Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Isabel Allende Thinks We Suck

By Steve Hockensmith

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.


Kathleen Ernst said...

Great post about a timely topic! More than anything, I too have been puzzled about her choice to openly knock mysteries in the process of promoting her own.

I admit to irritation whenever I read about an artificial distinction between genre and literature, but in the end the best thing to do is--as you said--forget about it. Those who don't read mysteries are missing a lot of good books.

Steven said...

I think it goes too far to say she doesn't like mysteries - even though she said it herslf - apparently, she read a small number of the most marketable mysteries of today. I'd agree with her that some of the titles making it to the top of best seller lists is terrible/terribly nihilistic stuff.

On the other hand, what she thinks is ground-breaking (nerd sleuth, female protag who isn't blond and blue-eyed?) doesn't sound ground-breaking to me.

Notice, however, that every writer in the genre hopes to do something different than what's gone on before. In a way, we all express some dissatisfaction with the genre by creating something we think is better.

Steve Hockensmith said...

I'm with you on the genre/literature low art/high art split, Kathleen. It can be irritating -- and it's often artificial. On the other hand, it's clear that some books aim simply to entertain while others strive for profundity (which isn't saying they achieve it). People like Jonathan Franzen (by which I mean snobs) would automatically elevate one above the other without recognizing that you can write "literature" that's total B.S. and genre entertainment that's so good it's art.

You've touched on one of the things that's annoying about Allende's comments, Steven. She leafs through a few bestsellers then talks as if she knows squat about the mystery genre. It's condescending and lazy. And weird, seeing as her husband writes mysteries.

Steven said...

Well, as she points out, she's stuck with the husband..

DeskDiva said...

I've been that person who thought I didn't like something, only to discover later that I really did, but I couldn't, for some reason, be OK with liking it, so I continued to profess my DISlike for it. Maybe it's that?

But I LOVE the part about not caring about the opinion of a person who obviously has contempt for us. My heart needs this lesson....

Keith Raffel said...

Steve, your post reminds me of the definition of a mystery from someone, maybe Lawrence Block, who said something like: "A mystery is a work of crime fiction that sells fewer than 10,000 copies. If it sells more, it transcends the genre." Thus, for example, according to this definition, To Kill A Mockingbird is not a mystery.

Daisy said...

I think what makes it particularly galling is that she's not just sharing her opinion, she's tearing down other writers for her own personal benefit. Like if Franzen started a twitter account to show us all how it's done, and tried to monetize it. But, ultimately, I agree with you. Fools like this will always be with us, shouting their superiority at a world that mostly doesn't care, and it's a waste of energy to get mad about it.

Steve Hockensmith said...

I don't think Allende's too embarrassed to admit that, deep down, she truly likes mysteries, D.D. I think she's sincere about her dislike for the genre. Not that she's given it a real try, but that's beside the point. Mysteries just aren't for her, which is fine. They're not for everybody. But you can acknowledge that without implying disdain for other writers and what they do. And, yes -- as a wise man or woman once said, "Hatahs gonna hate." Don't give that hate the power to hurt.

Great quote, Keith! So, *so* true. It's the same reason Margaret Atwood doesn't write science fiction. She's Margaret Atwood!

Aye, there's the rub, Daisy. "I will do this thing I have no respect for and, by virtue of being me, elevate it...while making a little coin on the side." Bleah.

David Thayer said...

Wait, are you suggesting we don't suck?

Steve Hockensmith said...

"Suck" is in the eye of the beholder....

Michael Kurland said...

I once had an sf book of mine reviewed as follows: "I do not like science fiction and this book did not make me change my mind." My response at the time was a surly growl, but since then I've come to wonder just why she ate the tomato if she doesn't like tomatoes.

Owen Garratt said...

The art world is full of people like this Allende person: thinking that anything that enjoys the attention of the masses much be drivel, and thus grist for their condescension.


And right or wrong, I share a visceral reaction to such pretentious horsewash when it's accompanied by hypocritical behavior such as trying to jump on board the very train one is trying to poo-poo.

Pfhfhft! A toast to all Potsies!

Steve Hockensmith said...

Exactly -- it would be one thing if she were dismissive of mysteries while out promoting her latest memoir. But she's trying to peddle what she obviously looks down upon. Boo.

Potsies of the world unite!