Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon

Jonathan Santlofer, Les Standiford, and James W. Hall dissolve the barriers between crime fiction and the literary canon. Photo by Nick Doll.
Jonathan Santlofer, Les Standiford, and James W. Hall dissolve the barriers between crime fiction and the literary canon. Photo by Nick Doll.

On Saturday afternoon, James W. Hall, Les Standiford, and Jonathan Santlofer had a conversation entitled “Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon: Why everyone has forgotten that Crime & Punishment, An American Tragedy, and Lolita are crime fiction.” The three novelists, all professors of creative writing as well, sought to challenge the lines that have been drawn by readers, writers, and publishers between genre fiction, specifically crime fiction, and the literary novel.

“Crime fiction gets consigned to the low road,” Standiford said early in the conversation, while Hall wondered if his work wouldn’t be taken seriously in a university just because it featured a corpse. Santlofer also shared several stories of readers and fellow authors regarding crime fiction as their “guilty pleasures.”

In addition to the novels mentioned in the title of the talk, Standiford pointed out that The Great Gatsby is really a detective story, with the central mystery being the true identity and personality of Gatsby himself. Hall took this further by challenging the audience to find a canonical novel without a crime in it. In any story, Hall said, “something must be knocked out of balance,” whether by crime of passion or some other  transgression.

The discussion then moved to the writer’s perspective. “Plot is the math, the logic,” Standiford said. “It’s the most difficult to master.” Santlofer added that, for an author, writing crime or mystery requires a strong collaboration between left and right brain, with creativity and logic working closely together to create stories that are both detailed and also airtight. All three agreed that genre writers don’t think any less of their sentences, but, Standiford added, it’s really the plot that holds those beautiful sentences in suspension, like a Christmas tree holding up its ornaments. “You could go over to someone’s house,” he said, “and if they had a pile of lights and ornaments sitting the corner, you’d say ‘What the hell is that?'” In some circles, he pointed out, plot might be relegated to a lower life form, but for him and his fellow panelists, it was of the utmost importance.

During the Q & A, one audience member wondered why the panel had not mentioned Arthur Conan Doyle as an influential figure. Hall responded by saying that he thought that Poe was perhaps more influential in the genres of mystery and crime, as well as horror and poetry. In the traditional British mystery, Hall said, a murder was committed and there was a lot of concern about dealing with “the embarrassment on the rug,” and then getting to the bottom of things. In Poe’s stories, Hall said, while there might still be a bloody mess on the rug, there was a more genuine sense of horror.

Another audience member then asked the three authors if they’d seen an increasing interest in genre writing from their students. All three said that they had, and not just in the case of crime or mystery, but in other genres such as science fiction as well. People were less embarrassed, it seemed, less guilty of their pleasures.

Ultimately, what it came down to, the three said, was that crime or mystery stories are all about crafting something interesting, something that makes the reader want to turn the page. “The only place people read books they’re not interested in is college,” Standiford said. For the larger audience, there is a responsibility of creating something “that holds us” as Santlofer said, while at the same time trying to create stories that are, as Standiford put it, “humanly important and not formulaic.” There shouldn’t be such a distinction, the three panelists agreed, unless it was simply a distinction based on the quality of the writing itself.

Nick Vagnoni teaches writing at Florida International University in Miami. He was born and raised in Key West.

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