Literary Fiction and Crime Fiction: The Case of Cormac McCarthy

By Professor David Schmid, Ph.D.

What does it mean to look at the work of Cormac McCarthy from the perspective of crime fiction? In order to answer this question, I must address the old chestnut of the relation between high and low culture, but in doing so I want to emphasize that as venerable as the debate concerning this relation might be, it is also very much alive and well and therefore as relevant as ever today.

Mural Image representing crime fiction inspired by Cormac McCarthy

For example, consider those reviews of crime fiction that must irritate every enthusiast of the genre and that still appear with monotonous regularity, reviews that reserve their highest praise for the book under discussion by stating variants on the following formula: “It is not only a great piece of crime fiction, it is also a fine novel.” The ghost of Matthew Arnold applauds approvingly whenever such sentiments are expressed because they encapsulate the idea of ‘literature’ as an honorific category, something from which examples of genre fiction such as mysteries are necessarily excluded, unless they do really, really well, in which case they get a day pass into the hallowed halls of the great works. One is tempted to respond to such reviews by conducting a thought experiment; imagine a review of McCarthy’s next novel that concludes with the following words: “This is not only a good novel, it’s also a great piece of crime fiction.” We will see later whether this statement could be considered progress in any sense.

The comparison of the best examples of crime fiction to literature, a phenomenon I can’t resist describing as damning with faint praise, or the sense that “Literature” with a capital “L” remains a goal worth striving after for crime fiction writers, both have venerable histories of their own, and from both sides of the aisle, so to speak. In 1928, when Dashiell Hammett was rescued (as he saw it) from six years of publishing in the pulps by the highly respected publisher Blanche Knopf, he wrote to her of the detective story that “Someday somebody is going to make ‘literature’ of it…and I’m selfish enough to have my own hopes, however slight the evident justification might be” (qtd. in McGurl 164). Many critics have made stylistic comparisons between Hammett’s work and that bastion of canonical American literary modernism, Ernest Hemingway, but it may surprise you to hear the personification of hard-boiled values hoping for mainstream literary recognition.

“To me it is a cheap idea because it was deliberately conceived to make money…I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks.”

What crime fiction looks like from the perspective of one who has already achieved that mainstream recognition is slightly different. In the case of William Faulkner’s 1931 novel Sanctuary, for example, Faulkner famously disparaged the first draft of the novel, which was more obviously indebted to the model of hard-boiled crime fiction, saying of it that “To me it is a cheap idea because it was deliberately conceived to make money…I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks.” Faulkner’s curt dismissal of market-driven forms such as the crime novel has not stopped legions of literary critics from claiming Sanctuary as an example of that very form, but I’m not concerned with the accuracy or inaccuracy of that appellation. Rather, I am interested in the implications of French writer André Malraux’s equally famous praise of Sanctuary: “Sanctuary is the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective novel” (891).

“Just as the fanciest chefs will happily eat simple cheese and toast so long as it’s prepared properly, literary writers will happily read genre fiction, as long as it’s prepared properly…”

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted that Malraux enjoyed Sanctuary; I just wish that he didn’t feel it necessary to compare it to Greek tragedy to clarify just how much he enjoyed it because the problem with such a comparison is that it leaves the high-low cultural polarity untouched and unquestioned. Once again, crime fiction can be safely disparaged with the exception of the few remarkable texts that ascend to the Elysian fields of the literary. To cite a more recent example of the same tendency, in 2012, NPR’s regular and revealingly-titled segment ‘My Guilty Pleasure’ (“Writers talk about the books they love but are embarrassed to be seen reading”) featured Stephen Marche praising Jim Thompson’s complexity in the following terms: “Just as the fanciest chefs will happily eat simple cheese and toast so long as it’s prepared properly, literary writers will happily read genre fiction, as long as it’s prepared properly. And the best preparer of hard-boiled crime fiction, or at least my favorite, was Jim Thompson. Though he was the pulpiest of pulp writers, he was also the densest and most intense and most complicated. His cheese on toast is like melted Gruyere over crusty fresh baguette.”

I must be honest and say that this passage really irritates me because I don’t always want Gruyere on a baguette; sometimes I want government cheese on Wonder Bread! We need a more nuanced understanding of the relation between literary and genre fiction, one that avoids maintaining each half of this binary in isolation, and instead imagines the possibility of hybrid mixture.

Image of a typewriter and crime novels

At first glance, Arthur Krystal’s essay “Easy Writers,” which appeared in the New Yorker in May 2012 is evidence of such a possibility. In reviewing the state of American crime fiction, and especially the republication of crime fiction texts as part of the Library of America, Krystal comments accurately that “Today, the literary climate has changed: the canon has been impeached, formerly neglected writers have been saluted, and the presumed superiority of one type of book over another no longer passes unquestioned” (83). And yet, if Krystal gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. In his closing assessment of the work of such writers as James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, and George Pelecanos, Krystal writes that “The prose may be uneven and the observations about life and society predictable, but, if the story moves, we, almost involuntarily, move with it” (84).

“The prose may be uneven and the observations about life and society predictable, but, if the story moves, we, almost involuntarily, move with it”

Not literary artists after all then: crime fiction writers, even the best of them, are merely serviceable storytellers. Krystal is right to say that the category of ‘guilty pleasure’ is remarkably persistent but he seems to be blind to his own contribution to that persistence. And it really doesn’t help to say that great crime novels can transcend their genre, a statement that, as Lev Grossman says in a memorable retort to Krystal, “is bollocks, of the most bollocky kind. As soon as a novel becomes moving or important or great, critics try to surgically extract it from its genre, lest our carefully constructed hierarchies collapse in the presence of such a taxonomical anomaly.” As Grossman goes on to say, one reason for rejecting those constructed hierarchies is that they’re already being collapsed by authors such as Cormac McCarthy: “There’s a vast blurry middle ground in between genre fiction and literary fiction that’s notably absent from Krystal’s essay. Cormac McCarthy now writes about serial killers and post-apocalyptic worlds. Michael Chabon writes about alternate realities and hard-boiled detectives. Philip Roth writes alternate history. Kazuo Ishiguro writes about clones. Colson Whitehead writes about zombies. Kate Atkinson writes mysteries. Jennifer Egan writes science fiction, as does Haruki Murakami (and as did David Foster Wallace). And on and on.”

Although Grossman is quite right to point to the significant degree of overlap between literary and genre fiction, his description of the “vast blurry middle ground” is itself too vast and blurry to be very helpful. We can get a better sense of the precise coordinates of that middle ground, and where we might locate a writer like Cormac McCarthy on it, by referring to literary sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the ‘field of cultural production,’ which he defines as “the site of struggles in which what is at stake is the power to impose the dominant definition of the writer and therefore to delimit the population of those entitled to take part in the struggle to define the writer” (42). In order to understand how this field or site of struggle is structured, I can do no better than to refer to Stephanie Girard’s very useful summary:

the field of restricted production, associated with elite culture, represents the space in which cultural producers produce for one another; and the field of large-scale production, associated with mass culture, represents the space in which cultural producers produce for the public at large.

The field of cultural production is delimited by two subfields that function as opposing poles: the field of restricted production, associated with elite culture, represents the space in which cultural producers produce for one another; and the field of large-scale production, associated with mass culture, represents the space in which cultural producers produce for the public at large. In the field of restricted production, commercial success is suspect and critical recognition and consecration by other members of the subfield paramount; in the field of large-scale cultural production, commercial success, and lots of it, is essential and critical recognition unimportant and frequently negative (162).

Contemporary literary fiction, at least in theory, constitutes a field of restricted production in Bourdieu’s sense of the term. What guarantees canonization in this field is not popular success but what Girard describes as “critical recognition and consecration by other members of the subfield.” The importance of the distinction between literary and genre fiction, and the selective elevation of some examples of crime fiction to the level of literature, both become more clear with Bourdieu’s model in mind. And yet, if we consider the work of a writer like Cormac McCarthy, it also becomes clear that the field is considerably muddier than the neat polarities of restricted production and large-scale production might suggest. For McCarthy is both one of the most respected writers within the restricted productive field of literary fiction—winner of prestigious literary awards, widely praised as one of the best novelists writing today–and a tremendously popular and significant presence in the field of large-scale cultural production—a best-selling author, whose works are adapted to the screen with great success, and who is even featured in Oprah’s Book of the Month Club.

Ah yes, Oprah. One of the many reasons that Oprah’s notorious interview with Cormac McCarthy is so toe-curlingly awful (and yes, I have watched the whole thing; such is my dedication to my craft!) is not only McCarthy’s obvious displeasure and puzzlement at finding himself in this situation, combined with Oprah’s ham-fisted questions, but our more or less conscious sense that Bourdieu’s fields are collapsing into each other: what is this personificiation of the restricted sub-field doing in this epitome of the large-scale field? Never has “good fences make good neighbors” made more sense.

…I do not believe the appropriate response to elevating some crime novels to the status of literature is to argue that No Country For Old Men is an example of genre fiction.

And yet in closing I want to suggest that McCarthy being granted an audience with Oprah makes a perverse and symptomatic kind of sense, precisely because of the way that crime functions in so many of McCarthy’s texts. Let me be clear, I am not saying that McCarthy’s novels should be thought of as crime fiction in any straightforward sense; in other words, I do not believe the appropriate response to elevating some crime novels to the status of literature is to argue that No Country For Old Men is an example of genre fiction. Rather, I am saying that the persistent presence of crime in McCarthy’s work has something to do with his ability to work every corner of Bourdieu’s field of cultural production.

The key, I think, is what I would describe as McCarthy’s non-instrumental use of crime. When Edgar Allan Poe says after the opening section of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” that “The narrative which follows will appear to the reader somewhat in the light of a commentary upon the propositions just advanced,” he is announcing an instrumental use of murder; its use to elaborate the ideas that for Poe contain the real meat of the story. For McCarthy, crime is no less important, but it cannot be used instrumentally because of its abject excess. In No Country for Old Men, when Wendell and Sheriff Bell are surveying the site of the drug-related mass shooting, Wendell says “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” Bell replies “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.” For McCarthy, crime is the mess that his characters try unavailingly to extricate themselves from. In this sense, and perhaps in this sense only, McCarthy’s novels can be thought of as crime fictions.

Image of Professor David Schmid, Ph.D.

 

Professor David Schmid is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY).
His lecture series, The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction is now available to stream at The Great Courses Plus

 

 

 


Works Cited
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Edited and Introduced by Randal Johnson, NY: Columbia UP, 1993.
Girard, Stephanie. “‘Standing at the Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk’: Vintage Contemporaries, Bright Lights, Big City, and the Problems of Betweenness.”
American Literature 68.1 (March 1996): 161-85.
Grossman, Lev. “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology: How science fiction, fantasy, romance, mysteries and all the rest will take over the world.”
Time Magazine May 23, 2012.
 http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/23/genre-fiction-is-disruptive- technology/
Krystal, Arthur. “Easy Writers,” New Yorker, May 28, 2012: 81-84.
Malraux, André. Trans. Violet Horvath, “Preface to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.”
Southern Review, 10, 1974, 889-891.
Marche, Stephen. “Bad Sheriff: Murder, Lies And Southern Fried Catfish.” NPR,   September 26, 2012.
http://www.npr.org/2012/09/26/161756068/bad-sheriff-murder-lies-and-southern-fried-catfish.
McGurl, Mark. The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton UP, 2001.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.