“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What’s Up, Docx?

Edward Docx (right) had a piece in Sunday’s Observer, in which he pointed out that Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson aren’t much cop when compared to literary geniuses. He won’t get much argument about that here, but Docx then went on to trash pretty much all genre fiction, and claim that literary fiction is innately superior to any other kind of fiction, but crime fiction in particular, on the basis that genre fiction is constrained by conventions that must be adhered to by the genre writer, whereas the literary writer is free to write whatever he or she likes.
  Predictably enough, the crime fic spectrum of the blogosphere is up in arms about Docx’s temerity in dissing crime fiction. And, as always, I can’t help but wonder if the virulent reaction to the piece isn’t ever so slightly coloured by some kind of inferiority complex. I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t heard variations on this theme countless times before, and yet every time some self-proclaimed literary writer mounts this particular hobby horse, the peasants are out en masse waving torches and pitchforks. Really, shouldn’t that sore spot, so often rubbed up the wrong way, have developed a callus at this stage?
  It’s only my opinion, of course, but I reckon the only reasonable response to Docx’s piece, and to the next one, and the one after that, etcetera, ad nauseam, is this:
*yawns*
*scratches oxter*
*wonders why literary writers get so het up about crime fiction if it’s so crap*
*thinks about boiling kettle*
*wonders why genre writers don’t get so het up about literary fiction, and if maybe it’s because they’re too busy writing*
*yawns*
*scratches oxter*

16 comments:

C. N. Nevets said...

The most rational response I've have had suggested. Nice wake-up call.

Naomi Johnson said...

Totally off-topic. No idea who Docx is, but that photo? Can you say "cheez"?

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I'll give Docx one thing, his article was entertaining to read, and I think he'd make a great host or participant on a TV "reality" show, based on his picture. His asides to Lee Child's comments were amusing. I guesss I can agrre with his take on "bad" literary fiction as well. In the end, I think most readers seek escapism and entertainment, which they get most times from genre fiction.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Never read all of his post but Doc X is a good name for a super villian. And he does look like a twot,eh?

ROBIN said...

No problem with the Doc dissing whatever he likes, but wish he had made more of a case for the virtues of good literature than simply against crime fiction.

bookwitch said...

Paul, he is. And Sean Patrick, not TV, I think. (He HAS studied literature, though. Knows a thing or two.)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading that Docx article but dont agree. "Jack of all trades, master of none" comes to mind.

Dana King said...

I've said this about Docx elsewhere, but it's still the best I can come up with:

I read the entire article. There was so much bullshit in it, I couldn't take the other 25% seriously.

Stuart Neville said...

I read the piece, and I actually agreed with quite a few of Mr Docx's points, though I of course disagree with the overall argument of the piece. My (as of two days ago) wife is much smarter than me, and has pulled me up on occasion when I've gotten too defensive of my chosen genre. And she's right, there's as much inverted snobbery amongst genre writers, and I've been guilty of it myself on many occasions.

John said...

I'm in Stuart's camp on this one: I think Docx said a number of things with which I agree. I made similar points at a panel at Bouchercon this year, and was surprised both by those who agreed with me, and those who did not. Lee's nonsense (he's a lovely man, but that doesn't prevent him from talking rubbish on occasion) invited that kind of response, and I'm only surprised that it took someone as long as it did to call him on it, and rightly so. Docx did pick soft targets, and he would have struggled to make a similar argument had he used Highsmith or Macdonald as his genre straw figures. He also came across as a bit of a jerk, with a pretty shallow knowledge of his topic, but the general substance of what he had to say contained little that hasn't crossed my own mind on more than one occasion, particularly regarding the effect of conventions and reader expectations on writers within the mystery genre. (Equally, one might have pointed out to Docx that ALL fiction has to grapple with conventions and expectations, and even those experiments in testing the boundaries of such conventions often end up reinforcing the fact of their existence. Take B S Johnson's multisequential novel The Unfortunates: it was published in a box containing 27 separate chapters, but only 25 could be shuffled around. Johnson had still marked one as first, and one as last.)

That said, the unfortunate anti-literary, anti-intellectual idiocy that has been coming from the other side made Docx's arguments look stronger, and more justified, than they possibly were. I just think that the flip side of mystery fiction's inferiority complex is a nasty form of reverse snobbery, and a belief that we can only elevate ourselves by dragging literary fiction down. Docx may be a bit of an ass, but he had valid points to make.

Declan Burke said...

First off, congrats to Stuart Neville. Married, yet!!! Happy days, squire ...

As for the rest, I kind of presumed Lee Child had his tongue firmly stuffed in his cheek, and bouncing back the kind of notion whereby literary writers tend to believe they could knock out a crime novel in a couple of weeks, if only they could be bothered. The Benjamin Black attitude, basically, although I suppose it helps if you can write as well as John Banville can in the first place ...

But yes, as John says, Edward Docx picks some soft targets - although, to be fair, he is talking about what's topical and popular, i.e., Brown and Larsson.

I'm pretty sanguine about such criticism of genre fiction at the best of times, but given that I've read the likes of Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Joseph Wambaugh and RJ Ellory in the past few week (none of whom are best-sellers in the Brown / Larsson range, but have sold more than a few copies in their time), then I'm more inclined than usual to simply dismiss the criticisms as ignorance, plain and simple.

To paraphrase Chandler yet again, who was paraphrasing Wilde on art, there's only two kinds of books, bad and good. Closing yourself off to any particular kind of book on the basis of its form and conventions is simply short-sighted.

As for the general bitchiness directed at Docx:

"I just think that the flip side of mystery fiction's inferiority complex is a nasty form of reverse snobbery, and a belief that we can only elevate ourselves by dragging literary fiction down."

Correct and true. Good crime writing can hold its own with any other kind of novel, any fool with half an eye knows that.

By the same token, any crime fic fans who rush to dismiss literary fiction as boring, pretentious, et al, simply haven't read the right books, and are as guilty of short-sightedness as Docx and his ilk.

Cheers, Dec

John said...

Frighteningly, I believe Lee was serious.

Paul D. Brazill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

First, congratulations to Stuart and his (as of several days ago) bride.

Declan, I'd have been content to scratch my oxters if not for the particularly disingenuous, bait-and-switch nature of Docx's argument (if Docx is indeed his real name). He declares that "even good genre" is by definition constrained, but when it comes times to back up his argument, do we get examples of "good genre"? Nah, just the exceedingly easy whipping boys Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson.

I also liked the comment that genre fiction's detractors tend to conflate literary fiction and great literature. That's obvious, yes, but very well worth remembering for when you drag your thumbs out of your oxters and rejoin the fight.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter Rozovsky said...

I should add that I attended the Bouchercon panel to which John Connolly refers. His exact words were: "There's a kind of reverse snobbery coming into the discourse, and that's really stupid. That's going to set crime fiction back two decades."

That was provocative and surprising, which is more than I can say for Docx. Connolly was taking on reverse snobbery among crime-fiction fans. Docx was merely bashing crime fiction.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Well, the article wasn't all that much, but the discussion here, by so many good novelists, is first-rate. I'm glad to have clicked on the link that brought me here.

The best genre fiction always rises above genre to provide social criticism and insight into the human condition--in addition to the standard entertainment of the thriller/puzzle plot.

But I don't have to tell any of you that. All I can say is, please keep up the good work.