In a New York Times review of Dan Chaon’s estimable Await Your Reply, Janet Maslin, who should know a hell of a lot better, wrote: “[the book] bridges the gap between Literary and pulp fiction.” (The cap “L” is mine.)
Talk about snobbery. The ill-chosen word “gap” suggests that we exist in a sort of bifurcated world, where the lovers and creators of Literary fiction lead heightened lives, subsisting on the fragrance of oranges, sunlight, and a wry acceptance of the human condition, while the rest of us grub around on our elbows in the muck, grunting at each other and trying to keep the drool off our copy of the new mass-market paperback by Stuart Woods.
By pulp fiction, Maslin means what she undoubtedly thinks of as genre fiction: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance — you know, the stuff people read. And I’ll admit that some of it is awful, but I’ll also say that some of it is every bit as good as Literary fiction. And even when genre fiction is bad, it’s not as bad — nothing is as bad — as bad Literary fiction.
I believe that one of the things that agonizes many Literary critics (and editors) about genre fiction — okay, about mysteries and thrillers — is the prevalence of happy endings. No book can be taken seriously by the critical establishment unless it ends on a gray, cold beach, shrouded by fog, with a gull screeching unseen as a child’s brightly colored shoe washes ashore. I mean, that’s life. Life as it really is. With a bad ending. Bleak is the new black.
In today’s criticism, a bad ending, by which I mean an ending in which the characters are considerably worse off than they were in the beginning, is almost a requirement for fiction to receive serious artistic consideration. Happy endings are a convention. They’re vulgar. They’re not real.
It will not come as news to the writer or fan of mysteries and thrillers that everyone dies sooner or later. Most of us understood that before we began to shave wherever it is that we shave. We actually do realize that all happy endings are temporary. And so what? One of the essential creative acts in writing a book is putting a frame around the story: it begins here, it ends there, it goes no higher than this and no lower than that. Painters and
photographers face the same challenge. For a work of art to be about anything, there have to be things it is not about. That’s the function of the frame — to exclude the irrelevant.
And (this is a secret not to be shared with critics) we all experience happy endings all the time. The biopsy comes back benign. We marry the one we love. We have kids. We get home from the dry cleaner without being hit by a dump truck. The sun goes down at the end of the day and everyone we love is still alive. Those are perfectly good places to say the arc of a story is complete. Why would it be better or more honest to wait until the sofa on which we gather at day’s end is empty, perhaps with the family dog, in the midst of starving to death, looking mournfully up at it?
Mysteries and thrillers are fundamentally optimistic. Whether they have happy endings or not, they’re about the restoration of order. They take a situation (or a person) that’s broken, and the main course of the action is about fixing the break. The truth comes out. The innocent are vindicated. The guilty eat it, one way or another. Life can move on again.
Sorry, but that’s not a definition of pulp, not unless it’s very badly done. That’s a consciously constructed approach to a novel, with the frame the writer chose to impose on the material.
Look, do we criticize a wedding portrait, the commemorative shot of two people at a high point in their lives, because the photographer didn’t back the camera up so he could squeeze in the church cemetery, where the blushing bride will eventually be buried? Or mount his lens on a satellite so he could put the nuptial celebration into the larger perspective of global ethnic cleansing?
All I ask of an ending is that, whatever it is — happy, mildly happy, bemused, unsettling, tragic — it has to arise naturally from the story and the characters. It has to be consistent with the world the novel presents. If it isn’t, if it’s a phony, tacked-on, cobbled-together resolution plucked out of nowhere, then it doesn’t matter whether it ends a 180-page private-eye novel or the latest 468-page sofa from a Literary Novelist. It’s pulp. Even if it’s sad.
Because pulp is about quality, Ms. Maslin, not about genre. And you should be ashamed of yourself.
The type says it all: going downhill.