For art’s sake

The last few weeks has seen some spirited debate and great commentary about the question of where seriousness and expectation fit into the world of crime fiction. But it was Olen Steinhauer’s post after a protracted absence from his blog (explained in exhausting detail here) that really spurred me to jump back in.

He starts by recounting his early days as a writer, attempting a Great Novel like so many do and not getting anywhere. Then the epiphany hit: write something that can be enjoyed by many, and a story that moves. And it worked. But as he gets deeper in the final installment of his series, the bigger questions nag at him again:

Now, I’ve completed 4 books in my crime series, and am fully

involved in the composition of the fifth and last book, the culmination

of these years of work. So I look back and ask myself if the ambition,

as Hall describes it, is still there.

It is. It’s been

altered–beaten and misshapen and twisted–but it still exists. I still

believe that there’s no reason to enter into the

business of writing unless your purpose is far beyond making a living

at it or simple straightforward entertainment. The purpose is to better

not only your peers, but the dead writers on whom the entire edifice of

literature is built. It’s one of those unattainable goals–unattainable

in that you’ll never know if you’ve done it–that keeps a person

working until his last breath.

The crime/thriller world is separated in the public mind from the

literary world, so that our books are not even judged on the same

merits as self-evident literary works. We have our own reviewers whose

primary concern is “Does this book satisfy the need for thrills?” Not,

“Is this good literature?” As if the two are mutually exclusive.

There are exceptions, of course, but the exceptions prove the rule.


is in a ghetto (to use that popular phrase) of a sort. Again, there are

exceptions, but the blame lies everywhere: it’s partly the fault of

reviewers, unable to see beyond a lurid cover, partly the fault of

crime publishers, whose marketing machines are aimed solely at that

ghetto, and partly the fault of writers, who don’t spend enough time in

this book-a-year industry rising above the expectations of the audience.


seems like a good place to pause until the next entry. But to forestall

any possible comments on this issue, I should make clear that I’m not

putting my own work upon any pedestal. I, too, am part of the world,

and I, too, am writing below the Greatness radar. My point is, I don’t

want to do it anymore. I want to get back to the big aims, get back to

aiming my gun at Shakespeare.

Of course, having linked to a huge chunk of text above, all I seem to want to say in response is this: there can’t be a “one size fits all” approach to writing and the business because that would involve stripping away any measure of individuality. If every person is different, why should his or her work be measured on an equal level to another? Some people are smarter than others. Some people have greater ambitions than others. Some folks will be lucky enough to sell millions, others will be just as lucky to have their work be lauded forever and a day.

And most of us can hope for something vaguely in between.

The more I think about the art/commercial debate with regards to crime fiction, the more I wonder if the only thing that transcends the genre is talent.

UPDATE: Of course, some people prefer to laugh in the face of such debate. Can’t really argue with that…