For much of the 20th Century, being innovative in art was a precondition for recognition, if not sufficient reason in itself. It was certainly the case in visual art. Novels, too, could not escape being judged on their novelty value.
What has come to interest me more than novelty is the possibility of doing something valuable within the canons of well-established art forms. Can one, for instance, write a book within the constraints of pulp fiction that is also great literature?
In science fiction, the names of Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick spring to mind as authors who may have achieved this. What makes me favour Dick over Lem is that he was never as self-consciously literary as the Polish master. Save for his last few books, Dick always kept the plot moving and the thrills coming while the moral and ethical dramas unfolded.
When one talks of literary crime writing, the name James Sallis tends to come up. While I find this author’s work conceptually appealing, I struggle to like many of the books. I gave up on The Killer is Dying recently because the author refers to various characters as “he” without enough clues as to who “he” is in this chapter, as he uses three or four different focal characters. Maybe that was exactly the point, that the characters were somehow one and the same, but it proved a fatal impediment to my reading pleasure. In the James Sallis books I’ve read, I’ve also failed to discover greatness of intent – the literary ambition seemed to me more technical than profound.
So if I were asked about the greatest literary crime writer, I’d nominate Jim Thompson. While not my favourite crime writer, he has written at least two books in pulp format that transcends the genre beyond any reasonable expectation.
I have written elsewhere that Pop. 1280 gets my vote for greatest pulp crime novel of all. But The Getaway might be an even greater literary achievement. Here is a story about two armed robbers running from the law that goes through a wormhole to emerge as a deeply symbolic, quite surreal, morality tale.
What makes this achievement doubly impressive is that page for page the book reads like pulp fiction – the author never sacrifices entertainment value for the sake of significance.
Doing this – giving readers a profound experience while rewarding them all along with spicy snacks – strikes me as a greater achievement than giving readers a profound experience they feel like they’re working for.