Rises and Falls

Once there was an art form that had reached so high a level of excellence and sophistication, not to mention popular success, that everyone thought it would last forever and certainly could never be topped/toppled. While it had been there in some way, shape and form for nearly one century, both its practicioners and their audience agreed that now was its Golden Age and there was considerable merit to this claim, at least if critical praise and sales were to be trusted. The artists showed no dearth of inspiration as one masterpiece followed another and big sellers succeded big sellers. Sure, there were some grumpy fellows pointing to the limits and weaknesses of the whole thing, but everyone else shrugged them off. The Golden Age, they said, was there to stay.

Until HE came. HE didn’t care for the complexities and refinements of the old school. His was a raw, unadornished art form that spoke to people’s guts rather than their hearts and brains. The establishement disparaged HIM as nothing more than a novelty act, but the general public succumbed immediately for HE was new, original and different – and then in a few years the game was over. Countless imitators appeared, and the previous rulers were progressively driven out of the mainstream. Some of them clung on longer than others, but ultimately all headed to the same destination: Irrelevance and Oblivion. A new narrative emerged that made HIM the beginning of everything and his predecessors objects of ridicule. The coup, for it was a coup, had been swift and comparatively peaceful but the body count was high – and a new art form had displaced the old one.

The story I just told you is not that of the demise of the classical detective novel, but that of the rise and fall of traditional pop, and the villainous « HE » is not Dashiell Hammett but one Elvis Aaron Presley. The basic plot, however, is the same and that’s the point of this article.

Scholars have long been musing over the « quiet revolution » that ended the Golden Age and gave way to the modern crime novel, how and why it happened and so fast. The standard explanation, which can be traced back to our dear friends Raymond and Julian, is that the Golden Age was an aberration and a dead-end and that the « American Revolution » came as a welcome corrective to put the genre back on the tracks of respectable literature. The problem is, the detective novel at the time was already moving towards « respectability » whatever that is supposed to mean. Once sacrosanct rules were openly questioned and writers were getting increasingly ambitious in terms of character development, themes and prose. The Golden Age as commonly understood ends with such decidedly un-traditional and seminal works such as Gaudy Night, The Beast Must Die, Calamity Town or Lonely Magdalen – hardly the signs of a dying art form. So what happened? My answer will probably sound paradoxical but here we go: Golden Age detective fiction died for the same reason that traditional pop did, that is, it had become too good to survive.

While artists from the beginning of time have always striven for it, the general public and most critics don’t care much for perfection. The former wants excitement, and the latter (over)values originality. Once in a while they agree and then we have a Golden Age, be it of pop songs or mysteries. Most of the time though, they don’t and that’s how you get The Monkees on one hand and John Coltrane on the other. And then there is that rare event, the advent of something really, radically new that speaks to both audiences and whose siren’s call is heard all the more as the established artists no longer fight for acclaim and take it for granted. I don’t think anyone with functioning ears can deny that Nat King Cole was a better singer than Little Richard but the latter offered something yet unheard of and more importantly spoke to his audience’s feet rather than concentrating on their ears like the former did. It’s a law of popular art that has yet to be falsified that the guts always prevail, and it proved true several times again afterwards, from hip-hop supplanting the more elaborate soul and funk as the most popular form of black music to the grunge takeover of rock and roll in the early Nineties.

Crime fiction is not immune to this phenomenon, and the fall of the Golden Age model is only the most remarkable instance of this. History repeated itself one decade later when another genre that had reached its apex, psychological suspense, was torpedoed then cast into outer darkness by a revival of Sapper-type spy fiction. The lesson to be gathered from all that is that sophistication appeals only to the elites whereas popular culture is meant for the masses – and the latter always have the last word. Both Golden Age detective stories and traditional pop songs still had a bright future ahead when the curtain fell; they died not because they were exhausted but because they had stopped being popular.


5 commentaires sur “Rises and Falls

  1. Until the last paragraph where you introduce elites vs masses, what you wrote is consistent with the existence of fashion cycles, which have been documented in many ares of life, including baby names. Though the desire of elites to differentiate themselves from the plebs is one explanation for the existence of fashion cycles (going back to Georg Simmel), it is not the only one.


    1. Fashion being fashion changes all the time indeed, and it certainly played a part in both phenomenons but I think there’s more to them than just that, and I myself may have oversimplified it by making it a mere « masses vs. elites » thing.

      Crime fiction elites after all were quick to rally around the new model. I remember Mike Grost saying somewhere that publishers actually helped bring the Golden Age to its end by siding with the « Moderns » while neglecting or outright rejecting traditional mysteries (Hake Talbot reportedly had a third novel completed but his publisher declined it on the grounds that it was no longer what readers wanted) Critics themselves jumped on the bandwagon enthusiastically. Rock and roll on the other hand had a much harder and longer time being taken seriously by the music establishment – even to this day you can meet some people, primarily in the jazz milieu, that still curse Elvis for screwing everything up.

      But I digress. What make both phenomenons so similar, interesting and ultimately puzzling to me is their counter-intuitive nature. We tend to think that art if not history has an arc that tends to further and further complexity, except that in these cases you have a comparatively primitive art form toppling a sophisticated, « evolved » one, and it inaugurated a trend in popular culture that still lasts today. Every time an art form, whatever it is, reaches near-perfection people turn away from it to embrace a comparatively cruder but « vital » challenger. There are probably many reasons for that including fashion cycles as you pointed out, but I think the « excessive sophistication » factor may have a part too – « high » art can afford to pursue perfection at the expense of accessibility, but popular art is meant for the masses which want nothing more than blood and thunder or a catchy tune to dance to.

      Hmmm, I think I may have to write another article on this subject…


  2. This article me of a comment I read once: (paraphrase) “the best thing about Stephen Sondheim is that he has an elitist’s approach to a popular medium. That’s also the worst thing about Stephen Sondheim.”


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