10/30: Shaw v. Gardner

Erin A. Smith provides us with a useful set of oppositional approaches to the issue of detective fiction’s place in the cultural hierarchy.  On the one hand, we have Black Mask editor Joseph Thompson Shaw, who extolled his writers’ publications in the more literary, highbrow, “slick” magazines as evidence of Black Mask‘s equal level of sophistication and accomplishment. His approach is a defensive and recursive one, arguing for Black Mask‘s exceptionalism while also claiming its indistinguishability from the popular slicks. Smith characterizes Shaw’s stance as “desiring honorary slick status” instead of arguing for the cultural value inherent in the pulp (33).

On the other hand, writer Erle Stanley Gardner, who was one of the acclaimed writers Shaw would’ve singled out, thinks Shaw’s argument is futile. People will pay for a pulp when they want to read a pulp, and a slick when they want to read a slick. For Gardner, not only are the two genres unrelated and incomparable, they’re each validated but the market niche they inhabit. In fact, he seems to jokingly suggest that the pulps are better than the Post or Liberty because it costs 15 cents more (34). We can see Gardner’s stance as bound to the innate possibilities the genre provides. His stance might seem to be more populist and liberating, freeing the detective genre from the pressures of being avant-garde or marketable. But it also assumes something inherent about the genre (and its readers) that remakes the ‘great divide’ and stratifies them.

Shaw’s approach seems to end up costing the magazine, which nearly always operated in the red. However, his career is remarkable for the talent that he fostered into higher cultural strata: Hammett, Chandler, Gardner, etc. In the longer span of time, it is Shaw’s work that earns these writers the capital needed for places in the canon.  Gardner goes on to rake in the silver screen bucks writing Perry Mason for CBS (and showing up as a frequent NYT Crossword answer, according to Wikipedia). But how do we resolve this tension between the two defenses against cultural hierarchy using Bourdieu’s theory of cultural value? One possible answer is that Shaw’s approach best serves in shifting the milieus over long periods of time, giving writers the currency to enter into different spots along the hierarchy throughout their careers. It offers the role of the editor, or literary agent, in the market. Gardner’s approach, however is better for the short-term market, playing the rules of the game successfully as a writer who knows his place best.