In the May 28 issue of The New Yorker, the excellent essayist Arthur Krystal (see his recent collection, Except When I Write) offers a pre-summer discussion of guilty reading pleasures, which he roughly summarizes as genre fiction in contrast to literary fiction. Back in the day, he notes, literary fiction was considered “good for you,” while genre fiction “simply tasted good.”
“Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story, a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives,” Krystal writes.
But the fact that a book qualifies as a guilty pleasure need not mean that it lacks literary value. Krystal charts the gradual crumbling of the barriers erected by stuffy book snobs of the past, noting that sometimes even intellectuals “yearned for a good story.” Raymond Chandler was perhaps the first crime/detective fiction writer to gain the respect of lit crits, paving the way for the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, P.D. James, John le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child. In other genres, writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King have in recent years elicited newfound admiration from more than their diehard fans. “Writers we once thought of as guilty pleasures are being granted literary status,” Krystal writes.
But Krystal warns that writers of detective and other genre novels should beware of too much praise, and respond by trying to turn their page-turners into something deeper and more meaningful, a k a literary. “Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate,” he writes. “It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”
George Orwell admired good genre novels, which he called “good bad books.” But while Orwell maintained a distinction between guilty pleasures and literature, thriller writer Lee Child recently sought to turn the whole discussion on its head: “The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling, thousands of years ago. It’s the only real genre, and all the other stuff has grown on the side of it like barnacles.”
Child’s characterization of biblio-history seems a tad simplistic, leaving out a few undeniable literary triumphs that could hardly be called “barnacles.” What’s more, he hardly needs to worry about his place in the literary pecking order, considering he’s sold more books than five thousand confirmed literary novelists.
(Krystal’s New Yorker piece prompted Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman to issue a response that is equally appealing on this subject. Find it here.)
Any discussion of guilty reading pleasures prompts one to ponder what his or hers happen to be. (This assumes, of course, that you’re someone who reads widely, including, primarily, literary works.) Here are the guilty pleasures of two avid readers.
Fast and Furious
By Scott Dickensheets
The form of these things usually requires participants to feel defiantly not guilty about their guilty pleasures. It may not be quote-unquote “literature,” but humankind needs stories! Well, I’ll admit it: I’ve chugged a lot of genre crap in my time. A lot of flimsy characters, spun through mechanical plots, typed by largely interchangeable authors — Vince Someone, Steve Someone, Eric Van Somebody Else. My colleague in this endeavor dismisses most of it as “airport fiction,” the kind of thrillers you grab from a gift-shop spinner rack when you’re facing a long layover and your phone doesn’t stream Netflix. I can usually tell from the first two or three pages that it’s going to be a piece of hackwork.
And yet I’ve read every thriller David Baldacci has written.
Now, I’ve never been a major-league consumer of fiction. Mostly I’ve read nonfiction of the kind I wanted to write, but when I did, I usually tried to read the good stuff. I mean, hell, I lugged Gravity’s Rainbow like a brick into the Sav-On breakroom when I worked there in my early twenties, my mind alternately blown and baffled by that thing. Three-quarters of it was half-understandable, but every so often I’d flash on an insight so crystalline — Pynchon’s somehow created a voice that can communicate everything, from philosophy to gutter humor! — it was almost like being on drugs. Sure, I’d done the genre thing as a kid, sci-fi and fantasy, every word of every Conan book, but none of it ever lit me up like that. I liked the way it felt. So, other than the odd Chandler novel, I mostly shunned genre books, even the stuff that was reputed to be hot shit, like Elmore Leonard or Walter Mosely, until …
(Fast forward a lot of years)
… until one day, and I mean one day, I tore through The Da Vinci Code. (Hey, I was curious about the hot fuss.) It didn’t actually take a day, just seven hours of not leaving the couch except to pee. (I took the book and sat down.) Imagine my surprise, nailed to the couch by genre fiction. I knew from the first two or three pages that it wasn’t a great book. Or even a particularly good one, for every reason you’ve heard. Unconvincing characterization, clunky writing, cheesy theology. But the pace! The story pushed relentlessly forward, and I learned something about myself: I have an innate craving for fast, cheap narrative. Also, that it takes me seven freakin’ hours to read a Dan Brown novel. Damn, that’s slow.
After that, I read a lot of mostly forgettable stuff: books by Steve Berry, the Jason Bourne novels by Eric Van Lustbader, Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp novels, still more Dan Brown, that long row of Baldaccis (tip: even if you’re a fan, his latest, The Innocent, isn’t worth it). I couldn’t tell you a single thing about almost any of those novels.
To be sure, I encountered something close to what I would call real literature in these genre pathways. Lee Child’s series of Jack Reacher thrillers, for example. Not just because the characters are sturdier, or the insights into human nature considerably less trite (even if the action is sometimes unbelievably over the top). But also because the writing, the basic carpentry, is better. His sentences aren’t purpose-built merely to deliver plot. They’re organic to both the character and the narrative.
His protagonist, Reacher, is a huge, tough, ex-Army cop who wanders America with no possessions, no fixed address, no phone, just a bank card, a passport, a toothbrush and a keen understanding of violence. Basically, he’s a high-functioning homeless man who lucks into trouble everywhere he goes. Terrorists, drug dealers, corrupt officials with hired muscle on speed dial. People invariably die, property gets damaged.
Reacher’s rootlessness is part of Child’s genius: A totally competent man with a weightless life, under no one’s control but his own — no ties equals total freedom — Reacher taps into a deep strain of American yearning.
I should also mention crime writer James Crumley. The Last Good Kiss, featuring a broken-down alcoholic investigator named C.W. Sughrue, is a marvel. The writing has a durable, creased, worn-leather quality — inhabited is the word I’m looking for, and the plot, a missing-persons tale, has enough twists to seem plausible but not O. Henry-ish.
But, finally, the point has never really been to ferret out literature, or even quality. (Did I mention I’ve read twentysomething Baldacci novels?) Indeed, Child and Crumley notwithstanding, I think — and I’ve only recently started puzzling this out, so bear with me — that what I want is the flimsy characters, mechanical plots and largely interchangeable authors. Sometimes, I don’t want the benefits of literature, to sink into a different reality, to deeply identify with a fictional character. Look, I’m a husband, father, grandfather and am employed in the newspaper business. There are enough things already demanding a willing suspension of my disbelief. Very often, all I need is something hot, fast and shallow. So I guess I’m defiantly non-guilty after all.
Thrills and Chills
By Geoff Schumacher
One of my main guilty pleasures is the crime novelist John D. MacDonald, who published in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. MacDonald started in the pulps, and cranked out several paperback novels per year, each one about 160 tightly plotted pages. A few of these stand-alone stories were particularly noteworthy, among them 1957’s The Executioners (which became the twice-made movie Cape Fear) and 1960’s The End of the Night, which Stephen King recently called one of the “greatest American novels of the twentieth century.” I don’t know about that, but it is a very good read.
But while MacDonald’s dozens of novels are worth a look, his crowning achievement is a series of twenty-one novels, published from 1964-85, featuring Travis McGee, one of the more compelling protagonists in the history of crime fiction. McGee lives on a houseboat docked in a Fort Lauderdale marina. McGee tries hard not to work for a living, preferring the sun and surf — and the companionship of good friends and beautiful women — to any sort of nine-to-five obligation. He’s able to pull off this lifestyle by collecting an occasional fee serving as a “salvage consultant.” He’s gained a reputation as someone who can lend a hand when a person has gotten screwed out of some money or a precious object. If McGee is able to retrieve what has been lost, he gets half for his trouble.
McGee is a clever, athletic and durable hero. In the first few books, he’s a bit too smart and invincible. The series improves as McGee’s blind spots and vulnerabilities come into clearer focus. He’s no longer Superman. Things don’t always turn out perfectly when he takes a case.
The McGee books occasionally veer from the storyline as MacDonald shifts temporarily into essay mode. It’s not uncommon for McGee and his sidekick, the fellow boat-dwelling economist Meyer, to go on for several pages discussing the social and political issues of the day. For some readers, these diversions probably are annoying, especially when the subject matter is decades old. But even now, I find most of them interesting and relevant. It’s clear that MacDonald was a thoughtful man, with social and political views he could not resist incorporating into his fiction. I might not be so amused if MacDonald were an ideologue, but he was a moderate pragmatist, exploring the issues of the day as objectively as possible.
I read about one Travis McGee novel per year. I’m savoring them, I guess. I’ve now read 17 of the 21, so I’m getting toward the end. McGee is getting older now. When he’s injured, it takes longer to heal. He’s thinking more about settling down with a good woman, though each time he gets serious, the woman seems to end up in the line of fire. Where I once admired McGee’s freewheeling lifestyle, now I kind of feel sorry for him. I really enjoy that McGee is more than a never-changing cardboard figure.
(One of the better pieces about MacDonald was written by longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley in 2003. It can be found here. Another good piece was written by Roger Ebert in 1976. Check it out here.)
When I was a teenager, I launched into books through the fantasy and horror genres. In the horror field, Stephen King occupied a lot of my time (partly because he wrote so many thick books). He was very good during the ’70s and ’80s, then not too great for a while, and more recently very good once again (Under the Dome, 11/22/63). But reading King did not necessarily lead me to lesser contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and John Saul. Though they have their admirers, I can’t really say whether they are any good.
King led me instead to the genre’s old guard: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood — nineteenth and twentieth century masters of the “weird tale.”
Occasionally, I enjoying dipping back into these writings. It’s similar to reading Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but with more supernatural twists.
I just finished a Penguin Classics collection of Blackwood’s stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly liked “The Willows,” “The Wendigo” and “The Man the Trees Loved.” While Blackwood certainly wanted to give his readers a good scare, he had higher ambitions as well. Many of his stories are founded on philosophical premises about the relationship between man and nature. His protagonists often discover an acute sensitivity to or awareness of natural forces beyond the recognition of other people. For example, in “The Man the Trees Loved,” a man develops a strong affinity for the trees in the forest behind his house. He spends more and more of each day in the forest, rather than at home with his wife. He comes to believe that trees have consciousness of a sort, and he has tapped into it: They love him, and they jealously see his wife as an impediment to his total immersion in their world. No violence ensues, as you would expect in a Hollywood production, but the story is suspenseful and eerie nonetheless.
Another of Blackwood’s stories, “Ancient Sorceries,” published in 1908, inspired the movie Cat People, released in 1942 and remade in 1982. In this story, a man on a train disembarks in a small French town, only to find that the residents turn into cats at night. It turns out he has some past-life connection to these feline folks, and they want him to rejoin them.
Blackwood’s prose is easy to read, but he definitely takes his time unfolding a story. This might be frustrating for some modern readers seeking immediate gratification, but the leisurely pace is something I enjoy about his work. He forces the reader to fully engage, to set aside all distractions and plunge into the narrative. And Blackwood’s horrors are rarely bloody. His carnage tends to be psychological and menacing rather than physical. He outlines frightening ideas, but they don’t lead to some sort of chaotic chase scene or killing spree.
(A great website to get a taste of Algernon Blackwood’s work is located here.)
Now that I’ve had my fill of Blackwood for a while — he wrote quite a lot, so there’s room for another incursion when the mood strikes down the road — I think I’ll delve into Machen’s stories, which offer another perspective on the mystical storytelling of a bygone age.