Monday, 24 July 2006

Agatha Christie

I was interested to read, both in Houellebecq's Platform and in an interview on Normblog, that Agatha Christie enjoys a rather higher reputation among French academics than she does among Anglophone critics. I am not even sure if her work is regarded as "literature" by the people who write English courses at my old alma mater. As France is the home of deconstruction I can imagine some of the things they have done to her work but it was fascinating to consider that she may have been one of the cleverest and occasionally subtlest writers of the twentieth century. Houellebecq suggests her work has deep significance, capable of a real, literary understanding of human motivations and passions, while in the other article it said that a French academic (Pierre Bayard, professor of literature at the University of Paris) has written a book suggesting she may have got the murderer in one of her books wrong (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I think)! While that strikes me as the sort of thing post-structuralist and semiotic professors ( I mean professors of semiotics) do all the time it does seem to be suggestive of something much more profound in her work than has previously been thought. The normblog article is well worth a read (
but I wonder whether the problem is not popular culture for Anglophone critics (heaven knows Doctor Who, the Beatles, punk music, Harry Potter, Joy Division and Coronation Street have had extremely serious things written about them by various academics and hacks), but detective fiction and its uncomfortable status as a genre. I was never encouraged to study Conan Doyle or Sayers or even GK Chesterton in my fairly liberal English degree; but then I sometimes think a lot of fiction that can be stuffed into a bin marked "genre" is. I think a number of SF writers also languish a little in the academic status stakes, not least because their work is ghettoised by bookshops and readers alike.

Perhaps the general bypassing of traditional humanist criticism, and the subsuming of so much of it into critical theory will actually do us a service by reclaiming some of these authors as serious writers. A study, for example, of the political assumptions behind John Wyndham's work, or his vision of the perfect society might be interesting, as might one that really tried to disentangle the scientific utopian and dystopian aspects in HG Wells, or one that linked his ideas to political and philosophical stuff he was inspired by; one that tried to unpick the social assumptions behind Asimov's Foundation trilogy would be good too. Perhaps these already exist, but my point is that we are not snobby about popular culture, just genre fiction. when I did my literature degree, not all that long ago, I really wasn't sure anyone cared about these authors at all.

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