patrick a dit…

An excellent article, Xavier, and thanks so much for your kinds words about the debate.

You make an interesting point- all the sci-fi fans I know (and that's a lot) "geek out" about the sci-fi elements. I've never heard anyone get all excited over the philosophy of Star Trek. But mention anything else about the show, and they will pull out the Spock ears and have a "fangasm".

I still insist that mysteries can be excellent literature, no matter what haters may say. And even if it wasn't, I'd far rather read John Dickson Carr anyday than be bored to death with an author who keeps pointing out how depraved we all are. The mystery will always be at the heart of the genre, and it shouldn't be relegated to the back row just to accomodate snobby critics.

I am unreasonably reminded of "The Real Inspector Hound" right now, where Moon overanalyzes a derivative, poorly-written mystery play to death. I feel it's something that has been going on for far too long in our genre, and I hope a return to its roots and a possible Silver Age are around the corner:

MOON: Does it, I repeat, declare its affiliations? There are moments, and I would not begrudge it this, when the play, if we can call it that, and I think on balance we can, aligns itself uncompromisingly on the side of life. Je suis, it seems to be saying, ergo sum. But is that enough? I think we are entitled to ask. For what in fact is this play concerned with? It is my belief that here we are concerned with what I have referred to elsewhere are the nature of identity. I think we are entitled to ask—and here one is irresistibly reminded of Voltaire’s cry, “Voila!”—I think we are entitled to ask—Where is God?

BIRDBOOT (stunned): Who?

MOON: Go-od.

BIRDBOOT (peeping furtively into his programme): God?

MOON: I think we are entitled to ask.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) a dit…

Spot on Xavier - I think you made the point that Patrick and I were reaching for much more succinctly that I did. Of course, there are niche and mainstream authors in every 'genre', even those awarded mainstream literary credibility.

Greta quotes from Mieville, an author I have yet to try though I have one of his books on my ever-growing to be read pile.


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