Raymond Chandler on Writing

The Reader magazine issue number 26 came out today and it includes a short article of mine on Raymond Chandler. Since I finished my PhD thesis on Chandler back in 1998 I’ve found it hard to write about him for some reason, but this piece worked out OK I think. Here’s an extract:

Crime writer Raymond Chandler did not have a high opinion of literary critics. On January 19, 1946 he wrote to fellow crime writer Erle Stanley Gardner: “The critics of today are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like Fadiman or honest men confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson.” He was no less scathing about the “reading public,” who he thought had been taught to read by “brute force” and could be sold “significant literature … by exactly the same methods as are used to sell toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles.” Chandler’s definition of what constitutes literature was more broad. His letter1 to Gardner continues:

When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball. … Dumas Père had it. Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it …

Later, in a letter to Frederick Lewis Allen on May 7, 1948, he put this more clearly, arguing that the editors of the pulp magazines were wrong about their readers:

My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, though they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description …

Chandler’s career as a writer started late. He was born in Chicago in 1888 and moved to England with his mother in 1895, where they lived with his grandmother and an unmarried aunt in Dulwich, Sout London. Like his near contemporaries P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forrester he attended Dulwich College, where he excelled at languages. He travelled in Europe for a while and eventually began a career as a literary reviewer, essayist, and–in his own opinion–the worst reporter on the Daily Express…
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All quotations from Chandler’s letters are from Frank MacShane (ed.) Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Columbia University Press, 1981.

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