Monday, January 12, 2004

Reading Matters

I was reading Raymond Chandler's essay The Simple Art of Murder on Saturday. I've got a possible post on crime or litcrit or something brewing somewhere at the back of my mind, so I wanted to look up that famous passage about mean streets. I got sucked into reading the whole essay again, because its great stuff, especially when Chandler dishes out on the English murder as a parlour game genre exemplified by by Agatha Christie. I particularly enjoyed this passage:

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.

I do not think such considerations moved Miss Sayers to her essay in critical futility.

I think what was really gnawing at her mind was the slow realization that her kind of detective story was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first grade literature. If it started out to be about real people (and she could write about them - her minor characters show that), they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier-mache villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility.

I suppose you'll want that "mean streets" passage as well, now that I've mentioned it:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world...

The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Almost makes you want to go out and get yourself a trench-coat, a forty-five and a bottle of rye, doesn't it?

Update: here's the whole essay in PDF format.

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