A CRITIC AT LARGE
Guilty pleasures without guilt.
by Arthur KrystalMAY 28, 2012
ABSTRACT: A CRITIC AT LARGE about guilty pleasures and genre fiction. When Matthew Arnold keeled over, in April, 1888, while hurrying to catch the Liverpool tram, Walt Whitman told a friend, “He will not be missed.” Arnold was, in short, “one of the dudes of literature.” Whitman probably figured that his own gnarly hirsuteness would save him from becoming a dude. He was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for all hardworking scribblers: stick around long enough, develop a cult following, gain the approval of one or two literary dudes, and you, too, can become respectable. Commercial and genre writers aim at delivering less rarefied pleasures. And part of the pleasure we derive from them is the knowledge that we could be reading something better. For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good. In 1944, Edmund Wilson published an article in this magazine that contained some disparaging remarks about the mystery genre. Nonetheless, it was a senior literary dude, W. H. Auden, who pointed the mystery writer Raymond Chandler canonward. It was Chandler’s blend of stylish wit and tough-guy sentimentality that made it easier for the commercial writers who followed. If you were good, you could find a booster among the literati. Indeed, scores of novelists in a variety of genres—P. D. James, John le Carré, Donald Westlake, Dennis Lehane—routinely receive glowing writeups in major newspapers and literary venues. In 1995, Martin Amis dubbed Elmore Leonard “a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers.” Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail. It’s plot we want and plenty of it. Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story. Mentions Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes.” The guilty-pleasure label peels off more easily if we recall that the novel itself was once something of a guilty pleasure. Hence Dickens was considered by many of his contemporaries to be more of a sentimentalist and a caricaturist than a serious artist. Mentions George Orwell. Today, the literary climate has changed: the canon has been impeached, formerly neglected writers have been saluted, and the presumed superiority of one type of book over another no longer passes unquestioned. So when Terrence Rafferty, in the Times Book Review last year, expressed disappointment with a novel that tried and failed to transcend the limitations of its genre, he caught some flak. Mentions Ursula K. Le Guin, Lee Child, Harold Bloom, and Stephen King. Compares Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” with Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End.” Christie’s language wants us to settle in; Ford’s demands that we pay attention. The typical genre writer keeps rhetorical flourishes to a minimum, and the typical reader is content to let him. Readers who require more must look either to other kinds of novels or to those genre writers who care deeply about their sentences.