Stay with me while I set this up, because I'm really pissed off:

UT's Michener Center last night brought Denis Johnson last night to read. He's the author of a book of short stories "Jesus' Son", the novels "Resuscitation of a Hanged Man", "Angels", "The Stars at Noon", and more. He's got Faulkner Awards and National Book Club awards. He's taught at UT's MFA program which is pretty prestigious (I mean you really have to be something special to get in, there are like 6 seats and 2,000 applicants, because acceptance supplies a grant that covers the entire tuition.) Recently, Johnson's novella "Nobody Move" was serialized in four issues of Playboy and from this he read for forty minutes.

Now, I just finished editing Out of the Gutter #5: The Revenge Issue, with Matt Lewis and it is going to press in the next few days, but I couldn't hear any difference between what we or any writer on Crimespace is doing and Denis Johnson's work, but he doesn't get dismissed as a pulp/suspense/thriller writer. He gets academic approval and literature status. I've read his short stories in" Jesus' Son" and I don't understand how L.A. Weekly quoted it as "In a world of predictable fiction, Jesus' Son is a point-blank godsend."

A student after the reading asked me what I thought and I was in a daze and said, "It's just pulp fiction."

and he said, "Yeah, but it's good Pulp Fiction."

and I said, "Then don't bill it as anything else than pulp fiction otherwise he's slumming."

and he got all defensive, "Yeah, but the voice is raw and real."

and I told him to go to a soup kitchen six blocks over and steal their stories.

He turned away and the entourage of MFA's slipped off to a closed party with Denis Johnson.

So here is the question, what with Tin House and others using genre sponsored contests to exclusive writing programs, have any writers here been able to cross the line or even want to into the fiction/lit shelves of the bookstore? Have they been able to get grants or lit based awards? Or are they stuck in a genre section? Who is in charge of labeling and pigeon holing novels?

Just note, I'm not attacking Denis Johnson personally, it's just the shorts I have read of his were more like character studies and impressionistic forages into degenerate portraits, but not completed stories.

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This discussion has moved beyond my ability to make a reasonable contribution, but quoting Chandler again, discussing the same topic 58 years ago, puts a few things in perspective, including the idea that there's anything new about this argument.

In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently–one can never be quite sure–is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.
That entire essay is brilliant, Dana. Chandler said it better than I ever could.
What all this means in practical terms for us today was probably best summed up by John Connolly on his blog recently, talking about attending a literary festival in my town of Toronto:

1) At a literary salon – I know, I know, but I’d agreed to attend, and I am, if nothing else, a man of my word, most of the time - I listen as a young Canadian writer expresses the view that mystery fiction has no business being nominated for literary prizes on the grounds that, well, it just sells too many copies, and therefore mystery writers have no need of the acclaim and the (often modest) financial rewards that accompany such prizes. When I point out to him that such an argument would also exclude, say, Salman Rusdie from consideration for the Booker Prize, he smirks and responds: “But Rusdie wasn’t nominated for the Booker Prize this year…”

And everyone in the room laughs.

2) A fellow Irish author enquires how I go about constructing a mystery narrative, given that it requires the farming out of information at certain intervals. I reply that I don’t plan it at all, and instead the revelations in question occur in part both naturally in the course of the initial draft and are also subject to revision during the process of rewriting as the heart of the narrative gradually reveals itself. I make the point that it is no different from the way in which a literary author approaches a book, and note the fact that his own most recent novel depends upon a series of revelations about an act of startling violence that has occurred many years in the past, so the difference between our texts is hardly as significant as he might believe. He doesn’t even answer, but simply turns around and walks away, as if appalled that I might suggest any degree of commonality between us.

3) A British novelist, a first-time author, admits that he has never, until recently, read a mystery novel, but having read one he now understands the appeal of the genre. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, he suggests. It’s about excitement, and nothing more. He doesn’t tell the audience which particular mystery novel he has read, or why he considers it representative of a
genre of which, by his own admission, he knows nothing.

4) A young American novelist, one whom I can only hope was drunk at the time, commences a spectacularly ignorant attack on genre fiction. Even allowing for any possible intake of alcohol, she is quite stunningly rude. Her basic argument, if I understand it correctly, is that mystery fiction works according to a basic template: in her immortal words, “something happens ...”
Thanks, John.

Mr. Connolly just snagged a new fan.
I read that in Connolly's blog. What I took away from that most was that it was the "literary" writers who seemed to be most defensive.
But Jude, seriously--you go on and love you some Stephen King. It's fine with me.

Thanks, Jon. I will. And you go on and love you some Charles Baxter, with Oscar's hard-on standing up and smiling at you and all. ;)
Okay, I gotta say, that passage does interest me. I'm going to check out this Baxter guy...
Well, yes, to some extent we define art for ourselves. We also define entertainment for ourselves. There is very little consensus, though the majority votes for the bestsellers. My trouble is that I almost never like those books. And that includes Stephen King.
In terms of fairness, I figure bestselling authors get their reward in dollars. They don't need my admiration.
But to get back to the genre vs. literary novel debate: I write genre by choice. That means I accept the restrictions that places on me, including the fact that readers will have little patience and will want a lot of action. But there are many ways I can stretch and reach for something more than a page turner. Character and theme can be developed in the crime novel as well as in the literary novel. And imagery can be incorporated in the language, though there reader patience will grow thin.
I think we can do anything "literary" novels can do, I.J., only our work has to be disguised as enjoyable. :)
Yeah, but when Margaret Atwood writes Oryx and Crake or Michel Houllebecg writes Platform they aren't sci fi novels - somehow Oryx and Crake got nomintaed for a Booker. I guess academia and the arts world can make mistakes, but when the mistakes are so consistent ' "Written by a literary novelist so it must be literature" we get kind of tired of it. (I should say, I loved Platform but Oryx and Crake was just mid-level sci-fi, no better than average Tom Disch or Ursula K. Leguin and nowhere near as good as their best).

So is it really the text we're talking about or is it reputation and marketing?

I know when I write I have never once made a choice based on conventions of a genre. In my first novel the book opens with a murder in a public place - and that murder never gets solved (oh, um, spoiler alert, sorry). So far, no one complained (okay, one Amazon review hated the book, but not because it failed to hold true to the genre).

I didn't know I was writing a genre novel until the publisher put the words, "a mystery" on the cover. I was worried about that because I thought people who love mystery novels would hate my book, there's no mystery, no clues no heroic but flawed detective.

But the publisher was right. My experience has been that the 'mystery community' is a lot more open to things that don't fit the narrow definitions of genre. It's possible the publisher could have tried to market my books as non-genre or even literary but it was too big a business risk. For all the reasons that John Connolly talks about.

And now, of course, I'm glad. The mystery community is terrific. Or, I guess I should say the mystery community is where I feel most comfortable. I also attended that festival in Toronto a couple years ago (I gave a reading along with Jim Crace, who's Pesthouse is also mid-range sci-fi marketed as literature to peeople who've never read sci-fi) and let's just say it's a fifteen minute streetcar ride from my house but I'd much rather take another ten hour drive to Bouchercon.
I read DIRTY SWEET a couple of months ago, and it just now occurred to me the killing that launches the story doesn't get solved, but, now that you mention it...

I guess that proves you did your job with the rest of the book, that the initial premise is never consummated and it doesn't detract from the book.

Too bad about that guy's blow job in EKTIN. That doesn't get consummated, either.
It may well be that it's always the publisher who decides what genre to put a novel into. And surely that decision is made in tems of where most sales are. Margaret Atwood had already established a literary following. All that illustrates once again is that you only need that one bestseller and then you can write what you want.


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