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2004-01-07 5:10 PM
Who Killed the Detective Novel?
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Ben Yagoda's article in Salon , "The Case of the Overrated Mystery Novel," begins with the assertion that "Edmund Wilson's 1945 New Yorker essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" (the title referred to Agatha Christie's 1926 novel 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd') more or less demolished the 'classical' country-house murder mysteries of Christie and her school."
Reading that opening, I couldn't help thinking about playing Clue and announcing the murderer. "It was the Critic, in the New Yorker, with the essay."
I also couldn't help thinking that anyone who believes a New Yorker essay demolished classical murder mysteries has an inflated opinion of the power of critics, or just doesn't get out enough. Perhaps he is hoping that 50 years from now someone will be airily writing that Ben Yagoda more or less demolished the detective novel with his 2003 Salon essay.
The essay doesn't interest me on account of the particular books Yagoda trashes, since I haven't read them, but rather because of his dismissal of the whole mystery genre as not being literature.
Why do critics persist in the demonstrably untrue pretense that there is such a thing as "literature"? If literary merit were anything other than a subjective judgment, if it actually existed in the real world, then critics could never disagree. Scientists aren't going to disagree about how much a novel weighs, or how thick it is, or how many pages or words it contains. That's because such things are measurable, not just critical opinions.
Critics can make useful observations about writing, for example, whether and how it works, or doesn't work, for them, as readers. Editors help writers all the time by doing so. That never seems to be enough, for critics, however. They insist on being able to discern in a book something far beyond writing mechanics, an inherent quality -- or lack of same -- which is, in fact, nothing more than their own perception.
Aside from the usual critical fallacy of pretending one's own taste is an accurate yardstick for everyone else's reality, Yagoda makes a few laughably unsupportable comments. He claims S.J. Rozan "has no clue how males talk among themselves" because "her guys swear at roughly the rate of every fourth word." If Yagoda has never encountered a group that habitually swears a blue streak then he's lead an even more sheltered life then I have.
He also states that "...all detective series seem to require two items that run counter to literary values and that, no matter what the author's skills (clean prose, social or psychological observation, plot construction), will artistically doom it. The first is the main character, who is invariably romanticized or sentimentalized and who is always a combination of three not especially interesting things: toughness, efficacy and sensitivity. (When the writer resists applying any or all of these traits, the character ends up being bland.) The second is the very formulaic quality that lets a book be part of a series. Similar things happen in similar ways, which is probably as apt a definition as you'll ever find of how not to make good literature."
Maybe the most important words from the above muddle are "seem to require." Seem to require to whom? Well, to Yagoda, apparently. Although he offers not a shred of evidence that a detective series actually is required to operate under such ridiculous restraints. Why would there be such a requirement? Where would it arise? Who would enforce it?
Even so, why does he suppose that toughness, efficacy and sensitivity are not especially interesting? None of those traits are interesting? Heros and leaders, Saints and poets, or all the other people who are none of those things but who also face our common experiences with toughness, efficacy or sensitivity....are...not... interesting? They are to me.
To be fair, Yagoda immediately contradicts himself by remarking that if the mystery writer doesn't employ these boring traits "the character ends up being bland." I don't know if the appropriate reaction to such nonsense should be "Huh??" or "Damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Not that the article doesn't make good points. I tend to agree with his general idea that a book suffers from being part of a series. Much as I've loved some mystery series, I think there's too much emphasis on them and a book that isn't complete in itself can't ever be quite as good as a complete work might be.
Also, the hype for books, as exemplified by the ridiculously over-the-top blurbs Yagoda cites, is out of hand. One might argue that in our advertising crazed society, no intelligent adult should expect a product to live up to its accompanying advertising puffery. Still, it is a shame we live in a world with no perspective, where every new thing has to the Best Thing and the Biggest Thing Ever to even merit a glance. Where to keep our attention, even critics, can't confine themselves to reasonable criticism but instead have to resort to baseless, sweeping assertions. As, for example, Yagoda's own, "The American detective novel may be commercially viable, but it is devoid of creative or artistic interest."
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