The Great Debate

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table….

TS_EliotThese opening lines from T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, have sparked many a debate among literary fans: is it a beautiful metaphor for twilight’s stupor… or could it be a metaphor for life itself?

As it turns out, it could very well be a metaphor for how T.S. Eliot felt when presented with a literary novel over one from his beloved detective genre. Yes, the undisputed arbitrator of literary genius was a huge detective fiction fan, a fact that the bastion of high brow writing, the New Yorker,revealed in this recent illuminating article. And not only was T.S. Eliot a devoted reader of the genre, he also wrote a number of anonymous reviews of detective novels and stories, defending the conventions of the genre with passion and advocating for some of its most notable authors in the time between the two great world wars.

Where was T.S. Eliot when I needed him? I have spent much of my career defending my decision to go into crime fiction as an author and remain as surprised as anyone that I have chosen to dwell there for decades and counting. But now that I know a man of unimpeachable authority in matters of literary judgment shares my passion, I have decided to stop mincing words when it comes to why I choose to write crime fiction over what some in the world might describe as more worthy novels. If J. Alfred Prufock can dare to eat a peach, then I can surely dare to point out the obvious in this endless debate:

  • There are astonishing literary books that capable of changing your life, if not the entire world. They illuminate some corner of being human with such a pure light that you can suddenly feel connected to all the world and find both comfort and delight in being part of the human species. But there are also self-involved, snooze fests foisted on us regularly as “literary fiction” and all they are going to do is put you to sleep (if not etherize you upon a table).
  • The exact same claims can be made about crime fiction. Some authors in the genre produce books that are evocative, poignant, and can change the very way you view life. Other authors are always chasing the market, pumping out derivative plots that are predictable in their unpredictability and feature characters who become parodies of themselves.
  • Often, the only distinction between the two genres is a random marketing decision made by an editor, because let me tell you: plenty of literary successes have centered around a crime (too many to list), and plenty of crime fiction is beautiful from a “literary” standpoint (read early James Lee Burke and tell me I am wrong).

In fact, the only consistent difference between the two genres is structure: crime fiction demands that authors follow a much more rigid set of rules when it comes to plotting, pacing, and characterizations. Not that these rules can’t be broken, but, in general, you will, indeed, find an actual plot in a crime fiction book while all bets are off when it comes to literary fiction. Count on this counting more and more as the years pass: we generations raised on television and motion pictures do not tolerate stories that get bogged down in the minutiae of some free-associating inner journey toward a highly personalized realization of the mundane. We grew up on stories that move, quite literally. A book that stagnates is a book that gets closed. This journey toward self-absorption that too many writers equate with the “literary” is only likely to get more tedious as we are buried in a self-centered avalanche of Facebook posts, Twitters snipes, and Instagram posturings. In a world that’s “all about me,” what books can bring us is how it’s really all about “we”—and crime fiction makes those connections very, very well.

So perhaps it’s time to put a fork in it and accept the inevitable, just as T.S. Eliot did: a book that pulls you in and keeps you there, a book that doles out justice and follows a fair set of rules, is a welcome respite from real life. Let’s shift the debate to where it really counts: let’s talk about original books vs. copycats…. books with something to say, rather than books with nothing new to offer… and books that make the most of the written word rather than simply being descriptions of TV shows on paper.

Help me prove my point. Share some “literary” books that are actually centered around a crime and could just as easily have been pegged as crime fiction, or suggest crime books that shine from a literary standpoint and deserve to be read by more people. Let’s convert some new readers to my genre, shall we? I’d also love to hear from authors on why they choose to write in the crime fiction genre. Because that’s a whole other blog post and I’d like to know where I stand…

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Comments

  1. Catherine Thorne says:

    T. S. Eliot is my second favorite author; I fell in love with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in my junior year of high school. I’ll be 60 this month so that gives you an idea of how long dribs and drabs of various lines have been rolling around in my brain. I look forward to meeting you when you speak at the Triangle Sisters in Crime meeting in November.

    Like

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