Worth Repeating: Raymond Chandler on the "Literature of Escape"

I just ran across Raymond Chandler's terrific essay, "The Simple Art of Murder" (1950) and thought his opinions on the "literature of escape" well worth repeating. Here's a brief excerpt that applies to all the genres as much as it ever has detective fiction.

In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity... I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.

Of course there are some very bad books written -- many of them -- and, as Chandler noted, more of these slip through the cracks and find their way to publication in the popular realm since far more examples of this type of book is printed. Even so, gems exist among the many mystery, Western, science fiction, fantasy, horror, or romance novels published annually. And from time to time, the best of these cross over to become enduring classics.

Can you tell for certain which will make the cut? Shakespeare's colleagues couldn't any more than Dickens', or any number of authors who aspired to entertain the masses.


Chuck said…
Bravo, Colleen !
Thanks for stopping by, Chuck. I appreciate the comment.
Nancy J. Parra said…
Awesome post. Thanks for sharing. Cheers!
Suzan Harden said…
I knew I liked Raymond Chandler!
Joni Rodgers said…
I love that essay. Required reading, for sure, and I've revisited it many times. I always recommend aspiring writers read it, then read "The Big Sleep," then read the essay again. Mind expansion ensues.
Thanks for the comments, Nancy, Suzan, and Joni. And I just downloaded The Big Sleep onto my Kindle reader. My mind's overdue for some expanding!
Mylène said…
Love the Chandler quote. Thanks!
This is the kind of education we need to get in school.

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