Prof. Mondo: More Thoughts On “Overrated Writers” — What Lasts?

The Huffington Post published the article on America’s most overrated writers that inspired the National Post’s article previously discussed here at TEI. Having read both articles, I was reminded of a conversation I had with detective fiction grand master Lawrence Block this past Winter.

Block has spent his virtually his entire career (more than sixty books) writing genre fiction, from lesbian porn in his college days to his award-winning series featuring recovering alcoholic PI Matt Scudder. He was the visiting writer here at Mondoville, and as the fan/stalker who did the most to get him here, I escorted him around town, and among other things, we talked about fiction, mainstream and otherwise. He noted that with very few exceptions, almost no one reads the “serious [read mainstream or literary] novelists” of fifty or more years ago. On the other hand, people are still reading and rediscovering the writers of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, and detective fiction (which was, after all, a favorite of Frye’s.) For that matter, people still read Verne and Doyle, long after such contemporary best sellers as E.D.E.N. Southworth have been consigned to the ash heap of doctoral dissertations.

Meanwhile, bestselling fantasist David Eddings observed that when a writer enters the area of the mythic (as distinct from the self-consciously mythologically allusive), he or she “may as well be peddling dope,” and he meant it as a good thing. These genre novels are highly conventionalized, of course; in the same conversation, Block mentioned that Robert B. Parker (who wrote a dissertation using Frye) described himself as  writing Westerns on a frontier that was paved over, and that the Western itself was a romance.

It’s worth noting that the writers both Posts beat up on are mainstream writers, the sort that Joan Hess described as “writing stuff where nothing much happens to people you didn’t like to begin with.” However, if Block’s observation holds up, it’s the Parkers and Blocks that will continue to engage readers decades from now, and perhaps even a century later, and it may well be because their works tapped into the archetypes and myths in a way that the “serious” writers (and the critics) found to be infra dignitatem. Frye would have understood.

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3 thoughts on “Prof. Mondo: More Thoughts On “Overrated Writers” — What Lasts?

  1. Ed Lemond

    This is a silly, stupid debate, as engineered by the two Posts (Huff and National), with no greater aim than to grab a few headlines. It is the farthest thing from the spirit of Frye, who was open to every genre, every degree of seriousness, and every level of difficulty. An easy read is only one of the pleasures of the text. Sometimes we want difficulty. It’s hard to imagine a world without Ulysses, without In Search of Lost Time, without Gravity’s Rainbow, without Infinite Jest, without the novels of Beckett, where if anywhere nothing much happens to people you didn’t like to begin with.

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    1. Michael Happy

      Yes, Ed, and furthermore, Frye would make a distinction between a popular critic and a scholarly one. It’s not that the former doesn’t have an important role to play, but will lack the far-reaching vision of the latter. He, of course, also warned against any sort of “ranking.”

      I put up the post because a national newspaper had bothered to put the list together and controversially included some of our most celebrated authors on it. (Although, in fairness, they also included an “underrated” list, which will at least draw attention to writers deserving more attention.) But this sort of exercise is a mug’s game — and that’s part of the humor even in the Seinfeld episode, a clip from which I included. Elaine doesn’t want to see The English Patient, she wants to see an inane comedy called Sack Lunch about a family living for undisclosed reasons in a brown paper bag. Wanting to see it but finding herself watching The English Patient over and over makes her life miserable and also makes for some pretty rewarding satire. That’s why the post was labeled “For entertainment purposes only.”

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  2. Jonathan Allan

    Fredric Jameson made an interesting comment in his review of Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood,” that struck me and many of my colleagues at the Centre for Comparative Literature as a provocative one. Jameson writes: “But Atwood can now be considered to be a science-fiction writer, I’m happy to say, and this is not meant to disparage.” (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n17/fredric-jameson/then-you-are-them) In other words, Jameson celebrates Atwood’s turn to “genre fiction.” There is something of an inversion at play, wonderfully so.

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