“What’s In A Name” – On Defining the Field

Any time I talk about what I like to read with new acquaintances, I tend to just vaguely wave my arms around and say, “You know, genre fiction, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, crime, noir,” and hope that covers it. When pressed on “crime, noir,” especially since true crime and noir seem to be at the peak of a popular resurgence in popular awareness, I struggle because it’s hard to truly cover it all in a singular short way.

There’s a lot, when you think about it. There are stories about detectives and policemen, there are ones with private investigators. There’s stories where the protagonist is just some everyman, a local concerned parent, or maybe a reporter or writer (Stephen King books are rife with this, even in his non-supernatural work). The genre also encapsulates people on the other side of that imaginary line between “criminals” and “upright citizens,” sometimes even toying with that line itself. There’s the conmen, the forgers caught up in a conspiracy bigger than them, the noble working-class thieves. There’s the assassins with social conscious, and the spies with hearts of gold. They’re, mostly, seen as real, as relatable, as realistic fantasies for us to indulge in as readers and writers.

Not only is all of that is hard to boil down to just one name, but we’re also often forced to in discussions about literature, especially for genre fiction. In his introduction to 1996’s Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories from Oxford Press (which he also helped edit), Donald Westlake wrote;

“The major flaw with the genre under consideration is that no one knows quite what to call it.”

Westlake, best known for a prolific and varied career in writing about mysteries, capers, hustles, and ne’er-do-wells, parses in this introduction between the usages of “mystery story,” “crime story,” “suspense,” and “detective story.” He ultimately states that he uses the phrase “detective story” to describe what he wrote and what he felt his work (and the type of work similar to his) because it is, as he says, a “term of disparagement.”

I think a lot about this. I think a lot about how writing like detective fiction, crime fiction, and mystery stories are excellent examples of workmanship in literature, how it’s a field that is still maligned and laughed at, or thought of as just a novelty or fad. Even nowadays as the genre is in the middle of a revival, part of me wonders if it’s just another wave of ironic appreciation that will be shrugged off and swept aside as soon as the next thing comes along and the glut that’s sprung up is left hanging, again shoved to the back of the bookstore.

It’s a pretty valid way to look at it, honestly, and a good definition. Why shouldn’t it? Disparaging genre has been a staple of literature and literary discussions since we began to divide books fiction into different fields, and then began judging one field as being worth consideration over the other. It’s why “genre fiction” is for nerds and we think about it as being lesser than vaunted “literary fiction,” the stuff of New York Times best-seller lists and book clubs. Westlake (and to an extent going further back to writers like Chandler and his excellent essay “The Simple Art of Murder”), in his personal question to try and find a way to name the work he did and enjoyed, decided to basically say “fuck it” and accept being seen as “lesser” by literary communities because in the end, he was the one getting the last laugh as arguably one of the truer representations of favored popular literature, the the literature that always gets bought at the bookstore and that’s always available at the library.

Sometimes it’s good to be too sketchy to be invited into the clubhouse.

Since its beginnings, the modern idea we have of mystery stories and detective fiction is anything that involves crimes and mysteries solved by investigators or law enforcement, plans and thefts enacted by thieves and criminals, as well as these things being observed or solved by random observers drawn in, in a more noir-ish take.

It’s a post-WW1 idea, one that’s so incredibly different from the Agatha Christie/Edgar Allan Poe/Arthur Conan Doyle models. With the rise of cheap paper and increases in literacy, “pulp” fiction started to lean less on mysteries locked-room murders at country estate weekends and more on how the growing and still-nebulous/still-being-born American middle class sometimes is forced to take things into their own hands in new ways. It’s not vigilante justice, but yeah, sometimes we supplement our income with running numbers or working on stolen cars. We don’t exercise vengeance by becoming a caped superhero, but we get back at the forces of capitalism and corrupt law enforcement by dropping out of the police department and becoming a private eye, perpetually in the shadows between socioeconomic classes as a go-between.

Part of that transformation as new and more realistic aspects of society became the focus of the stories took detective fiction away from characters and settings that were, for lack of a better term, respectable. Money buys respect, after all, or at least that’s what Gatsby thought. Granted that didn’t turn out how he planned, but he made his point on how money doesn’t buy class (but that’s another story).

The point to get out of this is that in acknowledging that the genre struggles for a name, we get something positive out of it. The difficulty in nailing down a name to adequately cover everything is because the genre is actually covering a wide and ever-changing aspect of modern (and in particular, arguably, American) society; the middle class.

The rise of post-WW2 prosperity that wasn’t being mega-rich and the growth and evolution of lawbreakers in that same era helped to created this atmosphere of fluidity and confusion. Anybody could be middle class, and arguably anybody can also become middle class through almost any means. It was, at its inception as an ideal, an encompassing of the American Dream in crystal. It doesn’t matter where you came from, you can be better and do better here.

And if you “do better” by selling fake IDs or boosting cars or working thankless hours on patrol or spying on cheating husbands? Even better.

So, what should we call it? After all, genre fiction finds its identity and its name through the types of characters and settings that it relies on. Horror is all about scary stuff, romance is all about romantic situations (almost always heteronormative, but that’s another story), science-fiction and fantasy use the weird and wild and bizarre, and so on, and so on.

Mystery stories? Crime fiction? Noir? It can happen anywhere though. It can involve almost anyone, which is both what makes it so groundbreaking but also so intensely relatable. It’s fluid, but also that fluidity can sometimes be confusing.

Honestly, though? Who cares? They’re never going to take it seriously, not really. It’ll always be just detective fiction or always a cozy mystery, unless of course the work “rises above” the genre, a term that’s so insulting that it’s best left alone. So despite the recent rise in popularity of “crime fiction” or “detective fiction,” there’s always going to be a degree of notoriety to it, especially since it struggles with a name.

The point though is that in wanting to have its own name though, it’s making a stand for itself. So much writing and so many writers want to be “literary fiction,” and so many works that are published ultimately aren’t about anything, it’s nice to see America sometimes reflected back at you not in a family fighting over inheritance at a wedding on Long Island, where everyone has meaningless conversations about the important work they do.

Instead, it’s reflected back at you in honest men who bumbled through honest jobs and then bumbled slightly less with dishonest jobs, so why not see the spirit of America and the middle class in them saying screw it, let’s just do the dishonest work instead. It’s more fun for them, and it’s more fun for us.

What should we call it? Westlake called it detective fiction. I like that, but usually I just think of it as honest.

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