Literature vs. Fiction

I’ve been having an interesting time lately, reading for my graduate degree. We were told to choose three novels and a short story to read for this semester, and we’d analyze them and write critiques. The list I was given to choose from was quite extensive, and I was happy to find several books on there that I’d wanted to read for a while (or ones I wanted to take a closer look at) and so I picked them with ease.

I’ve just finished reading the first of the lot…and though it’s said to be a classic of literature, and the starting block of all novels like it, I’m not overwhelmed. I won’t call this a review, because I’m not really going in-depth on the book at large, but I wanted to reflect on the difference between what I consider “literature” and the broader view of “fiction” or “novels” below the cut.

But let’s first take a little peek at The Maltese Falcon.

A classic of the “hard-boiled detective” genre, Dashiell Hammett’s story is well known even if you don’t know the genre. My father, as a movie buff and book aficionado, once owned the novel and I believe owns the movie. (A check of our movie shelves says that I was right – and Dad likes it well enough to have gotten a DVD to replace his VHS. That says something.) I remember seeing pieces of the movie, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the entire thing.

When I chose this book, one of my fellow writers – my friend Amanda – warned me against it. She is a lover of crime novels and studied (if I have my memories in alignment) detective fiction in her undergrad career. She had been decidedly unimpressed with Hammett’s writing, and hated the book. I assured her that I still wanted to read it – and she told me that we could chat after I had done such, if I wanted.

Here’s answering your question, Amanda!

I find myself in a very similar position about Falcon as I did when I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, though (and anyone that knows me will be astounded to hear me say this) I can honestly say that I liked Gatsby better. Fitzgerald is simply a better author than Hammett; Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway (shameful that I still have to look up Nick’s surname) are described as entirely believable characters. When I see the words describing them, I can imagine them. The scenes are written beautifully; some of my favorite lines in the novel are Fitzgerald describing a room. Hammett’s writing simply doesn’t do that. I find myself confused by the description of Sam Spade (how on earth do you make your mouth a v?) and other characters simply make me uncomfortable. Perhaps that is in fact good writing – but to my eye, it comes across as repetitious and uneasy.

Since these books are both considered classic novels of their eras, I have to wonder if perhaps I simply have a problem with literature as a whole – which is, of course, what spurred this post.

My family is made up of three voracious readers. We all own e-readers; at one point, we represented the entire line of Nooks available. There are two bookshelves in the living room filled with my parents’ novels, and one in mine – and mine ran out of space ages ago and now I just have stacks around my room. We’ve pared down – my parents as they moved around decided to cut back and not keep any book that they didn’t think they’d re-read a lot that couldn’t be found in the local library. Some books were considered special – we have most of the Nero Wolfe series, and if they ever try to get rid of them, I’m stealing them myself. Much of my mother’s Stephen King collection stayed. I winnow through books I don’t think I’ll read again to make room for the stacks on the floor – on the chair – on my desk, and I buy new ones all the time.

But most of our books are genre fiction. My father has a great love of science fiction that he (at least in part) passed on to me. I was reading Spider Robinson’s Callahan series and Roger Zelazny’s Amber books when I was in junior high. Mom introduced me to Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who series in high school, and I read as many as I could lay hands on, and I have a few King novels of my own. I read Lord of the Rings and Dragonriders of Pern and the Dragonlance Chronicles and Hitchhiker‘s Guide to the Galaxy Harry Potter and so many others that I could go on forever. But they all have that one thing in common. They’re all genre fiction. (At least to my understanding of genre fiction.)

What is it about literature that stops me up? I know I can’t hate all of it – one of my all-time favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird and I loved books like Catcher in the Rye and Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 when I read them in school. (Okay, I didn’t read 1984 in school, but I could have.) I even enjoy Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, so it can’t just be the language. So what is it? Where am I going wrong?

I admit, it’s possible that it’s not a “going wrong” issue and more a “you’re reading the wrong kinds of books, Ri” issue. I wouldn’t even be surprised. I like detective stories – maybe just not Dashiell Hammett. I love Rex Stout with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – I love Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. And while Sam Spade and Miles Archer have awesome names – and a wonderful story, don’t get me wrong – it’s just not doing it for me. (Though the clear spoof of Falcon in the Firesign Theatre’s “Nick Danger, Third Eye” is one of my all time favorites.)

Feel free to leave your opinion – and if you have suggestions for reading material, let me know! I’m always up to try another book. For now, I think I’m going to make myself a cup of tea, and try to fend off this cold I seem to have with a warm drink and a book about zombies.


3 thoughts on “Literature vs. Fiction

  1. I’d like to suggest The Magician’s Tale by David Hunt. What made this different for me was the fact that the main character suffers from a rare condition that leaves you completely color-blind. While it impairs her in simple things like clothing choices, it helps in uncovering details to the murder of her best friend. I’ll have to pick it up again just to see if I feel the same about the ending, though.

  2. There is always the need to place writing within its context. Hammett wrote “The Maltese Falcon” to be serialized in the pulp magazine “The Black Mask”. While classic content arises from the pulps they are not being written for the best educated audience of the time. They are also being written on a paid-by-the-word basis. This tends to result in a style where four words are used when two are needed and descriptive passages can be over the top.

    Sam Spade (whose story is first published at the beginning of 1930) is a brand new beast. All of the hard boiled detectives that will follow grow from here and other Hammett characters like the Continental Op. Hammett certainly didn’t think he was writing literature, he thought he was telling an exciting story (and he was right). In the same way Charles Dickens hardly thought he was writing literature and the likewise for Shakespeare. They wrote stories for the common man and succeeded marvelously. You mention Conan Doyle. He did not think being remembered for Holmes was a destiny worth having. Yet today we remember Holmes and have no memory of Conan Doyle’s more “serious” writing.

    The way language was used in the ’20s and ’30s is very different from today. So much of that writing clangs on the ear just as much as any of the work of say James Fenimore Cooper or Herman Melville.

    I have always believed that setting out to write “literature” has resulted in more wasted words than anything short of politics. A great story in the hands of a skilled author will become literature without the slightest effort required in that direction. As a reader find great stories and literature will find you. Whether or not you like them (for me Saul Bellow’s novel “Humboldt’s Gift” is the touchstone. 1976 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature. The most tedious, uninspired story I’ve read in a decade in my opinion) is entirely optional. Study them, learn from them, tease out the aspects that have given them long life and then move on.

    My recommendation to one and all is Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg Ohio”.

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