The Cherry Tree Genre

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He's on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He’s on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

It’s been decades now since Chandler and Hammett and, to a lesser degree, Spillane were elevated in the gallery of American letters to a level similar to the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and so one could be forgiven for assuming these days that categorizations like pulp fiction would be merely that – categorizations – and no longer pejoratives.

But of course that’s not the case and the pioneers of pulp fiction weren’t so much recognized for their contribution to their genre as co-opted by the gatekeepers of high literature who recategorized them into the unfamiliar halls of academia by virtue of some arbitrary measure of staying power in much the same way that populist mainstream movies like Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon are now art because they’re in black and white and we’ve still heard of them.

And of course this heartless appropriation occurred post-mortem because no Spillanes nor Himes nor Chandlers would have otherwise gone without a very entertaining and unequal fight. Particularly when they came to get the resolute everyman Chandler, who once wrote in a letter to the editor of The Fortnightly Intruder:

The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.

And nobody doubts that. The debate isn’t over whether or not Chandler and his contemporaries are giants of American literature but whether they rose above their genre or are simply very good examples of it. Academia at some point cast an imperious eye over pulp fiction, saw an untapped source of overlooked genius and selected a few authors from the ranks for icon status. Well you know what? You can’t have them. They started as pulp fiction writers and they’ll remain pulp fiction writers and what’s more you missed a few. Rather a lot, in fact, and we’re not telling you where they are.

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