Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mystery Awards Celebrate Mediocrity, Do Genre Great Disservice

The Agatha Awards nominations for contemporary mystery fiction have just been announced, and looking over the list, I am overcome with a wave of emotion: sheer apathy. I just don’t care about any of these nominations. I read plenty of new books in 2012, and I enjoyed myself for the most part. But come awards season, it seems to be a celebration of the bestseller lists and of the over-appreciated art of mediocrity.

After I finish writing this piece I’ll go to a corner, sulk, and cry myself to sleep, all while pondering on my various psychological issues, caused by my mother not hugging me enough when I was a child. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with. I should be excited! It’s award season! We’re celebrating the cream of the crop— the very best that the mystery field had to offer in 2012! I should turn that frown upside down, grab a martini (shaken, not stirred) and talk about how brilliant all these novels were.

Well, no. I refuse. I’m reminded of a scene in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Our heroes were subjected to the third-worst poetry in the universe, and are asked by the poet, a heartless Vogon, what they thought of it. And they babble on about how the rhythmic devices counterpointed the surrealism of the metaphors and nonsense like that. I’ve taken English classes before, and I have written essays praising some unreadable crap as masterful literature. You can do that with anything. There’s just no honesty in it.

We are in desperate need of more honesty when it comes to reviewing books and handing out awards. It seems that we are content to listen to praise for every novel written by authors like Louise Penny, Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, etc. This is nonsense: no author ever has had a perfect track record. Shakespeare? Please – many of his plays were derivative sequels written to cash in on a quick buck; I suspect that anyone who calls him perfect has never read The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dickens? He could write silly plots with ten times more words than he had to. They could still be readable, that didn’t mean they were all good. Agatha Christie wrote Postern of Fate. John Dickson Carr wrote The Hungry Goblin. Christianna Brand wrote Suddenly at His Residence. Even the reliable William DeAndrea wrote a generic, paranoia-fuelled Cold War thriller.

Today, professional reviewers keep writing positive things about books that frankly don’t deserve it. It seems that every book is terrific. Every book is brilliant. Every book transcends the genre on some level, even if it stinks. I suspect the reason is simple: professional reviewers are paid to review books. And they know which side their bread is buttered on. So, faced with Unreadable Garbage by Ove R. Rated, are they more likely to point out the obvious—“this book blows”—or are they more likely to give some generic praise that will ensure they’ll still be cashing in a cheque this time next week?

That’s why I no longer pay attention to cover blurbs. I understand that these reviewers are paid to say nice things, and the publisher, desperate to market this book to me, will cherry pick reviews to find the juiciest quotes. The overall effect is that Author X is the literary heir of Raymond Chandler, and author Y is the literary heir of Agatha Christie, and at the end of the day slapping that quote on the cover doesn’t make author X or author Y any better.

If the damage were limited to book blurbs, I’d be fine with that. You gotta make money somehow. But no; this attitude has seeped its way into mystery criticism, something I was made painfully aware of when I read Books to Die For, a book that has been undeservedly nominated for an Edgar and Agatha award. It is a collection of essays in praise of mediocrity. Many of the books included quite simply shouldn’t be there, but we find out that they transcend the genre, are revolutionary, etc. The logic always goes something like “Before Ove R. Rated wrote Unreadable Garbage, mysteries were unreadable garbage. Now, they are all imitating the brilliance of Unreadable Garbage—with capital letters. By the way, visit my website! I write books too!”

Let’s take one of the all-time great authors, for instance. How about Raymond Chandler? Here was a brilliant stylist if there ever was one. The description of the knight in the stained-glass window in The Big Sleep should be framed in the home of any aspiring author as a piece of writing to be admired and looked up to. But at the same time… The Big Sleep is one of the most overrated novels of all-time. The plot is bad, with more holes in it than Swiss cheese. The characterization is inconsistent at best. Some of the obvious SYMBOLISM!!! Is ludicrous.

But academics have somehow found a way to praise The Big Sleep as one of the best novels of all-time. They have created fantastic theories where everything down to the last comma was carefully planned by Raymond Chandler, to exploit themes from Celtic mythology and counterpoint them with the death of the American Dream. To be sure, there are some elements of this in the novel (see the knight in the stained glass window), but when you rope in the minor and ultimately inconsequential character of “Silverwig” as symbolic of the Holy Grail, you’ve crossed the line into bat-shit insanity.

And academia keeps this nonsense up. Instead of acknowledging that Chandler wrote The Big Sleep on an off day and it’s about time to move on to some of his better books, academia stubbornly insists that this is the perfect one. Perhaps because of its shoddy plot, if it’s used as a model for today’s authors, that meansthey can get away with shoddy plotting too, because Chandler did it! Perhaps that is why the Chandler style is so often imitated, but the weblike plot structures of Dashiell Hammett are not nearly as often imitated.

Critics (and mystery writers) who have no idea what they’re talking about tend to lump Chandler, Hammett, and James M. Cain together as though they wrote the same type of novel, and although they share some elements, the overall novels are as different as salt, red onions, and pepper. If you’d like to season your French fries with Cayenne pepper, be my guest (I’ll even put the video on YouTube), but don’t force that stuff down my throat as well!

And so, the Edgar and Agatha awards are as predictable as clockwork; they are mere popularity contests based on the bestseller lists and who is voting. (They are by no means alone in this, but they are the highest-profile awards ceremonies and should be setting an example.) Books to Die For was predictably nominated by both groups—indeed, most of the authors who compiled Books to Die For are part of the MWA!!!

This just smacks of bias, especially when you consider that the book was essentially one really long commercial; many essays were quick pieces, dashed off for some free advertising space. As a result, it is almost entirely worthless as a critical volume. (No wonder it was nominated for Best Critical/Biographical!) It’s basically Famous Author asking his pals to write something in five minutes, and ta-da! You have an instant award-winning book! And in case one book like that wasn’t enough, we got two books like this nominated, with the second collection being specifically about Robert B. Parker!

More predictable Edgar nominations include a critical work on Raymond Chandler, a book that I’ve read two excerpts from, and both made laughable assertions about detective fiction as a whole. It would be like arguing that something can come from nothing by redefining “nothing” to mean “something”! (In other words, it’s a bullshit argument that doesn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny.) There’s also a standard Sherlock Holmes-related Edgar nomination – there seems to be one every year – and I don’t particularly care, though my guess is that it’s probably the most deserving of the four nominees.

TV also wasn’t represented very well at the Edgars. The worst episode of Elementary was nominated for an Edgar, even though the first two episodes had much cleverer plots and better dialogue. (It’s all been pretty bad since then, I’m afraid and I gave up on the show weeks ago. Not out of disgust with the show or out of boredom particularly, but I had to study for finals and was too busy to keep up with the show… and I still don’t feel the urge to get caught up.)

The Agathas are even worse, since they are even more like popularity contests—books are not submitted for consideration, they’re just voted, and so the nominees will invariably be bestsellers and/or friends of the voters. G. M. Malliet’s A Fatal Winter was nominated for an Agatha. It’s a perfectly acceptable book, but it’s got major flaws. It’s far from award-worthy and its inclusion puzzles me.

Louise Penny was (again!!!) nominated for an Agatha. She’s been nominated every year since 2007, presumably because she sells well and so she’s always in the voters’ heads. Even when she doesn’t deserve it, she gets nominated, which makes her the Meryl Streep of the Agathas. This time, she’s nominated for an awful, thoroughly offensive book in which she solves religion and overwrites a stupid plot to death, complete with plot holes through which you could drive an entire circus. Ten-to-one that she wins.

What makes all this so infuriating is the stuff that isn’t nominated, stuff that is far more deserving of these awards. Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint, for instance: a terrific novel that improved on the Edgar-nominated The Devotion of Suspect X. It had a clever plot, terrific characters, and a memorable ending. But it flew in under the radar, and the Edgar committee doesn’t care; Walter Mosley wrote a new book. What about Curt Evans’ Masters of the Humdrum Mystery? It’s a terrific reference book that challenges the conventional way of thinking about the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. It’s immensely readable and it also provides terrific biographies of three very important Golden Age authors. I liked it so much I got two copies.

Meanwhile, if I had a physical copy of Books to Die For I’d use it to stabilize a wobbly table leg. What about Andrew Hunt’s City of Saints or Marsali Taylor’s Death on a Longship? Both were impressively-written debut novels with good plots; both were ignored at the Edgars and Agathas. Are we seeing a pattern here?

These awards are celebrating mediocrity, nominating safe choices in the fiction category that frankly all sound like they are in the same mould. Non-fiction has some horrendous nominations. And at the end of the day, I don’t give a damn one way or the other. I was thinking that I might try to read all the “Best Novel” books nominated by the Edgars or by the Agathas, but both lists leave me feeling unpleasant in my stomach. I just don’t care. Julian Symons unfortunately got it very right when he wrote the following in the third edition ofBloody Murder:

I conceived the idea of Bloody Murder in 1970 after ending a ten-year stint as crime reviewer for The Sunday Times. I gave it up chiefly because I knew I was becoming stale, so that my reaction on seeing a parcel of new books was not the appropriate slight quickening of the pulse marking the hope of a masterpiece. (…) I had always reviewed crime stories with the freedom I used in writing about other books, recording triumphs and disasters with candour. But I was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, and although those who turn their pens to crime are by and large genial figures, some of them were indignant at what they considered a kind of treachery. There was even an abortive move to expel me until such a time as I wrote helpful rather than harmful reviews. It is my experience that you can say in print a poet is no good and he will slap you on the shoulder at next meeting and say what a fool you are, but if you make a similar comment about a crime writer he may say nothing but will be deeply wounded. On this ground too, therefore, it seemed a good idea to give up crime reviewing.

On the other hand I felt, and feel today, irritation at the blandness with which this occupation is carried on. I like praise for my crime stories as much as the next man or woman, but how can one take seriously warm words written about one’s own new book, when the same crime column contains equally warm words about half a dozen other books, some of which are revealed at a cursory glance as being inferior to the standard article? Such praise may please publishers, but cancels itself out for a writer.

Unfortunately, those words still ring true today. Maybe I’m just a bitter, bitter person. Either way, that’s gotten a load off my mind that I’ve wanted to eject for a while now. The Edgar Awards have sunk to a new low, after I had thought that nominating Paul Auster’s City of Glass as Best Novel was the all-time low.

I’m done paying attention to the Edgars and to the Agathas. Maybe winning one of these awards had some meaning once upon a time, when mystery authors knew about the past of their medium and about the directions it was taking, and tried to capture the very best of the bunch. But now it’s become just another popularity contest, only one that can’t afford to be hosted on live television by Billy Crystal.

 

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