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Making Sense of Nothing and Making Nothing of Sense: A Maundering on the Taxonomy of Writing and I Forget What Else

Aug 09, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

“Fair is where you go to see the pigs race.”
— James Luther Dickinson

Nick ToschesWe are uncomfortable with works that can not be placed comfortably into a category. The English-speaking literary establishment has embraced the French word genre since the eighteenth century. We would do well to remind ourselves that the term, via the Latin genus, is a cognate of another French word, générique, whence the English generic. And, for example, noir, given generic catch-all meaning by American critics in the 1940s, is but another blanditude that consigns to the supermarket-aisle school of literary values many books whose unique qualities are thus obscured.

As George Eliot said in her 1856 essay on Heine: “In every genre of writing it preserves a man from sinking into the genre ennuyeux.” The “it” refers to wit, and the French phrase displays her own subtle wit: “the boring genre.” And it is true that most books consigned to one genre or another belong to the far-encompassing genre of boredom, even if there are no Boring sections designated as such in bookstores.

Most best-selling books belong to one genre or another—espionage, crime, horror, suspense, romance, mystery, self-help, ghost-written political memoirs that take the genre of boredom to a ghastlier realm. Best-sellers that perfume themselves with a contrived literary air fall short of what good genre writing offers. What, after all, was The Name of the Rose but a bad mystery whose plot-workings could not be believed at any turn? I actually read that one. We speak of putting the wounded out of their misery. I have now long felt the same about semiologists. As for something like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was said to far transcend the romance genre, I would never read a book with such a pretentious title so like the whine of a moon-calf. Semiologists and moon-calves aside, even straightforward attempts at genre by real writers of true greatness often fail dismally: William Faulkner’s 1949 volume of mystery stories, Knight’s Gambit, is one of the worst books he did.

I am not saying that any genre writers, be they scriptomanic pulp hacks or masters of their corner of the marketplace, could ever beat out, except maybe financially, the few writers of our time who have doomed themselves, or been doomed, to the lower-paying racket of greatness.

But what of the latter, the great, or of those who walked the edge of greatness, who have been relegated to the ranks of the former? That’s what I want to talk about here.

Specifically I want to talk about Patricia Highsmith and George V. Higgins. Why these two? As I’m not auditioning for a creative-writing teaching job—I’m too old to look up girls’ skirts and fill them with the unbearable lightness of being—I’ll tell you the truth.

For years, a lot of years, I’d been told by people who knew me well that I would enjoy reading Patricia Highsmith. I ignored them. I figured, based on her name, that she was some British broad who wrote British-broad mysteries. Then, early this past spring, a British guy I know told me that people who knew him had long been telling him the same thing. He at least knew that she was from Fort Worth, Texas, far from the quaint Devon village where Miss Marple took her tea and solved her crimes. I walked over to the Mysterious Book Shop on Warren Street and bought a copy of her 1955 novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Forget about Crime and Punishment, which bored the hell out of me. For all his hallowed Towering Russian Author schoolroom stature, Dostoevsky was a plodder who passed off brow-furrowing and stern beard-stroking for explorations of the depths. Highsmith had it all over him. Her Ripley had it all over his Raskolnikov when it came to the frightening ring of the truth of the complexity of the secret chambers of mind and soul. And in Highsmith’s world—which hung from her mouth like the cigarette hanging from her sultry lips—there was no stupid, candy-ass punishment. It was Rimbaud with a vengeance: “La morale est la faiblesse de la cervelle.” She was beyond that feebling disease of the brain called morality. And her prose was as fine and lucid as could be, invisibly infused with the mastery of conveying the most subtly enlaced and ambiguous psychological intricacies with a clarity and enchanting simplicity that must have come in part from her Latin scholarship and in part from her own beautiful, salubrious, wicked mind.

So I finished that one and passed to the second Ripley novel, her 1970 Ripley Under Ground. The third of the five Ripley novels—the last of them, Ripley Under Water, was published in 1991, a few years before her death, at the age of seventy-five—awaits me, as do the others. My discovery of her is one of the blessings that have brought to this summer a rare and lovely happiness.

George V HigginsAs for George V. Higgins, different story. In 1974, I was eking out a living but had yet to publish a book. I came upon Higgins’s first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which had come out two years before. I may have come to the book after being blown away by the movie, with Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle. I don’t remember. What I do remember is that it was the most powerful illumination of what one could achieve by going against the whole jive-ass in-the-American-grain line of shit about literature, the first and hardest prison an American writer must break out of. It was a freeing inspiration of the sort that I had not experienced since I read Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn when I was a teenager.

I was impelled to write Higgins a letter, asking him where he got his style and his perfect pitch for dialogue—and it was perfect; he was the only one since Faulkner who had it.

Recently, about the same time I found Patricia Highsmith, I came across the letter he wrote me in return, on his law-practice letterhead, dated March 17, 1975:

“I invented my style; I am a fucking genius,” he wrote. He ended the letter: “This is a long way of saying that I have no better idea about the origin of what I do than you do. Perhaps I simply have a dirty mind and the good fortune to live in a generation that talks and does dirty.”

With that letter, I rediscovered another, written from his home in Milton Massachusetts, on January 30, 1984. His latest book, A Choice of Enemies, had taken a beating in the press, for being offensive. I had written a review in his defense for The Village Voice.

“Aware as I am that it’s a breach of decorum to respond to a review, I nevertheless thank you for your remarks on ENEMIES. I suppose by now I should be inured to the plaintive bleatings of the righteous who confuse tales of wickedness with benign approval of it, and perceive no entertainment possibilities in its presentation, but I’m not.”

Over the years, I read almost every one of his more than twenty novels. When his nonfiction book On Writing: Advice for Those Who Write to Publish (or Would Like To) came out in 1990, I approached it with great curiosity. I wasn’t looking for any advice, but I was interested in what he had to say about the nature of the job of writing. It was the worst thing he ever wrote, from the grammatical error in the title to the last, limping page. Like every other writer worth reading, he had no clue as to how he did it. What was in that letter of fifteen years before—”I have no better idea about the origin of what I do than you do”—wasn’t in that book.

Higgins went the way of Highsmith, and Eddie Coyle and so many of his other unforgettable characters, in 1999, a week shy of his sixtieth birthday.

So that’s why I’m talking about Highsmith and Higgins, rather than others who might fill the bill to make my point. Highsmith and Higgins are with me, now, this breath, this summer, in discovery and rediscovery. And if it’s taken a long time here to get to that point—and I’ve almost forgotten what it is, or if there need be one: I mean, after all, does your life, or mine, or anything, have a point?—bear in mind that the only point that can really pierce us, the point of a blade or an icepick or one of them things, is the smallest coruscation at the very end.

How could these authors be placed, as mere crime writers, in the same box of junk with the likes of, say, Jim Thompson, one of the most godawful, unreadable, and inept writers to ever stain a page?

If the genre stuff makes big bucks, how come some, like Highsmith and Higgins, end up irredeemably misclassed as such without getting their share of the loot until after they’re dead?

Now that I look at this last sentence, I realize that the point was up there in the first sentence. Fuck it; no matter. Structure is artifice, and artifice is for saps.

NICK TOSCHES is the author of the novels Cut Numbers, Trinities, and, most recently, In the Hand of Dante, as well as of nonfiction works such as Hellfire, Dino, The Devil and Sonny Liston, Where Dead Voices Gather, and King of the Jews. Thirty years of his writing is represented by the The Nick Tosches Reader. His poetry has been widely published, and his collection of poetry, Chaldea, is a bestseller in Hell. He lives in New York and is presently at work on a secret project that will be published by Little, Brown.

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22 Responses »

  1. I read an enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being and never really thought of it as being a “romance” at all. Besides, the title is no more pretentious than bashing a book you haven’t read for possessing a provocative title.

  2. I respectfully disagree with your opinion of Crime and Punishment. Such harsh criticism, it gives one pause to wonder about the reader’s knowledge of what life was like for those living in the USSR. I have been there and lived there under a totalitarian regime. Would Solzhenitsyn also be considered a “plodder” sitting back after being illegally imprisoned and later exiled, stroking his beard as well?

  3. Years ago I interviewed Elmore Leonard for maybe 20 hours of telephone time.

    Among other things uttered, Leonard was influenced by George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. “He gets into scenes very quickly. What did happen, what might happened next.” But Leonard notes that Higgins likes to have the action take place offstage. “That’s his style.”

    Good luck & best wishes.

  4. Try Highsmith’s first, “Strangers On a Train,” if you haven’t already, a modest success though not the blockbuster it should have been. Hitchcock did well with it but even his love of the perverse softened her take on good and evil. It’s as good a moral – or amoral – tale as any, and giving the ‘bad guy’ a boil-about-to-burst in the middle of his forehead for the first 20 or so pages is what I call Character Development. Somehow I’ve missed Higgins but going to start reading him now. Thanks.

  5. This is a really interesting post. It is very well written, and I agree with most of its points.

    I disagree with Mr. Tosches’ take on Jim Thompson, who I find to be one of the most adept, readable, and wonderful writers to have ever used the printed word to express art.

    Also, I don’t think that ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is any more pretentious than ‘In the Hand of Dante’ or ‘King of the Jews’!

    I look forward to reading the ‘secret project’ in the future.

  6. Tosches is one of the few guys who could dismiss Thompson and make me laugh about it. And that Higgins quote is so good, it makes me want to cry. Just running the emotional gamut here.

    For better or for worse, Nick Toshces constantly reminds me why I started writing, and why I am gonna keep on writing, and fuck everything else anyways.

  7. In my opinion Higgins will be considered one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century…his style and influence are widely imitated, but never duplicated.

    But let me ask you, Mr. Tosches, do you consider crime and punishment to be the first crime novel? I consistently read this, but fail to identify it as a crime novel.

  8. HILARIOUS comment about semiologists, and in total agreement concerning Highsmith, she’s my kind of gal to the marrow…

  9. I hate to find myself in such stark disagreement with somebody whose words I have come to respect so much, but there is no age at which one is too old to look up the skirts of young girls. If there is, then shoot me now and bury me beneath the bleachers.

    • May the gods shine down on you. I apologize for the wrongfulness of my words. This is the first apology to issue forth from me in many years, and it shall be my last.

      (I had planned another, final apology, but Ezra Pound stole it from me in his one-hundred-and-twentieth canto. I believe I was eleven or twelve at the time of this theft.)

      To the copping of shoots everlasting, I am, respectfully, yours,

  10. So, let me see if I understand you? I go to my bookshelves and get rid of Kundera, Dostoyevsky, and Eco. Fair enough. Then I replace them with Higgins and Highsmith. Also, fair enough. Should I also include some Tosches? Don’t be modest. It’s too late for posturing. Well, while I await your advice on the Tosches, I must prepare for another semester in the university literature classroom where I can pose at the lecturn and lament that fact that hardly anyone wears skirts to class anymore. The uniform of the day seems to be short or jeans, flipflops, and skimpy tops. So, with nothing to look at (or up), except for the bodies writhing within the skimpy tops, I will share some ideas about literature with students who perhaps should be elsewhere while reading Higgins, Highsmith, and–if you say so–Tosches.

  11. Picture of me holding a 1st printing, 1st edition hardcover of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. Woot! I am complete, now.

  12. I can relate to the experience of finding a book by a writer that you may have heard of in passing, but who is otherwise missing from general discussion. You read the book and it confounds every notion you have of story and of the printed word, and it makes you feel things in a way that you have not before, and it reminds you of things that you have felt before, and it introduces you to people that affect your senses like your partner’s breath in the morning after a night of drinking – and when the book is done you put it down and look at its cover and the name of the writer upon it, and you think, How in the hell did she/he do it?

    Thank you for recommending Highsmith and Higgins. In return, I’m pushing Walter Tevis and his book “The Man Who Fell To Earth” – and yes, this is the very same book that was adapted into a film by the same name, starring David Bowie, and if you have seen it you should kick it out of your head and read the book with as fresh a perspective as you can muster. It is a book that makes you feel alone and heartsick and hungover. It is published as science fiction and filed amongst other books that should feel lucky to rub against its spine. It is art, and you should read it.


  13. I think you do those writers you declare – whatever you are declaring with this article – a disservice by claiming Jim Thompson an inept writer.

    The Killer Inside Me alone cements Mr. Thompson’s name in the pantheon of great crime writers – a place, I believe, that excludes Ms. Highsmith and Mr. Higgins.

    Perhaps that book should be on your next to be read list.

  14. Scratches chin and ponders….wonder if Nick wrote this before or after I pointed him in the direction of JThompson’s “Savage Night” and “Nothing Man”? He’d had the misfortune of reading “The Alcoholic,” so if Nick was basing his estimation on Jimbo’s books mostly on that stinkbomb, then his conclusions, to my mind, were fair. ‘Cause let’s face it, Thompson wrote some stinkers. Either way, enjoyed coming across this piece a little late and enjoyed reading it now. Was unaware of it. And I’m not too much worried about agreeing or disagreeing with NT on the case of Jim Thompson.


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