The errors of popular criticism, part 3: Genre literature

We’ve talked about the aesthetics underlying popular criticism of popular culture and the shadowy adversaries on whose existence this aesthetics hinges. Now the question is: what does an effective piece of genre fiction look like? What is a way to evaluate genre literature that does justice to its status both as popular fiction and as literature?

I should say, first of all, that I’m using the term “genre” loosely. This follows the ordinary usage in these debates: writers like Doyle and Poe are genre when it’s convenient and mainstream when it’s not. Sometimes mysteries and thrillers are genre, sometimes not. Sometimes the term specifically refers to SFF and perhaps horror, and sometimes it refers to anything outside the academy that’s not marketed as mainstream highbrow fiction. That’s part of the reason why these debates are futile: what actually is genre depends on what kind of mood you’re in.

My preference is for categories that are as broad and loose as they can be without being meaningless. This is perhaps because of my own experience in academia where some generic categories are utterly artificial extrapolations from one or two compositions (c.f. “sturm und drang” in music). I also believe that, while marketing categories do have some effect on what’s written, genres ultimately should be about content or lines of tradition and influence, not about in which corner of the bookstore a novel can be found.

The story I’ve chosen is “The Trial for Murder” by Charles Allston Collins (brother of the more famous Wilkie Collins) and Charles Dickens, and it is collected in Phyllis Cerf Wagner’s excellent anthology Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Go read it now; it’s not long. I’ve chosen it for no better reason than that I happened to read and enjoy it a few days before I started this essay.

The story is narrated by an unnamed man who is called to jury duty in a murder case. Before and during the trial he has strange visions of the victim and the accused murderer, and at the end it is revealed that the murderer had similar visions of the vengeful juror. Summarized in this way, it’s not a very interesting story, just as Shirley Jackson’s “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts” is not very interesting in summary. The effect of both stories lies in the way they unfold in time. In both cases the ending sets the preceding events in a radically different context, suggesting much while saying little.

In other words, the effect of the story is not simply in the events it narrates. What makes “The Trial for Murder” interesting is the way it is told.

The story’s opening gambit is quiet: our jury foreman remarks on people’s reluctance to discuss strange visions they have, as opposed to strange and unbelievable experiences. Already we know a fair bit about the story and the narrator. The story deals with the supernatural (which would not necessarily be obvious from the original context of a general-interest fiction magazine). The story concerns ghostly visions, and the question of whether they’re real or not will always be close at hand.

The narrator is a calm, observant, and reflective person. We learn later that he is a banker, and this seems appropriate: he is a strong, intelligent, but uncomplicated character. Yet one gets the sense that he is only comfortable telling the tale because some time has passed. He protests too much.

The narrator mentions some real-world cases of ghostly visions (allusions that would have been well-known to contemporary readers) and connects them with an experience had by an acquaintance of his: “I know the history of the Bookseller of Berlin, I have studied the case of the wife of a late Astronomer Royal as related by Sir David Brewster, and I have followed the minutest details of a much more remarkable case of Spectral Illusion occurring within my private circle of friends. It may be necessary to state as to this last, that the sufferer (a lady) was in no degree, however distant, related to me.”

This passage ties him in to our world, or rather the world of contemporary readers of the story: we are to understand that the narrator’s world is not fantastical. If supernatural things do happen, they happen privately, are discussed only after much hesitation, and leave little tangible evidence.

The foreman resolves not to provide us with any information about the case he has been summoned to serve on. This saves the author a bit of trouble, but it also helps the precision of the story. “It is to [the ghost story], and not to a page of the Newgate Calendar, that I beg attention.” The details of the murder case are irrelevant to what the foreman has to say. It doesn’t matter who killed whom, only that someone killed someone.

Throughout his narration the foreman works hard to establish a timeline impartially, in a manner appropriate to a juror. He states certain telling facts while explicitly refusing to interpret them, and even points out any gaps in his recollection. Some examples:

“As no reference was at that time made to [the murderer] in the newspapers, it is obviously impossible that any description of him can at that time have been given in the newspapers. It is essential that this fact be remembered.”

“I think that, until I was conducted by officers into the Old Court and saw its crowded state, I did not know that the Murderer was to be tried that day. I think that, until I was so helped into the Old Court with considerable difficulty, I did not know into which of the two Courts sitting my summons would take me. But this must not be received as a positive assertion, for I am not completely satisfied in my mind on either point.”

“The third change now to be added impressed me strongly as the most marked and striking of all. I do not theorise upon it; I accurately state it, and there leave it. Although the Appearance was not itself perceived by those whom it addressed, its coming close to such persons was invariably attended by some trepidation or disturbance on their part.”

The narrator is calm and precise even in relating events that must have been rather eerie in person: “[The ghost] stood for a few moments by the bedside of each of my eleven brother jurymen, close to the pillow. It always went to the right-hand side of the bed and always passed out crossing the foot of the next bed.” Nevertheless he finds it necessary to certify his own sanity: “I am assured by my renowned doctor that my real state of health at that time justifies no stronger description, and I quote from his own written answer to my request for it.”

Interestingly, although the foreman is careful with his details, his narrative is susceptible to cross-examination. He admits that certain points of chronology are not quite clear in his mind. Everything he knows from being shown by the ghost, he also learns at some point through more conventional means (and quite a lot of time has evidently passed). One detail—the type of fatal injury sustained by the murder victim—is not manifested by the ghost until after he learns it from the trial proceedings. And, as I’ve mentioned, his repeated assurances that he is credible and not insane could be read as having an overtone of desperate pleading.

The ghost leads the foreman to sway the outcome of the trial in the direction of the murderer’s guilt. But what if there truly is no ghost?

The ending is especially effective. The final line recounts the murderer’s final statement to the judge at the end of the trial: “My Lord, I knew I was a doomed man when the Foreman of my Jury came into the box. My Lord, I knew he would never let me off, because, before I was taken, he somehow got to my bedside in the night, woke me, and put a rope round my neck.”

The ending seems to indicate that just as the foreman saw a ghostly vision of the still-living murderer, the murderer saw a ghostly vision of the foreman. This suggests much in very few words.

The bottom line is that this is an effective short story. It’s not great literature by any means—it didn’t change my life, but it certainly changed my Friday night, and what more can you ask for?

Now the question is: what makes it an effective short story?

I think the most important point in its favour is that there is a mutual agreement between the tale and the manner of telling. The language in which the story is told is worthy of remark for its own sake. The series of events is not the story; you cannot divorce it from the way it is told.

There is nothing apparently arbitrary or contrived about the aesthetic choices made in the text, from the characterization of the narrator to his diction to the choice of first-person versus third person narrative to the decisions about which details to include and which to omit. If you rewrote this tale in a third-person point of view, or put a shorter in-text time distance between the events and their narration, you would have a different (and much less effective) story.

Everything comes together to form a coherent picture. And that picture is interesting: it suggests, just out of sight, an elaborate system of supernatural justice that everyone experiences but no one is quite comfortable talking about. Or, perhaps, the narrator is unreliable and the ghost is nothing more than his own fancy. The story is rich and ambiguous enough to fruitfully support multiple readings, and this ambiguity is not a matter of indecision but a deliberate aesthetic choice (a common one in ghost stories, as the entire second half of Wagner’s anthology attests).

In short, “The Trial for Murder” is exactly the sort of thing we should be talking about when we talk about “ripping good yarns” or stories that are unpretentious, workmanlike, and effective. Certainly it is better than the stories that flank it: a tedious bit of misery by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu that puts the “piss” back into “epistolary.” “The Trial for Murder” does what it sets out to do efficiently and with a keen sense of the craft of literature—it is, after all, co-written by one of the great English novelists. It is modest but not tin-eared.

This is in stark contrast to the sort of stuff we sometimes see praised for the same attributes (“ripping good yarns”, unpretentious, workmanlike). I don’t mean to pick on Jim Butcher, but he is the Sad Puppies author I am most familiar with and one of the few with a legitimate claim to being popular and well-liked. And yet he is guilty of a lot of writing sins. Harry Dresden is a composite of traits from preexisting characters. The plots are explicitly formulaic: he even tells you where he got the formula. Dresden makes frequent diction slips, and his word choice often has more to do with the author’s word of the day calendar than with characterization or exposition: in one book the word of the day is “basso”; in another, “hunkered”.

The most interesting fact about Dresden as a character is the gulf between how he appears to the reader and how he appears to the other characters. The first-person narration reveals Dresden to be, in Nick Mamatas’s words, “the type people who don’t wash their balls after they ejaculate on themselves think is cool.” However, at points there is evidence that the other characters see him as a more enigmatic and ominous figure—the implication being that Dresden blunders his way into being the sort of wizard that everyone wants to see anyway. But not much is done with this feature; evidently the author is not aware that it’s interesting.

There is definitely nothing interesting about Dresden’s voice, except perhaps how haphazardly it’s established. Collins’s and Dickens’s foreman speaks like the sort of person who serves on a jury in a murder case and then tries to recount his experience in painstaking detail years later: “On the second morning of the trial, after evidence had been taken for two hours (I heard the clocks strike), happening to cast my eyes over my brother jurymen, I found an inexplicable difficulty in counting them.”

Dresden doesn’t usually sound like any sort of person: “I was really, really tempted to slam the door and leave him lying there in a heap. He sure as hell deserved it. I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing, though.” His voice occasionally becomes interesting (though still artless and second-hand) at key points: “My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. When things get strange, when what goes bump in the night flicks on the lights, when no one else can help you, give me a call. I’m in the book.”

Now and again he lapses into what would be mawkish waves of rhetoric but for the rhythm, which is John Skelton-esque doggerel: “Murphy was my friend. She’d saved my life before. We’d fought side by side. She needed help again. She had to face her fear. I understood that. She needed me to make it happen, but I didn’t have to like it.”

He wavers within the same book between first-person narration as in the moment and first-person narration as detached and distant tale-telling. For example, Summer Knight has both these passages:

I felt the earth beneath me shift and sag, and then a slow “bloop bloop” of earth settling as water began rising up beneath me. It took maybe five seconds for the ground to become so soft that my feet sank up to my ankles. Hell’s Bells.

and:

“Murphy!” I screamed, “Get clear!”

The plant monster—No, wait. I couldn’t possibly refer to that thing as a “plant monster.” I’d be a laughingstock. It’s hard to give a monster a cool name on the spur of the moment, but I used a name I’d heard Bob throw out before.

The chlorofiend lifted me up and shook me like a set of maracas.

The first passage contains a lot of sensory data, and Dresden uses his catchphrase to express surprise at a turn of events—which gives it the character of a stream of consciousness at the time of the event (certainly he wouldn’t be surprised by sinking in the mud a week after the fact). The second passage, of course, could not possibly be thought or spoken internally during the events it narrates.

A novel series is not quite the same kind of thing as a short story. But by any of the metrics that made “The Trial for Murder” interesting, Harry Dresden fails. There is no particular agreement between the tale and the manner of telling—there’s not even much consistency in the manner of telling from chapter to chapter and book to book. This inconsistency doesn’t create any kind of meaningful tension: it’s just the indecision of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. Many details and bits of characterization are arbitrary. A character in one book wears a Buffy the Vampire Slayer shirt. Why? Because Butcher likes Buffy and so do you. Buy his books!

The language is often careless and has distracting quirks that do not enhance the main thrust of the story. The story does not arise from the language. Rather it is medium-agnostic: it’s not hard to imagine a Dresden Files novel as a film, and in many ways they would work more naturally as films. On the other hand, it would take some cinematic wizardry to effectively convey the different narrative layers of “The Trial for Murder.” The stories do not have much in the way of ambiguity and narrative richness; in fact they punish rather than reward rereading, as Butcher’s linguistic issues become more evident and annoying on a second or third pass through the books. Though they are not quite didactic, they often work hard to convince us that, for example, killing is bad.

Butcher does have a knack, and that is the knack of churning out readable, exciting page-turners on a regular basis. They’re made to order: no one of his books stands out as much longer or significantly different than the others, and I imagine Butcher is probably good with deadlines. They stand out from the crowd enough to be interesting, but not so much that they alienate a lot of potential readers. There are a lot of them and they look nice together on a shelf. He creates good product. It’s just not good literature.

If we provisionally accept that the SFF community should valourize competent hackwork over highfalutin’ literary mumbo-jumbo, there still is not grounds to honour stuff like this. “The Trial for Murder” is competent. The Dresden Files novels are not. And Jim Butcher is one of the better authors of this tradition.

Does this mean that there’s something wrong with reading and enjoying Butcher’s novels? Of course not. Where do you think I got all those quotes from?

From the perspective of the critic or serious reader, there’s not much to do differently. Critics are not primarily concerned with making value judgments. In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye specficially cautions against making value judgments:

Comparative estimates of value are really inferences, most valid when silent ones, from critical practice, not expressed principles guiding its practice. The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet to work with than Blackmore. But the more obvious this becomes, the less time he will want to waste in belaboring the point. For belaboring the point is all he can do: any criticism motivated by a desire to establish or prove it will be merely one more document in the history of taste. There is doubtless much in the culture of the past which will always be of comparatively slight value to the present. But the difference between redeemable and irredeemable art, being based on the total experience of criticism, can never be theoretically formulated.

From the writer’s perspective, of course, it’s important to be able to tell good from bad. This is true even for people who are interested in writing the kind of stuff Butcher writes. Would Butcher be any less popular if every sentence containing the word “basso” were deleted? I doubt it. Wrong notes are forgivable, but a performance without wrong notes is strictly preferable to one with them, all else being equal.

From the casual reader’s perspective, none of this should be taken as an attempt to stop people from doing things they enjoy; God knows life is miserable enough without artificially avoiding gratification. I do think that many people who primarily read authors like Jim Butcher would enjoy reading more widely, even if it’s just within genre. Hell, the Wagner collection is all genre, contains everyone from H. P. Lovecraft to Henry James to what’s-his-name, and is both readily available and accessible to Butcher fans.

We don’t need to give up our brainless reading, but we should admit when all we’re tuning out our thoughts to read something fun. I like to eat Super Nibs, but I don’t pretend that this makes me a gourmet.

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