Monday, April 30, 2007

The New Yorker gets it partly right

I remember the night I figured out my place in the Philadelphia ******er's universe. I was proofreading stories in the sports department, and I came across one that said the local football team's quarterback had "shattered his knee." The trouble was that he had torn a ligament. Ripped, shredded or tore up might have worked, but shattered was plainly the wrong word to describe a tearing injury.

I pointed this out to the night sports editor, who looked at me as if I were from Mars. A reporter standing nearby added helpfully, "It's a matter of semantics." Well, yes, it was a matter of semantics – a matter of meaning, a matter of figuring out what you intend to say, then using the right word to say it. I don't remember if anyone corrected the mistake, but the night sports editor eventually enjoyed a career full of promotions ever higher into management, and the reporter eventually was rewarded with a major beat. As for good, crisp, accurate prose, the people who count at the ******er have always agreed with the eye-rolling reporter: it's a matter of semantics, in the dismissive sense of the word.

Why mention this here? Because I'm grateful to Clive James for raising the question of prose style in his recent New Yorker article, Blood On The Borders: Crime fiction from all over. It's a curious piece, with a conclusion that might anger crime-fiction readers and some slack reporting that frustrated this reader of international crime fiction, but it got at least one important matter right: Good prose is important.

James accuses Massimo Carlotto of bad writing, and he cites this example from The Master of Knots: “We’ve absolutely got to find a way of stopping the Master of Knots and his gang," Max said angrily. James fails to consider that poor translation may be the problem, but he's right; that's a bad sentence. I enjoyed seeing an attack on bad prose in crime fiction that went beyond ritual bashing of Dan Brown.

So much for one paragraph from Clive James' amble through the world of international crime fiction. Maybe I'll discuss the substance of his piece later. In the meantime, read it, and let me know what you think.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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17 Comments:

Anonymous Hamish said...

Clive James writes pieces like the one in the New Yorker while he is thinking about loftier matters, possibly his finances. The NY publishes them because you don't turn down pieces by Clive James, even when he has the air of a man out for an hour's slumming.

April 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

He does want to have it both ways, doesn't he? He thumbs his nose at stodgy old Henry James so he can go out drinking and shooting with Raymond Chandler and Donna Leon, only to come back home to Henry and assure him that he's the one after all, that those crime writers were just one of those crazy, flighty, not-to-be-taken-seriously things.

April 30, 2007  
Blogger sauron said...

Strano che un giornalista del new yorker accusi carlotto di cattiva scrittura senza considerare la così detta lost in translations.

April 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Sono d'accordo. Ho letto che il signore James legge l'italiano. Forse si. Ma perche egli non sindaca la traduzione, oppure non precisa che aveva letto la versione originale?

April 30, 2007  
Anonymous Karen C said...

I've always thought it was no accident that Clive James and Germaine Greer were friends and moved to wider climes - they are both extremely fond of the sweeping statement designed to engendar a response.

I understand Clive will be slumming over here as the Melbourne Writers Festival guest of honour - I'm assuming that means he'll manage to offend lots and lots of people and probably enjoy it immensely in the process :)

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

What would Clive James make of his fellow antipodean Peter Temple's writing?
Some of his character's dialogue makes Massimo Carlotto's unsavoury crew sound quite educated and mild mannered.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, Michael Walters, about whom I posted a short comment recently, also wondered what Clive James might think of Peter Temple.

I wondered whether James might consider The Broken Shore one of those crime novels that aspire to seriousness. Its protagonist is, at least for now, a one-shot character, for one thing. Also, while Cashin is pain-riddled, his troubles seem like more than standard angst-ridden-detective window dressing.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I wonder if Clive James will speak at any of the sessions on crime fiction.

He can't be dismissed out of hand, at least on international crime fiction, because he makes some penetrating observations. Perhaps he is also a salutary antidote to those who take detective stories too seriously. Still, his jocular dismissiveness can be hard to take, and some of his statements smack less of the cultivated reader than of the publicity hound.

May 01, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Yes, I thought Clive James would like Peter Temple (not just The Broken Shore but also the Jack Irish books) because there's something about the acerbic, finely-honed style that reminds me of James at his best. Of course, James is prone to making sweeping statements for effect, comic or provocative. But I enjoy that, because the effect is usually at least worth thinking about, even when you disagree with the statement that prompted it.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Temple writes with wit but is not averse to the rare over-the-top statement just for fun. Perhaps that might endear him to James. James might knock the Jack Irish books down a notch on the seriousness scale, though, because they're Jack Irish books -- they have a recurring protagonist. Or maybe he'd like them better for their unpretentiousness in doing so. He has some fun with crime writers who show the seriousness of their intent by writing books without their series characters.

The only thing I don't like about James' provocation in the crime-fiction article is its hint of the ugly side of the gentleman amateur, the suggestion that going beyond the sweeping statement and investigating the subject would be beneath the man.

May 01, 2007  
Anonymous Carlos said...

I suspect that Clive James would treat Peter Temple with the same scorn as the Melbourne Writers' Festival. A history of the festival posted on the web doesn't mention Temple among the Australian writers who have appeared at the annual event.

May 01, 2007  
Anonymous Vaughan said...

Just checked that MWF site. One crime writer does get a mention among the distinguished guests: Shane Moloney. Does he outrank Temple in the eyes of the festival? Wow. The boy's a lightweight.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Carlos: I speculated above about how Clive James might treat Peter Temple. The real issue, if Clive James is a worthwhile subject for discussion, is why he never mentions Temple at all. The article does, after all, promise to discuss "crime fiction from all over."

Carlos and Vaughan: I found Peter Temple's name, picture and capsule biography on the program for the 2006 Melbourne Writers Festival: http://www.mwf.com.au/2006/content/standard.asp?name=Authors_TUV#Temple. Whether he in fact appeared, I don't know.

May 01, 2007  
Anonymous Carlos said...

I've been to Temple events at at least three Melbourne Writers' Festivals before 2006, when I think he didn't show up. But the issue here is Clive James and crime writing. It's quite clear from his tone that he agrees with another Australian critic's description of the genre as "the higher trash".

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

"Higher trash" is a nice description of Clive James' attitude toward crime fiction, I'd say, though James expresses himself with more style than that. Perhaps he avoids Peter Temple because Temple might not fit his thesis so easily.

May 01, 2007  
Anonymous Karen C said...

Temple was at 2006 - but he did miss one major panel after a personal accident (I've got memories of a broken arm in my head but that could be wrong). Of course, combining the Ned Kelly's with the festival last year raised the profile of many of these local writers considerably which has to be a good thing.

But then, the MWF is not just a crime writers festival and we are often disappointed at the way that crime fiction is regarded by many participants - doesn't stop us having a rather largish showing there - we've got a group of, at one point last year, over 10 people - sort of "hunting in a pack" for want of a better description. It's an annual 4MA gathering - 4MA being a crime fiction readers group on Yahoo that a smallish number of Australian readers belong to.

May 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note, Karen. I was surprised at the implication in some comments here (OK, it was explicit) that the festival dissed Peter Temple. From my very distant perspective, it seemed that Temple is highly regarded in Australia, and not just in crime-fiction circles.

Who are these participants who look down on crime fiction? Other writers? Festival attendees? Organizers?

May 03, 2007  

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