Can any kind of writing become literature?


Raymond Chandler believed that a good story could not devised. It had to be distilled.
Raymond Chandler believed that a good story could not devised. It had to be distilled.

HE WAS A WRITER of pulp fiction and nothing else.

That’s what the critics said.

He wasn’t one of the literary giants.

That’s what the critics said.

But Raymond Chandler could out-write them all. At least, he was as good as the best and better than the rest. His prose was poetry. His written lines might hit you between the eyes like a sledgehammer, but when you could think clearly again, those were the lines the great authors wished they had written.

It was said that Raymond Chandler wrote deliberately and with a sense that even in the most disposable pulp story, quality was non-negotiable.

He believed that a good story could not be devised.

It had to be distilled.

He said, “When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature.”

At the age of forty-four, after tainted careers as a literary reviewer, poet, newspaper man, and independent oil executive, Chandler, found himself fired and on the streets as the clouds of the Great Depression spread their grim shadow across the land. It seemed that he drank too much and too frequently.

He had a choice to make.

Kill himself.

Or kill someone in a story.

He chose the story.

Raymond Chandler changed his entry in the Los Angeles phone book to “Writer” and signed up for a correspondence course on how to be one. He wrote and sold his first story, Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” to a pulp magazine called Black Mask.

Yet, the greatest mystery of all, some said, was how Chandler was able to transform himself from an English Edwardian literary critic and poet to a hard-boiled American pulp modernist.

Some critics believed that the writer developed his distinctive style by using American spoken English and vernacular for dialogue and British English sentence structure for description.

Raymond Chandler offered these thoughts to mystery writers in a 1950 essay:

“The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge …

“In everything that can be called art, there is quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.

“He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

“I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all.

“He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.

“He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude with, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

“The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

Chandler’s character, Philip Marlow, and his novels became major hits on the silver screen, but he always believed, “If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come.”

Raymond Chandler proved, more than anyone, that literature can be found in any genre, even in detective stories where the hero says, “I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.”

He wasn’t one of the literary giants.

That’s what the critics said.

Maybe the critics were wrong.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Genre doesn’t count. Neither does subject matter. But I agree with Chandler and believe that writers should work hard to give every story a literary quality of its own.

  • jack43

    Ah, but what is literature? Searching for definitions on the Internet provide a plethora of opinions, too many to be truly helpful. I suspect that the answer can be found only in the passage of time. The proof is in the pudding and literature may just be defined as those writings that endure.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jack, I keep asking my wife, who was an English teacher, why some books are considered classics. The only reason is that someone chose to stick them in a text book decades ago, and no one has ever had the guts to take them out.

  • The short answer is Yes.

    I just re-read a lot of Travis McGee. It held up well – and there are lots of buried gems.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      John MacDonald was one of the great writers of my time, and Travis McGee is one of the great characters.

      • Pete Morin

        And don’t forget Ross MacDonald/Kenneth Millar and his hero, Lew Archer.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Pete, Lew Archer is as good as the come. The MacDonald boys were good, John D. as well as Ross.

  • Pete Morin

    Great piece, Caleb. The critics were wrong – proven so many times over the years.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Pete, that’s why I’ve never trusted the critics. All they happen to be are critics. They pass judgment without ever having been in the arena.

  • Both motivational and educational. Man, I love how he wrote. Although Hemingway’s voice differed in style, there is a plainness to their writing that both shared, an easiness that is not at all easy to obtain. Thanks, Caleb. I’m a fan of Chandler. Strangely enough I discovered Chandler through Robert B Parker.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Woelf, I began my love for that style of writing with Dashiell Hammett, then found Chandler. And maybe it was my admiration for his prose that led me to Hemingway. Of course my English teacher probably had more to do with that than Chandler. God bless her for leading me to Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Sandburg. As a result, it was only natural for me to become a devout fan of Robert Parker.

      • I have yet to read Hammett. I try to emulate the style of writers I like, which includes Parker, Hemingway and Gaiman, but I also think certain styles are specific to genre and wouldn’t work elsewhere. However, I wrote a post a year or so ago about Hemingway and Gaiman and how they found their respective voices, and if I remember correctly, Hemingway used to copy word for word the prose of writers he admired, to understand how they wrote the way they did, and through doing that and partly because of his experience as a reporter, he discovered his voice. I think Gaiman did the same.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Woelf: I would love to re-publish the blog you wrote Hemingway and Gaiman finding their voices if you could email it to me at

          • That would be awesome, thanks, Caleb. Email is on its way.

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