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
Crime fiction in translation