Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Friday, August 1, 2008

On Putting The Gat Into THE GREAT GATSBY

Answergirl – aka Clair – was kind enough to respond to my most recent post on the definition of crime fiction, during which I briefly but comprehensively bored everyone into submission by recounting my previous attempts to grapple with a concept no one else seems even remotely interested in. Quoth Clair:
I agree with your first position -- but even by your revised position, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES, THE SCARLET LETTER and THE GREAT GATSBY are all still crime fiction. For starters.
  Intrigued, I tracked answergirl down to her lair, and found this in her most recent-but-one post, which concerns itself with TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES:
It makes me angry when I hear literary novelists talk trash about crime fiction as a genre, as if plot, conflicts and violence disqualified a book from being taken seriously as literature. The essay for my Advanced Placement English exam asked us to discuss the role of an act of violence in a major work of literature, and any bright student would be spoiled for choice. You could write about anything from Macbeth to THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.
  THE GREAT GATSBY? MOBY DICK? TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? INVISIBLE MAN? Violent, violent, violent. HEART OF DARKNESS is a thriller; THE SCARLET LETTER is a mystery. This was obvious to me as a girl of 16, and it’s even more obvious to me now.
  Strong words, ma’am, and your passion warms the cockles of my heart. But – and here we diverge slightly – I do have issues with crime fiction fans and writers claiming the likes of Hawthorne, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Shakespeare et al as authors of crime fiction, and for two reasons.
  The first is the issue of intent. In terms of the quality of their prose, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, who were more-or-less peers, are equals. But the difference is this, I think: Hawthorne tells a story in which a crime, or crimes, are central to the narrative; Poe, on the other hand, writes about criminality, using a crime, or crimes, to propel the narrative. Maybe it’s a fine line that separates the two, but it is an important distinction.
  The second issue I have is that, by saying that every narrative which features a crime is automatically crime fiction, fans and writers of crime fiction run the risk of (a) diluting the elements of what makes crime fiction such a potent genre, and (b) sounding like they have an inferiority complex, in that they need to claim the literary giants for their own in order to justify reading and writing crime fic.
  As a reader, I love the crime fiction genre above all others. But the genre only accounts for a third, and possibly even a quarter, of my own reading, and I have no need to read JUNKY as a crime novel, or THE CROSSING, or LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, or THE LORD OF THE FLIES or CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN, in order to enjoy them, even if they all contain elements of crime and criminality.
  I suppose the reason I’m mulling all this over right now is that I have a story on-going, and have had for some years, which contains a crime at its heart, and a crime without which the rest of the story would collapse. And yet I think the reason the story hasn’t worked out for me yet, even after five or six drafts, is that it isn’t a crime novel, and never will be, and that I need to start thinking beyond those parameters as a writer, because the novels I’ve written to date have been very definitely crime novels.
  If the story is to work, I need to get back to where I was as a young reader, when the branding – indeed, the author, or the quality or otherwise of the writing – was irrelevant, when all that mattered was that the story was interesting enough to keep the pages turning.
  Sounds na├»ve, I know. But here’s hoping.


AnswerGirl said...

Declan, you flatter me by giving such weight to my rantings. My own opinion is that the boundaries of crime and literary fiction are so fuzzy as to be almost meaningless, and I always wonder what the benefit of genre classification might be.

Let's take poetry, for example. A sonnet is something specific; it has rules. Ditto haiku, villanelles, quatrains, etc., etc.

You would not call a 16-line poem a sonnet, even if it had some elements in common with a sonnet, and you wouldn't call the Rime of the Ancient Mariner a haiku.

But crime fiction has no such rules, unless we're talking about the most traditional body-in-the-library stories. The more we try to define it, the more we limit both writers and readers.

As an editor and a bookseller, I am just as dismayed by people who insist on reading only crime fiction as I am by people who think it's beneath them -- therefore, I'd rather drop the question altogether.

That doesn't mean that your point about your own book isn't valid, but I think it's drawing the question too narrowly. You were trying to give your book a shape that didn't serve the story you wanted to tell; I understand why you frame that in genre terms, but it doesn't need to be.

Cheers, and hope to meet you in person one of these days --


Declan Burke said...

Clair - Some great points, inarguable ... and I totally agree with your comment about people who only read crime fiction, or only read one type of book. As for my own book ... we'll see how it goes. But conversations like these are all grist to the mill. Cheers, Dec

Adrian said...

Hi Declam

Interesting post - and interesting books (I've only just discovered yours)

Somebody asked me this question recently. The answer that came to mind was that your average crime novel revolves around the question "Who killed Fred?" The mystery at the heart of Dostoevsky is more along the lines of "Who killed everybody?"


Adrian Hyland

Declan Burke said...

Hi Adrian - Thanks for dropping by, and for the kind word. You're right about Dostoevsky, et al, in that their scope and the scale of their ambition was / is much wider than that of the conventional crime novel.

"Who killed everybody?" I like it ...

By the same token, I think the great crime writers are entitled to consider themselves on a par with the Dostoevskys et al in terms of scope and ambition ... Chandler, Ellroy, Leonard, James Lee Burke ... Are they not asking 'who killed everybody?' too? Cheers, Dec

Ted said...

A crime is an act against a law.
A law is created to keep order, and in effect, peace.
All literary works need a problem so that there is a solution to write about, and therefore all written material is in the genre of a "crime novel" if you are true to the definitions