|Mary Stewart (1916-2014)|
Symons, however, does not go unmentioned in a letter which Mary Stewart penned, five years after the publication of Bloody Murder, on November 28, 1977. Stewart's letter was written in reply to one from John McAleer, a Boston College English professor and biographer of the late American mystery writer Rex Stout.
An evidently plaintive McAleer had written to Stewart concerning a Symons' review of McAleer's biography of Stout, which had been published in the New York Times Book Review on November 13. Symons' assessment of the book was, to out it charitably, mixed; and it also managed to get in some rather dismissive asides against McAleer's highly esteemed subject, who had passed away at the age of eighty-eight two years earlier.
"No livelier man (than Stout) been the subject of a duller book," pronounced Symons bluntly. "The art of biography rests in selection, and what you omit may be as significant as what you include. This biography gives the impression of omitting nothing....The biographer's own comments are always jejune or banal."
As for Stout, Symons faulted the Nero Wolfe creator for being unwilling to put his soul into his detective novels. "At the risk of outraging an accepted American myth," lectured Symons,
|Julian Symons (1912-1994)|
I have devoted a lot of my life now to writing about the people who wrote mystery and crime fiction, but I am a historian by training and have always tried to be a historian first and a "literary critic," if I indeed am one, second. Taste is such a subjective matter that I often have shied in the past from making grand pronouncements beginning with words like "It must be said" and "The truth is." I have found over the decades that the more I have read of mystery and crime fiction, the more catholic and generous my tastes have become. The restrictive dogmatism of the Julian Symonses and the Jacques Barzuns I have increasingly abandoned, though it's interesting to write about it, as I am doing here now.
Certainly Julian Symons brought his own personal biases to bear on his assessment of Rex Stout. (As for the McAleer biography, I will allow, as someone who has written biography myself, that I wish McAleer, an astoundingly proficient pack rat, had been more selective of the detail in his book--however he won an Edgar and I haven't, so there is that.)
As someone who himself never in his crime fiction created a memorable series character (and I say this as someone who enjoys Symons' crime fiction), Symons believed that the commitment to an outsize Great Detective as series sleuth, whether it be Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Albert Campion or Gideon Fell, throttled originality in mystery fiction and kept it from developing into something more akin to mainstream literature. Thus in his view Rex Stout had surrendered his considerable talent as a serious writer to a fundamentally superficial endeavor, even if yielded a character, Nero Wolfe, who would be "remembered as long as people read crime stories." Paradoxically, Wolfe was an unforgettable character who appeared in mostly forgettable stories (at least after 1950).
The truth is (as Symons would say), though I can only speak for myself, I don't find the Wolfe stories generally forgettable, even if they do lack, like most everything under the sun, the "metronomic precision of Ellery Queen" (for some that might be a good thing). Again generally speaking, I don't find the stories forgettable before 1950 or after 1950, to use Symons' somewhat arbitrary cutoff point. (It won't surprise Wolfe fans to learn that Symons really liked Stout's Arnold Zeck saga.)
Indeed, although my favorite Wolfe novel was published before 1940, I find the fecundity of and overall quality of Stout's production in the two decades between 1946 and 1966 astonishing and I personally favor this latter period of his writing as a whole. I don't believe, as Symons declares in Bloody Murder, that after 1950 Stout stopped caring about his characters. The carefully planned culmination of the Wolfe saga in A Family Affair (1975), for example, would suggest otherwise.
|Before he died, Rex Stout saw|
that Nero Wolfe had entered the
pantheon of Fiction's Great Detectives
What's the more memorable book from 1957: Stout's If Death Ever Slept or Symons' deliberately drab and dreary The Colour of Murder, which won the Gold Dagger from the British CWA for that year? (Crime writers' awards groups love all things drab and dreary.)
I know what my pick would be, but that's subjective. All I can say--and it must be said--is that I'm pretty confident more people would choose Stout's novel, even with the recent advocacy of the latter work by the British Library's vintage crime fiction reprint series and its distinguished editor, a great admirer of Symons.
But enough with my opinions! What interests me here is the opinion of Mary Stewart. She took two weeks to get back to Prefessor McAleer with a letter, but when she did, gracious, did she rain down hellfire and brimstone on the head of Julian Symons. If McAleer ever read Stewart's letter aloud, Symons ears surely would have burned.
Stewart urged McAleer to "try to forget" that "silly Julian Symons' article." He knew, and the public knew, Stewart assured him, that he had written a good book. Yet she spent more time defending Stout's reputation and assailing that of Symons:
You also know that Rex Stout is an incomparably better writer than the pathetic and jealous Symons (or any of the grubby merchants he admires), and that this [jealousy] is the motivation of the review....It is typical of the man that he singles out Rex Stout's "sexy" novels as "among the best." I only read one of them, How Like a God, and it was not in the same street as The Doorbell Rang and A Family Affair, or indeed any of the lucidly-written, mature works. It is also nonsense to say that his style was not comparable to, say, Ross Macdonald. To my eye and ear, RM's style is derivative, strained and totally predictable. I can feel him trying. Rex Stout's style was--is--flawless.
....do, please, ignore the man's opinions, even if you can't quite ignore his spite. I have met him; he is a boor, and a second-rate writer, and has no sense of style--I mean, he would not know good English if he saw it. The biggest compliment Julian Symons can pay to any book is to dislike it.
....Believe me, everyone I know rates the wretched little man as I do. Forget him. You did a good job. Have a happy Christmas.
|a good murder never goes out of fashion|
Symons had something of an aversion to the works of genteel lady mystery writers, whether British or American (excepting Agatha Christie, whose puzzle crafting ability he admired), while Stewart expressed disdain for the "grubby merchants" (one suspects the hard-boiled boys) whom Symons admired. If one can but take a broader view and free oneself of one's partialities, one might say that there is merit to go around. Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and Stout all were fine stylists--and as for Symons and Stewart, well, in coming days I will have something more to say about them.
Note: The Julian Symons review and the Mary Stewart letter both can be found here, though I arrived at them independently several years ago. Other people came to Stout's defense against Symons's critique, and several letters were published in the New York Times. I quote from them here.
My two cents as someone who previously had issues with Stout and Symons.ReplyDelete
That Symons was no fan of Stout hardly comes as a surprise not only for the reasons you state but because RS was an entertainer first and foremost, something Symons didn't care for at all. I haven't read Bloody Murder in ages but one of the things I remember most clearly about it is its emphasis on "seriousness" as a criterion for "good" mystery writing. Crime was no laughing matter to Symons and their light-heartedness may be what he objected to most about GAD mysteries. So it was all too predictable that he wouldn't like Stout who, as you pointed out in your previous article, aimed only at telling a good story. (JS dismissed Michael Gilbert for the very same reason, and it's deeply ironic that they've now both found a new home in the British Library Crime Classics series)
Regarding JS' assessment of Stout's prose abilities, I think he entirely missed the point. Stout's (or should I say Archie's?) voice is every bit as distinctive as those of the writers he mentions and arguably much more colourful. Neither Hammett or Chandler or MacD make for side-splitting reading whereas Stout even in his non-series books is often very witty and even funny. Stout is often credited for fusing the classical and hardboiled school, but he also added a bit of Wodehouse to the mix. Perhaps JS just lacked a sense of humour.
Well, to be fair he did praise some of Stout's work, though the way the Symons piece was written I do think it came out sounding rather negative about Stout. He asserted there was this massive decline after 1950, with a couple of exceptions. I don't agree. I think Stout evaded the decline that did impact many other GA writers.Delete
I do tend to agree that Stout undervalued humor. Stout is a terrific stylist in my view, on par with the hard-boiled boys.
That should have read "Symons undervalued humor." We tend to undervalue what we aren't good at and Symons' efforts at humor weren't notably successful, imo. He did grim good though!Delete
Symons does manage to make "entertainer" sound like a lesser designation. I just can't agree with that. The first function of mystery fiction is to entertain. Anyone who forgets that shouldn't be writing it.Delete
Quite a takedown, indeed.ReplyDelete
As to Barzun, I think he should be credited for being very forthright about his own preferences. And the short format of the entries in his 'Catalogue of Crime' with Taylor did not allow for great subtlety. I actually admire what they did there, even when I disagree with their opinion (you may recall that there are quite a few entries stating that even the two of them differed in their reaction to a work--another form of being forthright that what they offer is a personal opinion rather than some objective assessment to be shared by everyone with proper taste).
Don't get me wrong, I agree with you about Barzun, to whom I co-dedicated Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. Someone needed to be out there defending classic mystery in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and Barzun was out there doing it. And a superb defender he was. I just reached a point where I wanted to get out from under the whole puzzle vs. crime novel box. I got tired of the two armed camps making perpetual war.Delete
I think it was your use of the expression "restrictive dogmatism" that threw me off. It seems to me that Barzun had very pronounced preferences but that he was not really dogmatic. He was strict about ratiocination being essential to his concept of Detection fiction, but I view this restriction more as genre delineation rather than as normative dogma about good/proper vs. bad/improper. Symons seems to have been more dogmatic in that normative sense, though this impression stems at least in part from his sometimes (frequently?) not only acerbic but also haughty style as a critic.Delete
Well, I have come to feel that Barzun devalued crime fiction of merit because of his insistence on the detection principle, but of course that was his prerogative. I am glad he was around to contribute what he did, however, because traditional detective in his day needed a Great Defender. Barzun was often treated as a real eccentric, but he didn't care. Now, I think we have moved beyond having to defend traditional detective so much, when so many people are delightedly embracing it.Delete
No one admired Symons's opinions more than Symons himself. He considered himself a brilliant critic - that seems pretty evident to me on a couple of readings of Bloody Murder - but I have always found much with which to disagree, other than perhaps his assessment of Mickey Spillane, with which I can't argue. Men of his area found it almost constitutionally impossible to praise writers like Stewart who, to me, was one of the great suspense novelists of the twentieth century. Therein lies the rub, because I doubt anyone would put Symons in such a category.ReplyDelete
Men of his era, not area...Delete
Boucher praised Stewart, didn't he? Though how representative he was of male critics of his era is open to debate.Delete
Boucher was very open to the women's suspense fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, as you know. It's a field Symons drastically undervalues in BM, though of course he loved Highsmith, the least feminine of women writers. He disposes of what he terms "the women's novel" in one paragraph, under the category "the standard article." It doesn't dismiss their worth, but it undervalues it.Delete
Boucher was sui generis as a critic. He didn't try to evaluate every mystery or suspense novel according to one pattern. He understood and admired the variations in the genre. Symons was far more rigid in his own standards for what he considered worth attention.ReplyDelete
Yes, Boucher was a catholic Catholic. ;)Delete
On a very different note, that picture of Mary Stewart is great. Nice composition with an interesting angle, very classic-stylish dress and necklace, hairstyling that seems fairly low key yet conveys energy and dynamism, facial expression suggesting curiosity and perhaps mild amusement, direct gaze into camera suggesting confidence without overt aggression, ... much of which is consistent with that impressively hard-yet-controlled takedown of Symons in just a very few lines.ReplyDelete
Great analysis of the photo! I liked her expression in it, she looks like someone who could tow to toe with JS.Delete
"Genteel" - it's almost as damning as "quaint".ReplyDelete
I think Symons felt that they didn't sufficiently explore life, at least as he saw it.Delete
"I have devoted a lot of my life now to writing about the people who wrote mystery and crime fiction, but I am a historian by training and have always tried to be a historian first and a "literary critic," if I indeed am one, second"ReplyDelete
In these words I probably find as good an explanation as any for why I have come to appreciate this blog so much. You put literature in its context, and I find the historical details often makes me understand the life and times of the authors so much better.
As for Symons, I have usually found that the authors and books he wrote positively about in Bloody Murder, I have indeed found worth reading, but I have learnt not to put equal trust in him when he is being dismissive.
Thanks, Tore, that's very kind of you. Context is more of my comfort zone!Delete
Fascinating connections there. I am a big fan of Mary Stewart, who was much undervalued and dismissed as 'romance', and would be reading her - as well as Stout - any day before Symons' crime fiction.ReplyDelete
I just read my first book by her. So many women talk about having read her as teenagers and gone back and reread her, with just as much enjoyment, as adults. It's a select company of writers who are beloved.Delete
Was Stuart really a crime writer? I enjoyed many of her books but I read them more for the atmosphere of mystery and suspense than for any detective element.ReplyDelete
I just read one by her and I would call it a suspense novel, but also a crime novel, because there is a murder and there are police, etc. In the US she was published by Dodd Mead's Crime Club as I recollect.Delete