There’s this beautiful book of essays by Flannery O’Connor called Mystery and Manners that I read just about once a year. It’s really the only book that I read like that, and lately it’s been on my mind more than ever. I always joke with people that when I wrote my first novel, Pike, I had no idea what kind of writer I was. I thought it was a literary novel, because I didn’t know what else you’d call it. It just happened to have guns and desperate characters because, well, I like guns and desperate characters.
But then some people told me it was a noir novel, and I got all excited about that. Because finally I knew what kind of writer I was. Noir! So I got obsessed with noir. I read a ton of it, formulated theories on it, tracked the history. Fell in love with it, and tried to do everything I could with the tropes I thought I was seeing. In fact, I sat down and deliberately tried to write a noir novel with my second, Cry Father.
And, of course, Cry Father was published as literary fiction. And, as far as I can tell, was pretty much unrecognizable as crime fiction to the mainstream crime community.
Which brought me to a realization that I probably should have come to from the get-go: Noir doesn’t really mean a whole lot here in America. I can have all the theories about noir that I want, but for most people it just means kinda darkish crime fiction. Which is fine, of course, but I’m not really a crime writer. There’s really no space for what I do there. I mean, I write about crime and always will, but if you look at any list of mainstream crime fiction what you’re gonna see is a whole bunch of cop/forensic/detective novels. I’ve got nothing against those, but they ain’t what I’m interested in. I don’t really belong at Michael Connolly’s table any more than I do Jonathon Franzen’s. (Not that either of ‘em would want me at their table. But you get where I’m going.)
And that brings me back to Flannery O’Connor. See, I’ve been reading Mystery and Manners again because I’ve been thinking hard about the tendency lately to subject every work of art to the ravages of social media in the interest of good liberal thought and the adequate placement of trigger warnings. (And none of what I’m thinking on that subject will ever be said publicly, so don’t ask.)
The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. When Hawthorne said that he wrote romances, he was attempting, in effect, to keep for fiction some of its freedom from social determinisms, and to steer it in the direction of poetry. I think this tradition of the dark and divisive romance-novel has combined with the comic-grotesque tradition, and with the lessons all writers have learned from the naturalists, to preserve our Southern literature for at least a little while from becoming the kind of thing Mr. Van Wyck Brooks desired when he said he hoped that our next literary phase would restore that central literature which combines the great subject matter of the middlebrow writers with the technical expertness bequeathed by the new critics and which would thereby restore literature as a mirror and guide for society.
For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.
We are not living in times when the realist of distances is understood or well thought of, even though he may be in the dominant tradition of American letters. Whenever the public is heard from, it is heard demanding a literature which is balanced and which will somehow heal the ravages of our times. In the name of social order, liberal thought, and sometimes even Christianity, the novelist is asked to be the handmaid of his age.
. . .
Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do so with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes. I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.
You may say that the serious writer doesn’t have to bother about the tired reader, but he does, because they are all tired. One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn’t be so bad, but you multiply her two hundred and fifty thousand times and what you get is a book club. I used to think it should be possible to write for some supposed elite, for the people who attend universities and sometimes know how to read, but I have since found that though you may publish your stories in Botteghe Oscure, they are any good at all, you are eventually going to get a letter from some old lady in California, or some inmate of the Federal Penitentiary or the state insane asylum or the local poorhouse, telling you where you have failed to meet his needs.
And his need, of course, is to be lifted up. There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.
I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.
There is no literary, orthodoxy that can be prescribed as settled for the fiction writer, not even that of Henry James, who balanced the elements of traditional realism and romance so admirably within each of his novels. But this much can be said. The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation. The direction of many of us will be more toward poetry than toward the traditional novel.
The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and I feel it is a vision which we in the South must at least try to understand if we want to participate in the continuance of a vital Southern literature. I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now. I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.
I guess where I’m going is that O’Connor kinda pointed out an interesting trap I’ve spent the last few years building for myself. I took up the idea of writing noir because I thought it would free me from the limitations of the literary novel, something like the way that Hawthorne took up the mantle of romance. But I’m not really capable of being a crime writer as it’s understood by nearly everybody. And if I keep trying, I’m always gonna be a frustrated crime writer who keeps getting shelved in the ghetto of literary fiction.
So what now?
Now I give up.
I’m taking a page from Hawthorne and O’Connor. I write romance novels. Specifically the “dark and divisive romance-novel.” Where they get shelved is of as much consequence to me as glacial drift.
And that feels like a great place to be.