10/01/2018

Edgar and Willard

Readers of this blog know my péché mignon is to go against the grain and taking stances that are deliberately provocative, counterintuitive or both. You had a prime exemple with my last post in which I bluntly attacked that founding element of the crime fiction genre, series characters. You won't be surprised then that one of my most recent exploits was a post on the Golden Age Detection FB in which I appeared to defend Van Dine's infamous rules, particularly the much-maligned #3 (no love stories) and #16 (no "literary flourishes") I expected some reaction and lots of reaction I had, most of it negative. Even hardcore GA fans love their romantic suplots and atmospheric touches it appears. 

Not that I blame them. My support for Van Dine was mostly tongue-in-cheek, as most of the writers and books I admire wouldn't pass muster if his rules were to be strictly enforced. Still, I think they are not quite without merit either, and certainly in line with the thinking of the "founder" of the genre, Edgar Allan Poe himself. 

While Poe nowadays is primarily known for his fiction and poetry, he was also famous in his lifetime for his literary criticism. Famous but not popular, at least with his colleagues as he eviscerated most of them for their slopping writing, inordinate length and, crucially to him, poor plotting. Poe was probably the first writer to realize that art is not only a matter of inspiration and emotion but of efficiency. He famously delineated his doctrine in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales:

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.

This approach ran contrary to the then-predominant Romantic ideas about creation and was received with skepticism or open contempt by those who thought Art and the Sublime couldn't be reduced to a simple matter of mechanics. To others, however, it was a good lesson and one they strove to follow. What connects Poe to Van Dine, for all their many differences, is this willingness to root out everything extraneous to the effect they sought to achieve, fooling the reader in Van Dine's case. We are fortunate that their respective followers didn't take their advice too literally for the genre wouldn't have gone very far had all detective stories (not novels; Poe was no fan of those) been in the same mould as the Dupin trilogy. On the other hand, we would have been spared much of the phonebook-sized rambling "crime fiction" that tops the bestsellers lists and wins plaudits and awards these days.

My position is a median one. I don't want my mysteries to be sudoku games in (flat) prose, focused on the puzzle at the exclusion of everything else - but neither do I want to be bludgeoned with pages of furniture description, personal relationships and angst whose sole raisons d'être are a higher page count and enhancing the writer's reputation with the Literati. Great crime fiction of the past was both economic and focused, which didn't keep it from being strong on atmosphere and character when the writer saw fit. Just because a book is longer and offers "literary value" doesn't mean that it's good. So maybe Van Dine's rules are still worth thinking over, if not being closely obeyed, after all. 

Further reading:

An "interview" of Edgar Allan Poe on his 200th birthday.

Noah Stewart on Van Dine's rules  

1 commentaire:

dfordoom a dit…

in which I appeared to defend Van Dine's infamous rules, particularly the much-maligned #3 (no love stories) and #16 (no "literary flourishes")

I agree wholeheartedly with #16. Nothing is more deadly to crime fiction than a writer with literary ambitions.