"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

On Issues of Genre Literature

It's one of those moments where various threads of the universe come together at an extremely inconvenient time, but these things usually happen for a reason.  I'm now in the midst of grading my Eng. 180's midterm essays; we started Dennis Lehane's Mystic River in class on Monday; Jeffrey Eugenides' interview in the NY Times, and the sentencing this morning of Jerry Sandusky.  The Lincoln Library Book Sale was this weekend; I'm on my second pot of Maritime Mist, and I have a locally-grown Cortland apple to remind me it's fall.  Happy October!

I'm dissertating today too.  Working on an essay about Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway and also finalizing my paper on Joseph O'Connor that I'll present next week at the Midwest meeting of the American Conference of Irish Studies.

This weekend, I brought home somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred and sixty-some books from the library book sale.  I think whenever I talk about this particular book sale, which feels like my birthday, Christmas, and the 4th of July all wrapped into one, I don't think people who haven't been there really understand.  I actually prefer used books to new books, because they always feel like they have a history before they get to me, a story layered in those pages.  And I like that my own library feels comfortable, like it's a place you wouldn't be afraid to take a book off the shelf, snuggle up on the couch with a cup of tea, and read there for the afternoon.  And the riot of colors of those book spines against the dark of my shelves livens up the space.

I stocked up on books I should have in my library (I made a killing in the John Janovy, Jr's), authors I'm specifically looking for (Jane Urquhardt), books that will help me with various classes that I'm teaching or want to teach.  I loaded up on classic crime literature (Walter Mosley, Ross MacDonald, Ed McBain, etc.), enough that I've reorganized my library so that I have shelves specifically dedicated to crime lit.  (I have more than fits on those shelves, so it'll be a work in progress.)  But as my goal to teach my students how to analyze crime literature within the space of a college literature classroom (albeit an introductory one), how crime literature fits into the larger idea of capital-L Literature, the divides of valuing this work seems particularly wide this morning.

A while back, when I was reading Derek Hand's A History of the Irish Novel, I noted that he really had nothing good to say about the rise of genre literature in Ireland, a kind of selling-out for some writers and a dumbing-down of the high-literary tradition of Irish writing.  It's one of the few things in his work I strongly disagree with.  But I'm also not blind when it comes to the perceptions of genre literature, especially from the perspective of those in academia, where literary fiction is king.  And I mean king deliberately.  While the debate over gendering issues in publishing is absolutely an argument worth having until it's no longer an issue anymore (hooray for the VIDA issue of Brevity!), I also see no benefit in getting my back up every time genre literature is maligned.  I think those people are idiots, but the link between genre fiction and gender issues is not as far as one might think--and this is the point I've been mulling this morning.

A friend directed me to Jeffrey Eugenides' interview in the 7 October 2012 By the Book in the New York Times and it is indeed illuminating.  In some places it is downright funny, especially the "You're organizing a dinner party of writers and can invite three authors, dead or alive.  Who's coming?"  His answer is wonderful.  But then, there are moments that make me scratch my head:  "You grew up in Detroit.  What should someone who really wants to understand the city read?"  Eugenides answers, "I'm trying to think how to answer this in a way that doesn't sound self-important.  Give me a minute." I'm trying to hear wry humor in his voice and perhaps that I don't is a failing of the written medium, and maybe it annoys me just because writing of a city is important.  That's my own bias.  (And I know he's said some very dismissive things about gender and publishing that already predispose me to be irritated with him.  Some good responses to that via NPR and Francine Prose.)

But here's the exchange that annoyed me most:  "Any guilty reading pleasures--book, periodical, online?"  And the answer:  "The only thing I'm high-minded about is literature.  It's not an elitist stance; it's temperamental.  Whenever I try to read a thriller or a detective novel I get incredibly bored, both by the language and the narrative machinery.  Since I'm so naturally virtuous on the literary front, I don't see why I can't slum elsewhere, and I do, guiltlessly.  I'm the guy in the waiting room flipping through People.  Bellow said that fiction was 'the higher autobiography,' but really it's the higher gossip."

Like I said, I can't rage every time somebody says that genre lit is inferior, but in the world of writing, there does seem to be that hierarchy--and perhaps the larger question is not greater-than-less-than, but how literary fiction serves a different purpose than genre fiction.  It's true that there are some crime books I can't stand, whether it's the writing style or the treatment of various topics or whatever--and that's a valid reason for putting down a book and picking up another one.  But to dismiss an entire classification of books as boring sounds much too much like my students on the first day of class (we haven't made it to the last day of class, so I don't know how things will end up there)--and I want to tell Eugenides (and others like him), if you're bored, you're not reading the right things.  If you want language, I can pull down half a dozen crime books on my shelf that will set your socks on fire with sentences.  If you're bored by the "narrative machinery," go read Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea and talk to me about narrative machinery.  

But the larger issue is something we started discussing yesterday in my Eng. 180 class, as we started Lehane's Mystic River.  If, as we have been talking about all semester, crime literature is the literature of social order, that the purpose of crime literature is to address a specific societal fear and the disruption in the social fabric that crime represents, as well as the role of law/justice/punishment that restores the social order, then today's sentencing of Jerry Sandusky is incredibly interesting.  The beginning of Mystic River involves a three-way friendship between three boys in working-class Boston, the kidnapping and the presumed sexual assault of one of them (an eleven-year-old boy), who is rescued.  Taking place in the present time, with the three boys grown up and grown apart, the daughter of one of them is missing (as far as my students have read so far, we only presume that she has been murdered).  The role of contemporary crime literature--as we are still formulating our definition of "literature"--is to take the fears of a specific society (and with our book so far we have identified several, some with conflicting values) and somehow use the movement of the novel to restore order.  How the novel ends (which we will not get to until next week) questions the way that order is restored.  Those of you who have read the book know what I mean.

But the point I want to raise here is the fear of contemporary society towards violence against children and violence against women.  (Violence against women and violence against women for entertainment value is something we'll explore as we learn, for sure, that our missing character, Katie, has been confirmed murdered.)  Jerry Sandusky was sentenced today to 30-60 years for assaulting, molesting, and raping children.  It's a cliche to call a television show or book "ripped from the headlines," but such things is where crime literature thrives, because it would not exist without those rips in the social fabric.  Teaching my students to recognize the links between those headlines and the novels we are reading (or short stories, plays, or nonfiction, as the course progresses through various genres) is absolutely critical for them to apply these concepts outside of our classroom.  I don't know how our discussion tomorrow will go, thinking about whether Sandusky's sentencing was just punishment, the role of the law in justice, and what his sentencing says about our society's attitude towards violence--especially sexual violence--against children.  Violence against children in Mystic River--there are frequent references to physical abuse--seems to be a different issue, treated differently--and this is a conversation definitely worth exploring.  Provoking conversations we would not be having otherwise is the greatest benefit I see crime literature as offering, something that drives what I do as a teacher.

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