When Walter Mosley was invited to be master of ceremonies for the National Book Awards in November, it wasn't just because of his long association with the National Book Foundation or his service as a member of its board of directors.
"It was probably because I write in genre," he says _ because he writes mystery fiction.
Best known as author of the Easy Rawlins novels (six of them, from Devil in a Blue Dress to Bad Boy Brawly Brown) but often praised by critics for the literary quality of his writing, Mosley was a symbol of both sides of an argument that made the usually staid National Book Awards something of a war of words.
It started when the foundation announced it was giving its Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award to Stephen King.
A horror writer? Oh, the horror!
Literary critic and professional curmudgeon Harold Bloom fired the first salvo, calling it "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."
Writers, critics and pundits piled on on both sides, some deploring the presentation to King of an award previously given to literary luminaries such as Saul Bellow and John Updike, others defending King and dismissing the criticism as snobbery about popular fiction (or sour grapes about King's zillion-dollar net worth).
The sparring continued at the awards ceremony. King (who donated his $10,000 award to the foundation) stood up for popular fiction. His tone was in part conciliatory: "Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers."
But he got a few jabs in, too, saying he did not have "any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they've never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer. What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"
King's speech apparently made an impression on Shirley Hazzard, winner of the fiction prize for her very literary novel The Great Fire.
In her acceptance speech, Hazzard said, "I want to say in response to Stephen King that I do not _ as I think he a little bit seems to do _ I don't regard literature, which he spoke of perhaps in a slightly pejorative way . . . as a competition.
"I don't think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction because we are reading in all the ages."
Interviewed from his home in New York City, Mosley says that reading in all the ages is a lesson in the value of popular fiction. "A lot of people don't realize that the history of fiction as we know it is the history of popular fiction. Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain _ they were all popular writers."
The definitions of popular fiction and literary fiction are more than a matter of how many copies a book sells. The difference lies, Mosley says, in what a book sets out to do.
"Popular fiction is meant to be an entertainment. It's fun, it's exciting.
"Literary fiction is meant to go deeper into the human condition, deeper into the human heart."
The line between the two is one writers have been crossing for centuries, Mosley says, at least as far back as ancient Greece and such works as The Iliad and The Odyssey. "We read that and say it's high literature, but it's entertainment. It's exciting, it makes us cry, it makes us laugh."
Our perceptions of whether a work is literary or popular are often based on cultural attitudes and scholarly interpretations. "Shakespeare didn't have all those deep thoughts we find in his plays as he was writing them. He couldn't have. It's not possible," Mosley says.
"A lot of what we see in literature we make up ourselves."
Mosley says the categorizing of books as popular or literary is of little help in evaluating individual books.
"There are a lot of literary critics and college professors who believe they know something other readers don't know," he says. "I mean, you can talk about this is good, this doesn't work, but when you do it in a prescriptive way, when you make a judgment, you can't talk about the book.
"If you're working from a quantitative, prejudged definition of a genre, you can't talk about the book."
Literary writers often use the forms and conventions of popular genres in their books. Among literary novels published in 2003, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake was a science fiction novel, Thomas Sanchez's King Bongo was a detective novel and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife combined elements of romance and science fiction.
And popular fiction sometimes can transcend the limits of a genre such as mystery or science fiction and become literature. That explains the endurance of such authors as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who not only helped define the detective genre but stand as accomplished novelists.
Mosley says, "One of the most influential writers in American literature is the creator of the detective genre, Edgar Allan Poe. That doesn't necessarily mean all crime fiction is great. But it means something."
Of course, sometimes writers of genre fiction step outside their genre intentionally, as Mosley has done several times. His new novel, The Man in My Basement, is neither a detective novel nor science fiction (another genre Mosley has written in) but a literary novel.
Mosley says he doesn't think of books in terms of genre when he begins writing them. He doesn't even plan his plots. "I don't know what's going to happen. Some people know how the book's going to end, what's in the middle. I don't know any of that."
When he began writing The Man in My Basement, he did know it wasn't genre fiction. "It came out of a silly wish of mine to be locked in a cell in a basement with nothing but all the books I wanted to read."
The novel grew into something very different from that self-indulgent daydream. Anniston Bennet, one of the book's two main characters, is indeed locked in a cell with copies of Moby-Dick, The Alexandria Quartet, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Vineland, but more than reading is on his mind.
Bennet is a wealthy white man with a mysterious job as a "reclamation expert," which seems to involve everything from financial manipulation to murder. His jailer, and the owner of the basement and the house above it, is a troubled black man, Charles Blakey, whose life is in need of another kind of reclamation.
Mosley has called the book an intellectual novel, and it focuses on the conversations between Bennet and Blakey and their explorations of the nature of power and evil. Yet that aspect of the book, which could easily become abstract, is grounded in Blakey's above-ground life, which Mosley writes about with the same kind of warm, telling detail that makes the Rawlins books so vivid.
Mosley, 52, grew up in Los Angeles, the only child of a black school custodian and a Jewish school clerk. In his late 30s, tired of a career as a computer programmer, he enrolled in writing courses at City College in New York.
He didn't set out to be a mystery writer. "The first book I wrote wasn't a genre book. It was Gone Fishin', about Easy and Mouse, and no one wanted to publish it." (The novel, about Rawlins and his best friend, Mouse, coming of age in 1939, was published in 1997.)
"So I wrote a genre book. I read genre, and I like it." The result was Devil in a Blue Dress.
Published in 1990 and introducing Rawlins as a World War II veteran living in Los Angeles in 1948, it was an immediate success. Critics praised it as a successor to the hard-boiled tradition of Chandler and Hammett, a tradition that has a huge, ready-made readership.
His work got a boost in 1992 when President Bill Clinton said Mosley was one of his favorite authors. Devil was made into a film, starring Denzel Washington, in 1995, and USA Network is planning a series based on Rawlins.
Mosley says, "I didn't set out to write genre with that book. It just ended up that way because of the structure, and because of Los Angeles."
But after his first success with detective fiction, he stayed with it. The seventh novel featuring Rawlins, Little Scarlet, will be published in July.
Mosley has never limited himself to detective fiction or even to a single character, as many other genre writers do. He has published a novel about a blues singer, science fiction novels and short stories, political monographs and books in two other crime series, one based on an ex-con, Socrates Fortlow, and the other on a pair of friends, timid Paris Minton and the aptly named Fearless Jones.
For many genre writers, a proven, popular series character such as Rawlins would be enough. Why does Mosley keep exploring new paths? "There are no deep reasons. It's fun. Why would I publish a political monograph? Or why would I write science fiction?
"Writing is writing, and I love writing."
Each kind of book allows him to address themes in different ways, he says. "Easy's stories and character are drama verging on tragedy. Fearless and Paris are drama verging on comedy."
His current project is a book titled 47. "It's a young adult novel about slaves in the 1830s, about a young boy who is chosen by an extraterrestrial intelligence for a specific task."
Which sounds like maybe science fiction, maybe historical fiction, maybe young adult fiction. "It proves that genre is only in the lightest way able to define fiction," Mosley says. "You want to call it genre fiction, okay, fine. But that's not going to tell me anything about the book."
Labels such as genre fiction and literary fiction are only the first step toward understanding a book. The proof is in the reading, he says. "Everyone's relationship to a book is personal, everyone's experience of a book is personal. And that includes the writer.
"It's like psychoanalysis. If I say I had a dream about a bear and you say you can tell me what it means, you can't do it. It's my dream."
_ Contact Colette Bancroft at bancroftsptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.
Walter Mosley's new book, The Man in My Basement, is neither a detective novel nor science fiction (both genres he has written in) but a literary novel.