October 31, 2007



Mark, with the full respect and understanding that you and I differ quite dramatically on this subject and with the full intent of having a civil disagreement with you on this topic:

Why express an opinion about a genre or a form of literature when one has not read the book, let alone quoted the offending excerpt in question and account for its proper context? Is that not tantamount to being for the war in Iraq while not considering Blackwater or the non-connection between al Qaeda and WMDs?

Is it not better to remain silent about what one despises but that one has skipped around in? For example, I loathe Ayn Rand, but my opinion was formed after reading the whole of THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED. (The latter was particularly tough-going.) I would not be entitled to this opinion, unless I read these dreadful books in full. Which I did. Thus, is it really fair for anyone -- even a critic as revered as Wilson -- to judge based on a snippet?

I have no interest in reading THE DA VINCI CODE. Not my cup of tea. But I withhold any opinion I might have on the book until I've read it in full. Which seems to me the fair thing to do and which even a critic as enjoyable as Wilson was couldn't seem to do.

For more on Wilson's failures on this point, see:



Ed, first, thank you for your framing statement. I agree that we can disagree and can do so with civility. I proceed in the same spirit, however fundamentally we might differ - and we do differ, indeed.

As you observe, I do disagree with you on this, and not just about Wilson specifically but your theory of what qualifies/allows one to offer statements of opinion. Where to begin?

You ask "Is that not tantamount to being for the war in Iraq while not considering Blackwater or the non-connection between al Qaeda and WMDs?" I say no, it's nowhere near tantamount. That is hyperbole, and it's hyperbole that, in my opinion, trivializes a genuine and tragic life and death situation by somehow equating it to literary matters of opinion.

The idea that one must choke down every word of a subpar book AND be prepared to quote it at length before stating an opinion about it has some purchase if one is formally reviewing a book. But that's not what either Wilson or I are doing, and thus I think your standard is unnecessary and excessive.

I do not, for example, need to read every page of a book like the DaVinci Code to find that it is without literary merit (which is the only aspect I am discussing here) . You know and I know that a chapter or two will suffice, and the author who begins his book with "It was a dark and stormy night" is unlikely in the extreme to transform into a high literary stylist by the 17th chapter.

Also, please note that neither Wilson on The Robe nor me on DaVinci disparage a genre, as you suggest. What we were both doing was wondering aloud about an American cultural phenomenon that seems wholly without literary value.

To continue, I also don't agree with your requirement that one needs to amply quote from a disparaged work every time one does so, again, unless one is writing a formal review. I think you and I both know that I would have no difficulty finding ample howlers in Brown to support my points and then what? My underlying point would be no different, no more or less valid. This isn't a book review. It's a personal commentary, to which different rules apply.

Finally, having gone back and read your posts on Wilson, I think you're entirely almost wrong on him. I've read the essays you cite. (And he does, in fact offer example and quotations to back his points.) And I further think that he identifies a key shortcoming in the genre, and having read many of the same authors he cites - Rex Stout, Agatha Christie - I think his assessments are spot on. Whatever you may think about his conclusions, he starts a legitimate discussion about the shortcomings of the genre even as, in his follow up essay on Holmes, he celebrates it at its best. Finally, he also exposes what we continue to see today – the remarkable defensiveness of genre adherents. (I am NOT saying you are defensive, by the way, so please don't misinterpret. But the outpouring following his Ackroyd essay reminded me of the whole YA flap here last year and the continuing defensiveness of Stephen King and Co.)

Finally, and these are just personal differences between us, but I don't feel the need to wade through the cumulative 2000-plus pages of Ayn Rand to deride her as an obscurantist neo-fascist hack. I've read enough of both books to be comfortable in my opinions. And you are absolutely entitled to view my opinions as less than credible by your standards – fair enough. But following your example, how would you know for sure that The DaVinci Code isn't your cup of tea if you haven't even tried reading it?

I guess what I'm saying here boils down to two things, really - I think Wilson is far better than you credit, and you do some of the things you decry in your critique of him; and the other is that I simply - fundamentally - do not agree with your blanket insistence on quotation and completeness. I'm not saying it isn't a valid choice for you to pursue. I'm saying it doesn't work for me, and, respectfully, I don't feel bound by it. If you see me write a formal review, you'll see all those things.

All this said, I appreciate your constructive spirit of disagreement and discourse and I hope this reply continues the discussion in that spirit. Thanks for prompting the discussion.

Jack Pendarvis

For what it's worth to this conversation - nothing, probably; scratch that; nothing, certainly - Raymond Chandler hated Agatha Christie as much as Wilson did, and for some of the same reasons.

Jack Pendarvis

... though I should come clean and admit that I much prefer the image of the rye-swilling hack cranking out his overdue potboiler in a cheap rented room to that of a guy named Bunny playing squash with the van Dorens or whatever the hell it was they did for fun.


Racquetball, actually.


I'm actually now in the ideal position to respond to this argument, because I returned home tonight from pleasant Halloween festivities, only to find the door to my apartment thoroughly egged. I have no idea who did this or why, but I've just spent an hour cleaning up the mess. My apartment door might have been egged because I am a Caucasian and most of the people who live in my building are African-American (and many of them are quite nice). And no doubt the trick-or-treaters who did this have been paying attention to Where Whitey Lives (namely, me) and have made certain assumptions about my character. That I am apparently incapable of understanding them, that I bear them malice, and that there can be no peaceful cohabitation between me and them. In short, I'm contending with the kind of needless segregation that turns into outright hostility.

How different is this, really, from discounting genre? From egging the doors of the many mysteries or popular titles that dare to walk to their own drumbeat? Given that Wilson did indeed review these books in the columns I cited, it seems that, in the case of mystery, he should be called upon to quote them at length and to parse their precise context. Whether Wilson likes it or not (and certainly many people wrote into complain about the two reviews I quoted, and that comes directly from Wilson), he was duty-bound to do more than just dismiss a genre through specious quote and example He was duty-bound to understand it, so that he would not suffer the indignity of egg on his face (or his door). He was duty-bound to treat it on its own terms, but in the cases I cited, he did not.

This is not to suggest that Wilson's criticism is without interest or inspiration. But in this case, his failure to understand the books he is writing about by thoroughly masticating on them is no more different from a bigot who would egg the door of someone who is different from his skin color, or someone who would chastise another for egging his door by way of his skin color. I simply cannot subscribe to a critical model in which one eggs a door on flimsy pretext, much less condemns the great qualities of a genre based on a handful of examples. And that is my beef with Wilson.

Which is not to say that he isn't a perspicacious critic in other areas. I merely ask why someone who clearly loathes genre and is unwilling to give it a chance feels so compelled to write about it.

Steven Augustine

What is it about Our Current Mindset that means "we" won't be happy until everyone loves everything that everyone else loves, forever and ever amen? When did it become immoral, unethical, racist, sexist, ageist, looksist, weightest, smellist and tasteist to opine that some things are better than others?

Can I get a witness to testify that a well-prepared meal in a great restaurant is *better* than a Happy Meal at McDonald's? That a week in Paris is better than a day in Khartoum? That an Aston Martin is better than a Ford Gremlin; Francois Truffaut is better than Aaron Spelling; a painting by Vermeer is better than your three-year-old's drawing of an earless cat with three eyes and a human nose, no matter *how* much you love your kid?

Ed, you're elevating your personal affection for genre (or a particular genre, or several) to some kind of civil right involving laws to the effect that anyone dissing genre is committing a *hate crime*. Well, cuff me, officer, but the majority of the material in the majority of genre forms *is* just callow kitschy/campy fun: that's the draw! If it *transcends* genre: guess what? It's not genre! The distinction is built into the definition! If the definition offends Thee, don't use the term.

And, btw, Ed: drawing a comparison between Wilson's dismissal of genre and *racism* (incidents of which have many times led to psychic damage, grievous bodily harm or even death for its victims) is kinda callow. Even, dare I say it...camp?

Jack Pendarvis

You're right, Mr. Augustine: Happy Meals suck. But what if Raymond Chandler is a steak and a shot of bourbon and Edmund Wilson is rabbit with bacon and lavender and a glass of wine? I like both! And what if instead of Truffaut and Aaron Spelling (Truffaut made plenty of genre pictures, by the way) we make it Vincent Minnelli and Sam Fuller? I like both of them, too! Yes, though, the leap it takes to go from this kind of chit-chat to the real-world, sometimes life-and-death problems of race... it made my head spin.

Steven Augustine

JP: dig it: are we debating, here, the irrefutably subjective matter of literary taste (I think of Chandler as a bit of a Filet O'Fish, myself; I defy the rotting corpse of Ray Croc to prove me wrong), or Edmund Wilson's posthumous ethical right to self-expression on the very subject?

(written with a Halloween theme for the season)

Jack Pendarvis

Oh! Now I get it. Why didn't you mention the rotting corpse of Ray Croc to begin with?

Steven Augustine

Was jus' bidin' my time, baby.


In an effort to get Jack's head spinning further, for more on whether or not one has to make a choice, see this essay from Alex Ross:



First - sorry about your door, Ed. Maybe it was just unruly kids and nothing more sinister.

I'm out and about today so I will respond more fully when I have the book before me, but here's my root question. You say:

"I merely ask why someone who clearly loathes genre and is unwilling to give it a chance feels so compelled to write about it."

I think this position falls apart on a few levels. First, it seems your unspoken presumption is that one loathes it BECAUSE one is "unwilling to give it a chance," and if one had, one wouldn't loathe it. I disagree with the premise and, further, Wilson DID give the genre a chance - he cites numerous books read (or attempted) in all three essays. (I'll return with quotes later tonight.)

And so I challenge the presumption that one ought not take on a genre one loathes? I think Wilson's essay was - quite clearly - NOT a book review, per se, but a personal essay examining his inability to get cozy with detective fiction. It's both valid and interesting. I don't think that dislike of a genre should somehow gag one from commenting on it.

Finally, notions of "duty bound" notwithstanding, Wilson DID understand and in fact summarized beautifully what they are all about - about the puzzle, about the question ... Again, it's not in front of me but I am happy to dig it out and quote later.

Also I do think Steve's points are well taken - one doesn't feel duty-bound, after all, to offer, via specific example, why a Big Mac isn't as good as Boeuf Bourguinon. Some things, I think, can be reasonably taken as self-evident.


Mark: There's no need for you to drag out the quotes. I already did that for you in my original post on the subject. It's evident that Wilson not only disliked the detective story, but viewed it as nothing more than solving the mystery. As anyone who reads mystery novels knows, mysteries are about a hell of a lot more than "solving the mystery." I don't see how you can bring such a crude and uninformed definition to the work of George Pelecanos, James Ellroy, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Ian Rankin. Nor, for that matter, is it fair to Dorothy Sayers. Do you honestly mean to infer here, Mark, that you view the mystery genre -- which, by the way, your pal John Banville wrote two of under a pseudonym -- is nothing more than a Big Mac? That it cannot be the place for highly detailed environments and socioeconomic revelations (as it is with the above-named authors)?

This is what I mean by "giving genre a chance." It means viewing it -- when applicable and admirable -- as more than a mere detective story. It means not "skipping" pages, as Wilson declared that he did. That is not fair criticism by any standard. That is lazy reviewing.

As I pointed out in my post, Dorothy Sayers's "conversations between conventional English villa characters" had a lot more going on. But Wilson was determined to see Sayers's work as garbage.

So if he brought such an obdurate position to the table, why did he bother to review detective fiction? That's all I'm asking. Why should the critic waste energies over a genre that he clearly loathes? It's a waste of Wilson's critical acumen, and a waste of energy all around.


And one other thing, Mark. Aside from Benjamin Black, how many mysteries have you read since starting TEV? I'm genuinely curious.


Let me take the easy one first, and return later for the longer one.

Since starting TEV? Not many, it's true, other than Christine Falls. But that's because I've read enough to know that what I'm looking in for in a book, I'm not going to find in detective fiction. But from your list, I've read Ellroy (the best of this bunch) and Perez-Reverte. I've also, as advertised, read Stout, Christie, Simenon and countless others. I've tried a Pellecanos and found the writing - pure writing at the sentence level - dull and unengaging. And I've also tackled Alan Furst - considered by many the ne plus ultra of that sort of thing - and found his prose shockingly bland.

So I have, in fact, read widely - widely enough to feel comfortable with certain generalities. Will there always be exceptions? Sure. But I think one generality we can agree on is no one is likely to turn to detective fiction for the poetry of the thing. And there are readers like myself - and Wilson - for whom language is paramount. Surely, it's no compromise of your enjoyment of the genre to admit that its strength is not its writing?

More later. Dinner time around here.


And sorry to bombard you with additional food for thought, but consider this from Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder":

"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."

Steven Augustine

Great stuff, Ed. I sincerely doubt that James Michener could have put it much better.


There's that e-word again.

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