Friday, July 23, 2004

The Game is Afoot

AC Douglas discusses his general distaste for genre fiction and his surprising love of the Sherlock Holmes canon. I am perhaps the wrong person to comment, as I am relatively fond of genre fiction, be it in lit or film. However, I am capable of (in most cases) separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the stuff, and I happily acknowledge that Holmes and Watson are a cut above the pack.

But the question remains, what sets the best apart from the rest? Douglas writes...
The best I can muster as explanation -- and I'm fully cognizant my best is thoroughly inadequate -- is that the Holmes-Watson stories, even though technically detective fiction, each have the quality of being a chapter of a great and heroic if urbane saga; tales told orally around a pre-literate communal campfire which tell of a time when a man's individual actions had comprehensible, direct and immediate effect on his environment and those populating it, without mediation, mitigation or intensification by technologies the workings of which are comprehensible only to experts; a time when one could "learn at a glance to distinguish the history of [a] man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs"; a time when "by a man's fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs...a man's calling is plainly revealed."
I think he is on to something here. Genre fiction when it works harks back to the tales of old told over and over around the campfire. In some ways, what is Gilgamesh or Homer but genre fiction. Tales of adventure and derring-do told to excite the masses.

Doyle belongs to the same tradition as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne. His tales are adventures for boys and boys-at-heart. He creates a world so complete that it is possible to immerse one's self completely into it. Burroughs' Tarzan or Mars tales can have a similar fascination. Comic books also can offer a similar pleasure. Perhaps it is the extended canon, where a character or group of characters become so familiar and, dare I say, archetypical.

I am currently hooked on Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels. Again, it is the fully realized character, where his life and world become real to us. His life and relationships and personality quirks are as much a part of the stories as the detective stories upon which they hang. The same could be said for Sam Raimi's two Spiderman movies. If it was simply reduced to the action set pieces they would be just another Hollywood spectacle, but it is the character of Spiderman and his hapless alter ego Peter Parker that we return to see.

The best of genre fiction has an epic quality that we can return to time and time again. These are stories that can be told over and over for a lifetime. As a young boy or as an old man, we will return to these stories and they will be familiar and comforting.

In the words of Holmes, "These are much deeper waters than I had thought."

Read A Mystery Elusive Of Solution.

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