Richard Price has a new book coming out. There are few guarantees in life, but we can all rely on the stone cold fact that a new Richard Price book is a good thing to have in your life.
Mr. Price was interviewed in advance of publication by The New York Times , and, as these things always seem to do, the piece has ruffled a few feathers. Not because of factual errors or omissions -there is no mention of the ‘Jay Morris’ episode, for instance- but because of some old attitudes that creep in whenever the mainstream press tackles crime fiction.
Here’s one quote in particular that seems designed to rile and annoy;
Mr. Price had good reasons for going undercover for “The Whites,” which will be published next Tuesday by Henry Holt. He wanted to inoculate himself against literary critics who might sneer at him for writing a slicker, more commercial book. He was already late on delivering a separate novel, set in Harlem, that he owes a different publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and hoped to hide the fact that he was moonlighting. And he wanted to see if he could write a stripped-down, heavily plotted best seller, without sacrificing his literary credentials.
I winced the moment I read that part of the article. I could already hear my friends in the crime fiction community starting to cry foul, and I could feel my own back tensing up, ready to launch my very best passive-aggressive assault on the NYT. But the real reason I winced isn’t because of ‘them,’ rather, it was because of ‘us.’
Here we go again, I thought.
Are we that brittle? Do we lack that much self-confidence in our own taste and chosen field that we need the approval of the NYT in order to validate what we already know to be true?
Every six months since I joined the online community of crime writers, there has been some variation on this. Maybe John Banville is taking shots at genre writers, maybe Tony Parsons is -before then admitting how hard it was to write- talking of slumming it. Maybe….oh who cares. It happens a lot. Almost on cue. There are two strands to it; the sneering that writing crime fiction is more commercial than “literary fiction” (which is a genre in itself) and also that crime fiction can’t be ‘literary,’ and therefore writers like Price somehow ‘transcend the genre.’
And just as predictable as the regular appearance of these views are the rebuttals from those of us in the genre gallery.
I’m here today to say, let it go. Not just because we know they’re wrong but also, in our reactions, we prove them right.
But first I’m going to wander wildly off topic and complain about comic books and stand-up comedy.
See, I love comic books. love ‘em. But I hate graphic novels. And by that, I mean I hate the term. “Graphic Novels.” A lame cop-out of a title. Something cooked up by an industry that labours away under an inferiority complex. An industry that thinks, in order to be taken seriously as an art form, they need to refer to themselves in comparison to another medium. They’re comic books. Get over it. And yet, just as regularly as our little kerfuffles in crime fiction, I’ll see someone getting upset when a mainstream critic is surprised that Watchmen or Maus have literary qualities and “transcend the medium.” The thing is, they’re right. Both of those books are brilliant works of literature, and in crossing over to mainstream attention, they pretty much do transcend the medium.
Sure, there is an undercurrent to those reviews, something mean and cold that assumes that comics as a medium are not literature, and that it’s rare for them to achieve that lofty height. But you know what? The joke is on the reviewer for thinking that, so who cares? Well, clearly, we care, which means the joke is on us. Why do we care so much? Does it reveal that, deep down, we worry there’s some truth to it? That not all comics are Watchmen?
Along with comic books, one of my first loves was stand-up comedy. And there’s a recurring issue that the greats of the field can’t be called stand-up comedians. Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor. These guys (let’s just admit that I listed a whole bunch of guys and no women, but I have something to say about that another time) have to be “poets” or “preachers.” “Visionaries” and “Story-tellers.” They can’t simply be called what they are, the best damned stand-up comedians in their field. And stand-up, at it’s peak, is one of the purest and highest art forms.
But why is this? Why can’t they simply be called comedians? Why can’t comics simply be great comics? And why all the fuss when ideas of literary quality are introduced to discussions of crime fiction? (see, it was a trap, I never really wandered off topic) Is it because of ‘them’ or because of ‘us’?
Why do we get so angry? Sure, we’re being spoken down to. But then, if you’re that insecure about your own tastes that you need the endorsement of those who seek to do the talking-down, well, you have a whole other problem.
Is it because the concept of “transcendence” implies that there are constraints? That the rules of crime fiction can be tight and challenging? Well, newsflash, they are. Constraints are key to art. Restrictions are there to be overcome. Rules are there to be broken. When I describe my first three novels to people, I’m often describing the ways they go against the genre, the way they’re not quite detective novels, the way my protagonist is an ethnic minority or criminal, and the ways in which I try and explore social issues and have arguments with myself on the page. Clearly, I’m not just saying, “yeah, they’re fun detective novels, just like all other detective novels.”
I have no issue whatsoever with seeing a reviewer try and find nice things to say about Richard Price by making references to his work being more literary than many crime novels, because that’s one of the reasons I read him. His writing has qualities that put him right up at the top of the field, along with writers like George Pelecanos, Helen Fitzgerald, and Reed Farrel Coleman. I could go on, I could draw up a much longer list, but the point is not all crime novels are created equal and some writers deserve all that extra praise.
I’m proud as hell to be a published crime writer. I wear the title as a badge of honour. And I -like most people who get upset when these issues come up- know there are many brilliant writers in the field. There are works of crime fiction that stand as some of the finest pieces of literature ever crafted. But not every work does. Not every comic is as good as Watchmen. Not every comedian is as good as Pryor. We each set out with a blank canvas and do our best. If we’re diligent and honest in what we’re doing, our ‘best’ gets a little better each time.
‘Literary’ is not a bad word. Or, it shouldn’t be. Sometimes, sure, reviews are using it in a condescending way, but often times they’re using it as praise. They’re using it as a short-cut to praise a writer for doing something good. each time we shout about it, each time we sneer or moan or snark, we put some distance between us and ‘literary.’ There’s something aspirational to the idea of literature. I aim for it every time I start out with a blank page, and I don’t hide that, or apologise for it.
And the other people? The ones we think we’re railing against? The people who assume there is no art or literature in genre, that comics can’t be amazing and that comedians are the bottom of the rung? Fuck ‘em. Put the joke back on them. If they don’t know where to look for good art, that’s not our problem and, frankly, I don’t need their approval. Neither do you.