Film critics have lauded the French thriller Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One) with adjectives fit for a personal ad: “taut,” “sexy,” “smart…” Having recently caught a matinee, I’m willing to attest to its tautness. However, the climax reminded me that dramatic smarts entail more than a pensive hero and a Gallic pedigree. By way of elaboration, I will now spoil the ending: A bad guy, training a gun on the hero, maps out one of the most convoluted conspiracies this side of Behold, A Pale Horse. Then he orders the hero to keep listening: “But wait, there’s more. I also killed your father.”
The “Let me explain my master plan” speech is a staple of crime novels, and has enlivened any number of TV shows. We accept the convention without balking because generic narratives like The ABC Murders, Scooby Doo, and Murder, She Wrote aren’t claiming to be “smart”; they’re meant to entertain. But when characters who’ve been granted all the appurtenances of serious drama – histories, mannerisms, tastes – are suddenly reduced to conduits for information, as they are in Tell No One, the reader experiences cognitive dissonance. Who writes this stuff? he wonders.
The answer, in this case, is the quintessentially American Harlan Coben, from whose novel the film was adapted. In a memorable Atlantic Monthly profile last year, Eric Konigsberg portrayed Coben as a nice guy, albeit slightly insecure about his reputation vis-a-vis that of his Amherst dorm-mate, David Foster Wallace. But this being the Atlantic, the profile also attempted to pose questions (or stoke resentments) about the nature of literary distinction:
In Las Vegas, I asked Coben how he felt about being invisible to the world represented by The New York Times Book Review, and about the parallel-universe status that so much crime fiction, including his books, has. At first he was au fait about it, but then he got worked up. ‘If I asked you to name five great books that survived 100 years ago that don’t have a crime in them, you couldn’t,’ he said.
Not having read the work, I was willing to give Coben the benefit of the doubt. Now, after seeing the movie, I’m more inclined to agree with his later admission, “It’s not like I’m an artist.”
Konigsberg and Coben are right to suggest (and I’ve argued before) that the distinction between art and genre fiction rests on false premises. Cormac McCarthy alone should demonstrate that a novel can contain a murder, or an apocalypse, or a dead mule, and still be literature. Yet to imply that a writer of westerns, thrillers, or romances automatically deserves to be considered alongside Dostoevsky is to err in the other direction. If anything, the NYTBR’s problem is not that it accords too little serious consideration to genre writers, but that it accords too much to novelists toiling in the vineyards of literary fiction.
That is, there is a distinction between art and entertainment; it’s just not the one we’ve been thinking of. FSG’s Jonathan Galassi and Grove/Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin came close to pinning it down at a publishing panel last year, when they suggested that “genre fiction” aims to repeat an excitement, by meeting established conventions, whereas literature inaugurates new conventions, and thus new excitements. (Of course, innovations of character and of language require more column-inches to explain to potential readers.) By this definition, plenty of the short stories in The New Yorker constitute genre fiction, while some “crime novels” – those of Richard Price, for example – are literature. And even great artists – the Dickens of Little Dorrit, comes to mind – can lean too heavily on crutches like the expository filibuster.
Without knocking the pure entertainment value of watching Harlan Coben’s characters fulfill their generic destinies, Tell No One is no Crime and Punishment. It’s not even The Fugitive. Yet it seems frivolous to bemoan the literary establishment’s “parallel universe” when your own universe comprises a vast audience and sums of money Dostoevsky only dreamed of. If literary discrimination is, by definition, elitism, it is, in America, an elitism without teeth. And even when elitists like me campaign to preserve the meaning of the words “smart” and “literary,” we know that a taut, sexy, and ultimately silly thriller is still nothing to sniff at.