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Why isn't Arthur Conan Doyle considered a first-rate writer?

I find the style of the Sherlock Holmes books astounding. Here are some of the sentences I liked:

Holmes lay with his gaunt figure stretched in his deep chair, his pipe curling forth slow wreaths of acrid tobacco, while his eyelids drooped over his eyes so lazily that he might almost have been asleep were it not that at any halt or questionable passage of my narrative they half lifted, and two gray eyes, as bright and keen as rapiers, transfixed me with their searching glance.

also:

You remember that last night when I came through that door I begged and prayed you for mercy, and you laughed in my face as you are trying to laugh now, only your coward heart cannot keep your lips from twitching?

and:

Of all ruins, that of a noble mind is the most deplorable.

also:

It was a September evening, and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mudcolored clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light,—sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

I find the above phrases fascinating, and I don't remember feeling that same intensity when I read, say, Dickens or James. (I read only acclaimed excerpts of grade-A writers, except for Emily Bronte who I like). Am I missing something? Why isn't he considered a member of that elite literary group?

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    In the first half of the 20th century, crime novels were not considered high literature, and nobody who wrote one could possibly be deemed a first-rate writer. Possibly this prejudice clouded Doyle's reputation enough that it still hasn't recovered today, when acclaimed literary novelists are writing mystery novels (Kate Atkinson comes to mind, but there are several others).
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 17:13
  • Conan Doyle only wrote four crime novels. Sherlock Holmes almost exclusively appeared in short stories. He also wrote several adventure novels.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 20:58
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    It probably would also be useful to have sources indicating that he is considered to not be a first-rate writer. Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 12:23
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    @SeanDuggan I would second this. AFAIK Conan Doyle is generally quite highly regarded. Enough, at least, that I found a collection of his works editor by none other an authority than Harold Bloom.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 21:54
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    @MattThrower: I believe Harold Bloom was arguing that genre books could be great literature long before this was a general consensus among critics/academics. Here, for example, is his recommendation for Little, Big, a fantasy novel by John Crowley.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 10:34

2 Answers 2

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I'm going to answer by taking issue with the question itself. I think we can demonstrate that while Conan-Doyle might not be truly considered "first-rate", his work is taken seriously by academics and literati and is taught and studied in the English-speaking world.

Let's begin by trying to define "first-rate" here. There is no hard and fast definition of the English canon, but I haven't found a listing of canonical authors which includes Conan-Doyle. However, given the volume of literature produced in English, inclusion in the canon is an extremely high bar and is generally reserved for authors whose work was exceptionally innovative and influential. As worthy as you may feel Conan-Doyle's work is, I'm sure you can see that he doesn't really belong in that truly exalted club.

That said, there are plenty of academics who study and teach well-respected authors who are not on the canon list. The poet Wilfred Owen is an excellent example: his work is studied by almost every schoolchild in the UK and remains revered. It's also taught at university in greater detail, but it's stressed that, while highly emotive and well-written, the content is relatively simple and straightforward. It's difficult to mine for deeper and more complex meanings. That doesn't make it, in any way, bad. Only a less rewarding object for study.

This is the camp that Conan-Doyle falls into as an author who was technically highly accomplished, but whose work does not tend to reward repeat readings with additional insight. And he is studied and taught at a similar level to Owen. There is at least one academic in the UK, Dr Christopher Pittard at the University of Portsmouth, who lectures and publishes on his work:

My first book, Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction (2011; reissued in paperback by Routledge 2016), arose out of an AHRC funded project at the University of Exeter and considers how detective fiction published in 1890s periodicals engaged with ideas of material and social purity, ranging from Sherlock Holmes cleaning the face of criminality in “The Man with the Twisted Lip” to the moral policing carried out by the Social Purity movements and late Victorian antivivisection campaigns.

Literary critic Harold Bloom, whose work has, arguably, done more than any other to establish and define the literary canon did not include Conan-Doyle in his list of canonical works but still saw fit to include him in a collection that he edited, Classic Mystery Writers (ISBN: 9780791022108). Canonical or not, to have met Bloom's standards for inclusion is passing a very serious test of quality.

Finally, Conan-Doyle is quite commonly taught at high-school level. The Sign of the Four is part of the current GCSE (the secondary school level exam of the UK) syllabus module Shakespeare and the 19th-century novel. Previous set texts for GCSE have also included The Study in Scarlet.

In short, then, Conan-Doyle is not seen as a truly "first-rate" author, nor as canonical, but in the wider view this seems entirely fair. He is, however, absolutely celebrated, studied and taught as the talented and brilliant second-tier writer that he clearly is.

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  • "I'm sure you can see that he doesn't really belong in that truly exalted club" - it seems that this is exactly what the OP doesn't see, and more evidence or explanation would be good to support this point.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 8:42
  • @Randal'Thor Fair, although I have tried to explain more in the following paragraph.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 8:45
  • 'inclusion in the canon is an extremely high bar and is generally reserved for authors whose work was exceptionally innovative and influential'. It is surely a reasonable view though that the Holmes stories were both innovative in their featuring of a 'scientific' detective, and influential in that they essentially spawned a genre of crime detection novels?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 11:23
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Having received few answers to my question, and having thought a little about it myself, I will try to put my own notes as I discover them in my literature journey.

Here is what I found till now:

  1. The subject of crime solving itself doesn't lead to much emotions other than the thrill... So we have like only one tone of music instead of the many tones offered by regular life.
  2. The repetition of the theme, story after story, dilutes that sole emotion.
  3. The language itself, while is very elaborate and researched, may appear artificial, and hence distant from the anything we remember about life, hence it also leads to a kind of "thrilling" prose, but not relatable.
  4. The notable absence of the woman in the novels also confine it to a solitary place.

That is what I came out with. I hope to add more items in the future, and I also hope to stir some debate. This is very important for me, since I like to build my prose style for my first novel, and I would like to "guess right".

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