Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in the Friendsozoic Era -- which is to say the 1990s -- my pal Mo Ryan edited a music 'zine (remember those?) called Steve Albini Thinks We Suck. I always loved that name. Steve Albini was, at the time, the go-to producer if you wanted to grunge up your rock'n'roll for the flannel-flaunting masses. He had what I recall as a surly, mouthy, bad-boy streak -- sort of like Liam Gallagher if he'd been born in the States and knew how to spell. So it was easy to imagine him thinking many, many, many things sucked, even the wonderful and talented Mo Ryan. (Mo told me the real reason her 'zine got its name around 1998 or 1999, which is why I can't remember it now.)
Being someone with all the street cred of your average Mel Torme fan -- which is to say none -- I found the prospect of earning Mr. Albini's disdain pretty amusing. Some people shouldn't wear black leather jackets. Some people shouldn't write bile-fueled manifestos. Some people shouldn't get tattoos or pierce whatever random flaps of flesh they might choose on a drunken whim. I am one of such people and I've always known it. I am not a Fonz. I am a Potsie. So a hipster like Albini is such an alien creature to me -- like a hard-rockin' Klingon, say, or a supermodel -- his contempt would almost feel like a compliment. It would only sting if I pined to be like him.
I haven't thought about Steve Albini or the 'zine named in his honor in a long, long time. But they came to mind this week when I saw some of my colleagues in the mystery world reacting to a dis from Isabel Allende. Allende, as you might know, is a highly successful purveyor of the sort of middlebrow storytelling Barnes & Noble stocks under "Fiction" and some people call "literature." Perhaps having grown tired of being all literary or examining the endlessly fascinating subject which is herself (Allende's written at least four memoirs, which seems excessive for anyone who's not Winston Churchill), she recently made the puzzling decision to write a mystery.
I call it puzzling because Allende's been promoting her mystery by talking about how much she doesn't like mysteries. To prepare to write the book, apparently, she read a few current bestsellers, which she didn't care for at all. Having thus learned everything there is to know about a genre that's more than a century old, she proceeded to turn it on its head (in her mind) by writing Ripper -- a book that sounds like a James Patterson plot as filtered through Nancy Drew.
Offense was taken. Umbrage, too. And I sympathize! But one element of the response makes me a little uncomfortable -- perhaps, admittedly, because it threatens that smug sense of detachment that allowed me to laugh at Steve Albini Thinks We Suck.
I've seen people writing about how much Allende underestimates mysteries. How the best the genre has to offer is just as insightful and uncompromising and artistic as "literary fiction." And I think: True...but screw that! Why are we trying to prove ourselves to people who hold us in contempt? We don't have to justify our love of mysteries to the likes of Isabel Allende. Just as I've never had to justify my love of "Night Fever" to Steve Albini. (And good thing, too.)
Are the works of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie or Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard or Michael Connelly insightful or uncompromising or artistic in a way Allende would recognize or acknowledge? Probably not. And who cares?
Yes, Isabel Allende thinks we suck. But of course we're free to think the same of her.
Or, better yet, not to think of her at all.
Steve Hockensmith is the author, most recently, of Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage, which this post was supposed to promote. Oops.