Predictably, the issue quickly became one of whether or not crime fiction is crap, and the extent to which the literary novelist has or has not crawled up the dead end of his or her fundament.
At the risk of sounding churlish, it strikes me that crime fiction readers and writers are a little too quick to take offence whenever a ‘literary’ writer disses crime writing. I mean, imagine it in reverse: what would the reaction be in the literary world if Dan Brown or James Patterson offered the opinion that literary fiction is rubbish? Chuckles of disbelief, I’d imagine.
Is it a confidence issue? Because to me there’s something immature about a response that basically consists of pointing a trembling finger and shrieking, ‘No, you’re crap!’
Also last week, although I’d imagine the two events were unrelated, Lev Grossman had a superb piece in the Wall Street Journal on the second coming of plot in the contemporary novel, despite a century-long Modernist conspiracy to kill off the kind of good old-fashioned story-telling you only get in genre novels these days (if you haven’t read it, it’s well worth reading in full). Quoth Lev:
“Look at Cormac McCarthy, who for years appeared to be the oldest living Modernist in captivity, but who has inaugurated his late period with a serial-killer novel followed by a work of apocalyptic science fiction. Look at Thomas Pynchon—in INHERENT VICE he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more manoeuvrable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel.You can add the name of William Boyd to those of McCarthy and Pynchon. Boyd’s RESTLESS, a literary spy thriller, won the Costa prize last year, and ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS, his new one, should appeal to fans of David Goodis and his ilk, with a protagonist whose respectable life is turned upside down when he finds himself on the run, wanted for murder and pursued by a killer. Boyd has also won the Whitbread Prize, and been shortlisted for Booker and IMPAC prizes, so his literary credentials are impeccable. And, if ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS is anything to go by, the man can tell a page-turning story. Mind you, he’s also a screenwriter and director, so maybe he has a different take on narrative and pacing than most literary novelists.
“This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.”
But there’s the rub. Why does a story always have to have a beginning, middle and end? Aren’t people entitled to read a book for the beauty of its language, or the existential angst of its fragmented, non-linear narrative? The desire, or need, for a story to have a recognisable arc is in a microcosm as the same as wanting to believe that there is a meaning to life, the universe and everything. A comforting faith, certainly, but one that is at odds with the scientific truth that, at the quantum level, life is no more than chaos and chance. The hero who comes through his trials to earn a happy ending can be found in all the earliest mythologies, and remains the dominant paradigm, but the modern story that follows that kind of arc – whether it’s a crime fic, romance, sci-fi YA or literary novel – is just another kind of fairytale. And, in defence of even the most self-indulgent post-Modernist, it’s nice sometimes to read a story that isn’t a fairytale.
The issue of quality, when it comes to the use of language, is also a live one. Most literary snobs I know tend to believe that crime fiction is written by illiterates clutching crayons in their sweaty fists – although, for that matter, most literary snobs tend not to have read very much crime fiction. It’s a hoary old conker, but it’s worth repeating: there are good and bad crime writers, just as there are interesting and boring literary writers. Some crime writers can craft as fine a line as the best literary writers; others are every bit as bad as the literary writer who confuses bad poetry with good prose. The essential difference, I think, is that even with a crime writer who is hopelessly hackneyed on a line-by-line basis, there’s generally enough story to carry the reader along, whereas reading a bad literary stylist can be a Sisyphean slog.
But there are many literary writers who, though they can’t plot to save their lives, are worth reading for their prose alone. I defer to no one in believing that Elmore Leonard is one of the pre-eminent stylists (and storytellers) of his generation, and his dictum – if it sounds like writing, take it out – obviously works for him. But that’s a reductionist view of storytelling, and writing. Where’s the harm, once in a while, to break off from a story to savour a line or a paragraph, and re-read it for its craft, or its profundity, or for whatever reason you’re having yourself? Certainly that kind of writing is frowned upon in commercial fiction, where the rule of thumb is to immerse your reader in the story as quickly as possible, and do nothing that might prick the bubble of illusion. But, again, that kind of reading seems a little childish to me – the novel has the edge over movies, for example, precisely because it’s a two-way process in which the reader has to actively engage with the story, conspiring with the writer to create the images and pictures that float up off the page. Even while watching the best of movies, I never feel to urge to stop the film and rewind, the better to savour a particularly good scene. But I do get that urge, and regularly, when I’m reading a good book.
I suppose all I’m doing here is repeating Raymond Chandler’s old saw, that there’s no kinds of books, just good and bad books. I loved John Banville’s THE INFINITIES, for example, but I’ve also been looking forward all year to Elmore Leonard’s ROAD DOGS and James Ellroy’s BLOOD’S A ROVER. Radically different kinds of stories, and storytelling, but I’m pretty sure that when I look back at the end of the year, I’ll have enjoyed all three on their own terms.
Anyway, the point of all of this, I think, is express the wish that, the next time some uninformed snob unloads on crime fiction, the reaction from the crime fic community might be a little less Pavlovian; that the response would be to chuckle, perhaps even condescendingly, at the poor unfortunate who simply doesn’t understand, probably because he or she doesn’t read crime fiction. The crime genre may well be a relatively young one in terms of the evolution of the novel, but even at that we should be long past the phase in which throwing toys of out the pram, or huffing our way into hysterics, is considered an adequate response to criticism.