Saturday, October 8, 2011

Crime Fiction and Literary Merit: the Debate (from guest blogger Anthony Garcia)

Does crime fiction have literary merit? The debate over the place of crime fiction has raged for as long as the existence of crime fiction coincided with attempts to define literature or create a literary canon. The debate has recently grown in intensity, with graduate programs in literature often discouraging students to study the genre. Crime fiction is often the center of controversy, with avid readers defending its literary merit. The fact is that this debate speaks more to the prejudices of those criticizing it than to any merits in the fiction itself.

As a genre, crime fiction encompasses a huge number of subgenres. The noir crime stories of Raymond Chandler are examples of crime fiction, as are the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and the social commentary one can find in John Grisham’s works. In fact, the first question one has to ask is what precisely is “crime fiction”? Crime fiction can in fact cover many story styles from traditional detective fiction to police-centered and character-driven stories.

These subgenres thus make it difficult to pigeonhole crime fiction into any easy form — unlike the Western genre, for example, crime fiction cannot be restricted to a given time or place. Hard-boiled private eyes and grim noir storylines occupy the same “space” as lighthearted legal romps. Thus, trying to apply any single definition to crime fiction is an exercise in futility. This can sometimes lead people to assume that the genre as a whole has little literary merit.

It is also important for this debate to understand what the term “literary merit” means.

Literary merit includes:
  • A work that is enduring rather than ephemeral. Many best sellers are forgotten a week after their first run — works with literary merit continue to be remembered long after they have been published.
  • The literary classic has important commentary about, or illumination of the era it is set in. Stories with literary merit are not simply imaginary stories, but works of art that can be examined on a number of levels. For example, Little Women is a classic for the way it uses that family to tell us about the world they lived in.
  • Literary classics are also written to the highest standards, involving fully realized characters and story-lines. Of course this can be very much a matter of personal choice, which demonstrates one of the problems of trying to define what has enough literary merit to become an enduring classic.
By those standards, the answer is yes, crime fiction can have literary merit. Crime fiction can be both about crime and society. The noir genre of crime fiction was not just about crime, but the cynicism and hypocrisy of society and how it often influenced the less wealthy.

Many crime fiction pieces are not simply stories about crime, but ask questions about race, class, corruption, and honesty in political and legal systems. Crime fiction has the ability to cast a critical light on our modern society.

In addition, the impact of crime fiction can be enduring. The influence of the noir, police thriller, and legal drama subgenres on public attitudes and views is easily equal to any other genre. Crime fiction set in the 1960s continues to be cited in examples of ethnic and racial attitudes from a time of often-violent flux, while modern crime fiction makes enduring statements about the place of greed in our society.

The debate about crime fiction may continue, but that should not decrease the literary merit given fiction of any genre that has the power to impact society. It may be that crime fiction's focus on the seedier side of our culture makes some reluctant to give it the recognition which it deserves, but it still deserves to be discussed and noticed. After all, any view of our society would be sadly incomplete without looking at the parts we are less than proud of, but crime fiction is nonetheless part of our shared heritage, and provides a wide selection of works with undeniable literary merit.

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