Friday, February 27, 2015

The Bells and the Bees: Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov Discuss Detective Fiction

American literary critic and author Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) famously (infamously to many) voiced his disdain for detective fiction in a couple of New Yorker essays, "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" and "Who Care Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"  In these memorably splenetic pieces Wilson dismissed detective fiction fans as desperate junk-lit addicts who should have been embarrassed with themselves for spending time scarfing such trash. Naturally enough, this attitude did not endear the outspoken critic to detective fiction fans, and many of them wrote him letters telling him so.

Are we having fun yet?
Edmund Wilson, aka "Bunny" (derived from plum bun)
flayer of detective, supernatural and fantasy fiction

There were, however, a few people who wrote Wilson agreeable letters on the matter. One of these individuals was the emigre Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). The same month that Edmund Wilson's first essay on detective fiction appeared in the New Yorker, Nabokov, who in 1940 had begun what was to be a correspondence of three decades with Wilson, wrote his friend:

I liked very much your article on detective stories. Of course, Agatha is unreadable--but Sayers, whom you do not mention, writes well.  Try Crimes Advertises [Murder Must Advertise].  Your attitude to detective writing is curiously like my attitude towards Soviet literature, so that you are on the whole absolutely right.

Nabokov then proceeded to quote to "Bunny" (Edmund Wilson's rather unexpected nickname) excerpts of poor writing from tales collected in Eugene Thwing's World's Best 100 Detective Stories (1929). He predicted they would give the sensitive and superior Wilson "slight nausea."

Valdimir Nabokov praised H. F. Heard's
A Taste for Honey as "very nicely written"--
"though the entomological part is of course all wrong"

Unlike Wilson, however, Nabokov himself in fact had a certain partiality toward detective fiction (the well-written ones, of course), as his favorable reference to Dorothy L. Sayers suggests. The previous year, he wrote Wilson that after some excruciating dental surgery

I was lying on my bed groaning...yearning for a good detective story--and at that very moment the Taste for Honey sailed in...Mary [McCarthy, Wilson's then wife, like him a prominent literary critic and author] was right, I enjoyed it hugely--though the entomological part is of course all wrong (in one passage he [the author, H. F. Heard] confuses the Purple Emperor, a butterfly, with the Emperor moth).  But it is very nicely written.  Did Mary see the point of the detective's name at the very end?  I did.

Nabokov may have liked H. F. Heard's beekeeper mystery, still in print today, yet that same year he complained that he "did not think much of" John Dickson Carr's The Judas Window, also still in print today, which Mary McCarthy had read.  The way in which the murder was accomplished he deemed droll after a fashion but unconvincing, and he admonished McCarthy, "you ought to have found something better."

Mary McCarthy
enjoyed detective fiction, no matter what her
persnickety plum bun husband had to say about it
(she panned Sayers' Gaudy Night, however)

For his part Wilson admitted in a 1944 letter to Nabokov that "I have been getting dozens of letters from [detective fiction] addicts protesting against my article and only three so far approving it." Wilson's 1945 follow-up essay in the New Yorker, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?", did tackle the fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers, specifically her bell ringer mystery The Nine Tailors; but Wilson, in contrast with Nabokov, was wholly dismissive of the highest-browed Crime Queen:

I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well, and I felt that my correspondents [concerning his first essay] had been playing her as their literary ace. But, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective story writers and she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.  In any serious department of fiction, her writing would appear not to have any distinction at all.  

Of The Nine Tailors Wilson declared damningly that he found it "one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field."  He likened the beloved mystery novel to "an encyclopedia article on campanology."

At least Sayers' fans have the satisfaction of knowing that Vladimir Nabokov was an admirer of Sayers' writing (though not Christie's)--in French translation, anyway!

Note: Letter quotations in this piece are drawn from Simon Karlinsky, ed., Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 (rev. ed., 2001).

Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

20 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, Nabokov does seem to have thought highly of the Thwing series--if they're going to give "slight nausea." Ah well. I've only read the first collection....perhaps I should keep the Tums handy. ;-)

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    1. I wouldn't worry about what he thought of it, Bev, since he thought Agatha Christie was "unreadable." And I love The Judas Window!

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    2. By the way, this might be a fun idea, if we could get people to review on their blogs different volumes of the Thwing series (there were ten!). What do you think?

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    3. Great idea, Curt! I have six (I think...have to go count) of the ten volumes. Got them at the Friends of the Library bookstore--wish whoever donated them had had the full set.....

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    4. Maybe we could make it a joint project, might take a while for both of us to read give books though!

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    5. Well..I've already got the first volume under my belt. :-) Then I jump to volume six and have the rest through volume ten. And John is correct....the stories are best when you examine the plots/puzzles and not peer too closely at the writing. As I mention in my review of the first volume....it seems to have a theme of revenge running through it and it was interesting for me to see how the various authors worked out the revenge plot.

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  2. That's fascinating, Curt, thanks for a well-researched and entertaining piece. I'm off to look up the Heard book, I can't remember if I know it or not....

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    1. It's been nicely reprinted (along with Heard's other two mysteries in that series). I should add a link! And am glad you enjoyed the piece, Moira, it's always fun to see what the literary luminaries thought about these matters!

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  3. If Nabokov had to find the easiest target to denigrate detective fiction he certainly found it in that Thwing collection of 100 stories. You can't deny that several of the volumes include the worst of 1920s pulp writing. But most of the stories I think were chosen for the ingenuity of plots and puzzles and not for the author's literate prose style. Usually the first aspect of detective stories and novels that literary critics love to attack is the emphasis on plot and puzzles.

    I think A TASTE FOR HONEY is a landmark book in the genre. Not only well written, but an excellent thriller -- suspenseful, intelligent, and with nightmarish horror story elements. Heard was pretty daring in choosing such a well known fictional creation and reinventing him. I think he was the first writer to do this and do it so brazenly.

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  4. Thanks for an absorbing essay. I find myself swaying between agreement with Wilson and agreement with Nabokov . . .and then concluding that both of them were insufferable snobs. Was Sayers a good writer? Arguably not. Was Christie a good writer? I'd argue not. But both Wilson and Nabokov seem wilfully to have ignored Allingham and Marsh, two writers who might certainly have obviated Wilson's thesis.

    It's perhaps a judgement that, so far as I can gather, Wilson is virtually forgotten now. Agatha Christie, not so much.

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    1. Oh, in his second essay Wilson let Allingham and Marsh have it too!

      Interestingly, Chandler, who comes out better under Wilson's scrutiny, called Wilson "ill natured and bad mannered" (I know, Ross Macdonald is saying pot, meet kettle). Another time Chandler referred to Wilson as a fat boor who in his Memoirs of Hecate Country had "made fornication as dull as a railroad time table."

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  5. I enjoyed your posting, and I always have a soft spot in my heart for the high-brows who admit to their guilty pleasures: crime fiction. W. H. Auden stands out in my memory as one fine example. He even (so the story goes) helped Gypsy Rose Lee with her crime fiction effort. That had to be a weird collaboration. BTW, my new challenge (to myself) -- ABC's of Crime Fiction -- has been announced at my blog, Beyond Eastrod. Perhaps you can offer me some suggested titles every now and then as I work my way through he alphabet.

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    1. A lot of highbrows liked the stuff, no question! I'll check out your blog.

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  6. From what I know of Wilson, he was one of those far-left intellectuals who was all for the working man, but hated popular culture. The idea that you might read something for a bit of fun was a complete anathema to him. As noirencylopedia said, he is more or less forgotten by the average person nowadays, and the great irony of his life is that he is now most remembered for those articles attacking detective fiction. I wonder what he would have thought about appearing in a post on a site celebrating detective fiction...

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    1. I would hope he would make an exception for my blog, naturally. ;)

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  7. I came here to read this essay because it was cited and to by Dirda in his Washington Post review of ”Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing” by Curtis Evans.

    It seems that Wilson disdained all "genre" fiction, i.e. fiction written primarily for recreation (whether of author or reader) and / or making a living. His his screed about Tolkien comes to mind. Whereas Nabokov gleefully incorporated all of them into his superb constructions of puzzle, etymology and psychology, which slipped effortless among past, present and future, imagined and lived history. It's lovely to see the discussion between these two men, whose approach to matters were so different, and yet were excellent friends.

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    1. Hi, Foxessa, I'm glad you enjoyed their exchanges. I did too and the whole collections of their correspondence is fascinating. I must admit that Nabokov's view of genre fiction appeals to me more than Wilson's! I think your points are well-taken indeed.

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