The Agony Column for January
by Rick Kleffel
is Dead.– Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead.– God
you need is Death.
We surely love our Death. If we're not out there bombing the living
shit out of somebody in a foreign land, we're down on the street riddling
good guys, bad guys and innocent bystanders alike with bullets. And
if we can't get the hands-on experience, we can read all about it
in fact, fiction or poetry. If reading is too much trouble, we can
plop our fat butts down in front of a television or cinema screen
and watch death, glorious death, unfold before our wondrous eyes.
But that's just not enough.
If we can't find death in life, or in fiction, poetry, or drama, what
can we do? We can predict death, that's what! And while we all love
death, we're a bit reluctant to predict our own, even though statistics
show it to be generally inevitable. Instead, it's others who get the
nod. And usually not just on an individual scale. I mean, if we're
going to predict death, why waste time with the small stuff? Sure,
there are the projected crime figures, but that's strictly small time.
Real Death Lovers leave crime behind.
Real Death Lovers -- Professional Death Lovers -- want nothing less
than Total Death. Apocalypse.
And so, each year, from the dawn of recorded history onward, the Pros
get busy manufacturing new ways to kill us all. There have been so
many predictions that volumes summarizing those predictions have started
to topple the shelves. We're well beyond a flood (an early and still
favorite Apocalypse) of books about books predicting the Apocalypse.
In 'Pericalypse', Stanislaw Lem posits that the Apocalypse has already
come to pass, since so many books have been published that those which
hold the hope of saving us can't be found amidst the seas of garbage.
We're up to our eyes in Apocalypse, but we're so busy that we haven't
noticed it yet.
of the words.
It's not surprising that those up to their eyes in Death, more Death,
Professional Death and Apocalypse might find their vision of things
not alive influenced. And thus just about everything, whether or not
it ever breathed, grew or reproduced has been pronounced Dead by those
who can't get enough Death. There's a thriving industry of Theoretical
Death. (And not just the Death of Theories, mind you, but death in
theory.) From the Abacus to the Zoot Suit, if you can name it, it's
been declared dead by those who want you to think they're in the know.
Literature is no exception. Even before Guttenberg finished the
first run of Bibles, you can be assured that somebody, somewhere
works of the written word to be dead, doomed by the mechanical sameness
of printed words. Now, of course -- they are. Literature is no more
alive than doorknobs, which have long been the standard bearer for
Death Measurement. But by declaring something dead, one imparts
to it -- by virtue of its absence -- life. It's a miracle, doctor!
-- alive! No, wait, sorry! It used to be alive. Now -- "It's
And so, every year, as sadly predictable as the legendary and factually
unsubstantiated death-plunge of lemmings off a mythical cliff, literary
critics declare the genres they or others love dead. Whether it's
the entire body of modern literature or a specialized sub-genre read
mainly by the writers who practice it, the prediction of literary
apocalypse has become as common as the prediction of worldwide catastrophe.
In the fine tradition of Stanislaw Lem, most of these literary apocalypses
are more correctly pericalypses -- deaths that have come and gone
unnoticed (other than by the literary morticians who scribe death
notices of the works in question) while literature itself or the specific,
dead genres in question continue to commercially, and in fact artistically,
Why, one wonders, is the literary Death Wish so strong? What impels
otherwise perfectly reasonable writers to write, editors to edit and
publishers to publish funerary orations for that which was never alive,
let alone ill or in fact -- dead? There's no dearth of examples. Late
in 2002, I wrote an essay in response to Paula
Guran's entertaining essay in Locus Online that declared the Death of Horror due to the
ever-pernicious effect of the Evil Internet. In that column, I took
the time-honored approach of explaining why horror wasn't dead.
That is, I responded
to the piece on a personal level. I took pains to point out that it
the horror genre was merely hiding in the racks
of science fiction, mainstream fiction and mystery. This, coupled
with Sturgeon's Law -- "90% of everything is crud." --
will get you through the death throes of just about any artistic
Though this year has barely begun, we've already got a nicely populated
thread on the Evil Internet Newsgroups titled 'The Fall and Decline
of Science Fiction' (which takes pains to explain that SF really
isn't dead, there's just less of it than fantasy). Genrecide also
in a puff piece on Salon.com* wherein the author, the otherwise
estimable Ben Yagoda, solves the mystery of the death of the mystery
entirely unaware of the delicious irony.
not dead – it's just resting."
(*To read this piece, you must either subscribe to Salon.com or
get a "day pass" and view a "brief advertisement".
Let me assure you this is not crass commercialism, but artistry
of the highest order. Paid artistry.)
Of course the immediate
response to any such claim is that the author simply hasn't found or
mentioned "the good stuff." This
is in fact, usually true. The idea that the mystery genre, and the
American Serial detective mystery in particular, is dead, is belied
by material in Yagoda's own article. For one thing, as David
J. Schow told me in an email, "Yagoda's whole piece might have been more
if it had been titled 'I Hate Airport Books.'" A mention
of George P. Pelecanos in Yagoda's article is linked to a glowing interview
with the author on Salon's
website. Oops. And how can a genre that's spawning work the caliber
latest issue of 'Crimewave'
be considered dead? In a sense, I guess it's appropriate. We are
living in a post-'Night of the Living Dead
World'. Stumble forth, zombies. Take over. Honor thy father; trowel
But I wanted to explore a bit more of the why of these LitObits.
They're so clearly nonsensical that one is tempted to come up with
of conspiracy theories to explain why writers, editors and publishers
print a big "KICK ME" sign in their pages.
It all came together
when I read an article, wherein the author, T. Peter Park, took a
look at the language and imagery in the apocalyptic
forecasts of New Age beliefs, Christian Fundamentalists and the
Church. What he found was fascinating. All three belief sets were
cross-pollinating one another, so that specific images in each
showed up in the others' beliefs. I started to wonder if something
was happening in the world of popular literary criticism. What
language informs the genre-killers? What arguments arise again and
only to charge off that mythical lemming-ledge? What insights
do the authors
purport to pass on to their readers -- and why? It requires no
stretch of the imagination to find those who write that "[Put Your Peeve
Here] is dead," are not thinking original thoughts. I decided
to compare the arguments found in Yagoda's essay from Salon.com
with the better informed but still genrecidal 2002 essay by Paula
Guttenberg Bible – the beginning of the end.
The first thing the Genrecidal writer will do is to offhandedly
dismiss the entire field they're talking about. It's a scorched
a Big Statement that is clearly and utterly wrong, so outrageous
it demands the reader finish the piece just to see how the writer
going to justify it. Yagoda drops a stinky whopper: "The American
detective novel may be commercially viable, but it is devoid of creative
or artistic interest." Guran starts right out with, "It
finally hit me at one gathering of the horror tribe or another: the
distressing realization that so few in our field still seek professionalism,
a high level of achievement, legitimate credits, and to gain a sense
of history." The opening statement is obviously ludicrous, but
it does the job. The reader is hooked, inevitably for the worse, into
reading the rest of the rant. Think you're going to learn something?
Think again. Readers will realize only in retrospect that this is
merely the lowest form of sales pitch. It's "You're crud
-- wanna know why?"
Next, these writers establish for the reader that They Know Their
Stuff. They'll cover the history of the genre in a manner that
seems to respect good writing and creativity. Maybe they're convincing
themselves that they respect good writing and creativity. It's
to the spit-in-your-face start. Yagoda writes about how he, "…read
the greatest worker in this field, Raymond Chandler," while Guran
writes that "Peter Straub — understood horror's long rich
literary history." The writers like to get personal here, putting
in the details that document their authentic love for the prisoner
in the dock. For all that they demonstrate their rich knowledge of
genre history, however, there's a definite "good old days" effect
in play here. The "good old days" started long ago and
have an ending point that's well defined. For Yagoda, it's Ross
for Guran, it's Stephen King. This is the sucker punch part of
the presentation, easing the reader into believing that we're
no screed here. No sir, this is serious bizness. See what I know?
As it continues, the rant remains reasonable sounding. Of course
all this goodness and quality in the genre on trial had a Dark
Dark Side is inevitably the crass commercialism demonstrated in
the rip-offs that followed the Golden Years. Once the masters
passed, the hacks moved in. What's worse, the hacks were lauded
money-minded genre-boosters and ill-informed nincompoops. Yagoda
writes that "the Welty review started a trend: taking a detective writer
and anointing him or her as not just a pulp writer (not just a Mickey
Spillane)" [you can feel the spittle, can't you?] "but a
purveyor of literature (a Chandler)", while Guran writes "The
princes and princesses of the miniscule press read each other — as
well as many in the almost-small press and the smallest of the mass
market — congratulate each other, publish each other, edit each
other, blurb each other, review each other, recommend each other for
awards, twirl around together in an unending incestuous dance of parochialism
while giving the finger to anyone who dares mention something as passé as
a standard of excellence." The Standards Break down. Civilization
is sure to follow! Sounding familiar? Pat Robertson and Hal Lindsey,
move on over!
And finally, we get to the meat of the matter. The gasoline poured
on the fire. Nothing sells like controversy, and nothing is as
controversial as offending the readers. By now, anyone who actively
genre in question (and that genre may be as wide as "literature")
is starting to feel deeply insulted. This is when the writer gets
personal -- and way off the rails. Yagoda speaks of his attempts to
read lots of writers who, to my mind, are not the best that the current
mystery pantheon has to offer. "I made my way through Sue Grafton,
Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman, Jonathan
Kellerman and a half-dozen others… I always ended up disappointed." Guran: "The
most exciting aspect of the miniscule press and other new media is
that they furnish emerging talent a fresh forum. But they also provide
mediocre (or worse) writers a way to tout their work to the public
as top notch." These statements are guaranteed to offend most
readers of the genres in question. This is where the writers get out
their crayons and scrawl "KICK ME!", screaming in the
hope that shrill voices will drown out their obvious and certainly
the Agony Column Logrolling Game!
the suspected author with the convicting blurb!
More surely offensive material will follow. The term "logrolling" (referring
to writers who blurb one another) will be unleashed. Insults will
be hurled and specific writers will be slagged. No doubt, some of
them may deserve it. By this point, the genrecidal writer will be
wearing their blinders openly. They seem to want readers to believe
that they're right -- without exception. Perhaps they hope that the
steam emerging from the readers' ears will be usable as a power source.
Certainly, they know that they've sold the story; you've read this
far. Like the folks who post to the alt.fashion.underwearonyourhead
newsgroup, they're convinced that they’re right, and that
you must agree with them. They pursue their prey with evangelical
Everyone must believe in their apocalypse -- surely the signs
are obvious to all! News flash from Salon -- book blurbs lie!
from Locus -- self-published Internet fiction is often no good!
The lambs have been sliced open, and we can read the future in
entrails. The end is here! I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked. Such
things should not be allowed to happen.
When the screaming is over, the sober and sad essayist takes
a brief bow. The sober and sad reader can only breathe a sigh
When Yagoda concludes that "We can be thankful that Chandler and Macdonald
are not alive to read that nonsense. I am, however, and it has strengthened
my current resolution that even if the blurbs glow with the intensity
of the midday sun, I am off these books for good," we can only
agree. Perhaps he has something actually interesting to say; perhaps
he'll get on to say it. Guran, more sensibly, concludes that, "Horror,
of course, will survive as it always has. But the Tribe — that
amorphous creature that has, despite all, occasionally provided sustenance,
support, attention — will die." Like the drunk who's
done yelling at the uninterested patrons of a local bar, they
sort of nod
off. The gentle reader can safely escort them to the door. They're
drunk all right -- on the power of publishing, on the power of
the pulpit, proclaiming the end to all who won't follow their
Of course, it's clearly all utter nonsense -- but it's nonsense
got you to read, if not agree with. What the writers seem to miss
is that there's a limited interest in reading a "KICK ME" sign.
Oh, we like to get all het up now and again. But in the end, whether
the apocalypse being sold is that of an entire genre or that of an
entire world, whether it's Fundamentalist Christians or feel-bad New
Agers, literature looking down on genre fiction, one genre looking
down on another -- or even itself -- in the end, paradoxically, we
realize that there is no end. When the date of a predicted apocalypse
passes without incident, we all forget the prediction. We move on
-- clearly it was nonsense. In fact, we line up to wait for future
apocalyptic predictions. Sometimes, a "KICK ME" sign
is pretty entertaining, especially when those wearing it think
laughing with them, not at them. Who's laughing now?
They haven't managed to blow up the world, and damn if they
haven't tried really hard to do so. There's no headstone for
the horror genre,
and there's no memorial for mystery. If these critics don't
like reading genre fiction -- stop reading it! Great!
They can always watch TV.