Saturday, December 08, 2007

Some sensible words about crime fiction and a question for readers

I generally squirm at discussions of genre vs. “serious” fiction, especially when it comes to my genre, crime. Anti-genreists are snobs, pro-genreists exaggerate their claims. More to the point of these debates, what’s their point? I can enjoy Fred Vargas or Ken Bruen or Ruth Rendell without agonizing over whether they are as worthy as James Joyce or Tolstoy or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

James Fallows’ recent posting on The Atlantic’s Web site, though, held my interest, and not just because he singled out some crime novelists whose work I especially enjoy. No, what makes Fallows’ essay stand out is that he bases his assessment on the actual experience of reading the books:

“I've figured out a way to tell the books I can feel good about reading from the ones I should wean myself from. The test is: can I remember something from the book a month later – or, better, six months or a year on. This is the test I apply to `real' fiction too: surprisingly often, a great book is great because it presents a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn't thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards. Rabbit Angstrom, Captain Ahab, and Clyde Griffiths (of An American Tragedy), to choose the first three examples that pop into my mind from American fiction.

“I say that `genre' fiction, like spy and crime novels, ascends into the `real' fiction category when the world it presents can exert the same tenacious hold on your mind.”

Among the crime novels that Fallows says meet that standard are Janwillem van de Wetering’s early “Amsterdam Cops” books (though he cites an odd reason for liking them, and he misspells van de Wetering’s name), and Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto.

I agree with those choices, and I would add a few that present “a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn't thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards”: Yasmina Khadra’s novels about life in war-torn 1990s Algeria, the delicious social comedy of Bill James’ middle-period Harpur & Iles novels, and perhaps the yearning hope and despair of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy.

OK, readers, what crime writing does the same thing for you? From which books can you “remember something from the book a month later – or, better, six months or a year on”? (Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

12 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

I will say this. I don’t know if I am well read but I do try and read widely. For me, regardless of “genre”, the single greatest factor determining if a book is a favorite of mine is what I call re-readability. If the desire to re-read it exists that’s a good sign. And if I’ve re-read the book and it has absolutely stood up, and hopefully unfolded in a new way, then, for me, it is great and has become a favorite.

I’ve been surprised over the years with a couple of books that I loved when I read them and I was sure that I would again but ultimately didn’t hold up the second time. And others that are set-up as greats but I don’t at all possess the desire to dip back into them.

Three crime fiction writers who I consider favorites, and I have re-read, are James Sallis, Ken Bruen & Dennis Lehane.

But the thing about this particular debate that has always bugged me is that I don’t understand why people can’t just maintain a mixed list of favorite books, authors or whatever is being discussed. Why is it necessary to force a division. Is it so wrong that in addition to the above three named crime fiction authors (and others) I also count Tim Powers, Robertson Davies, Graham Joyce, Russell Hoban , Jonathan Carroll, Patrick O’Leary, Catherynne M. Valente, Michael Moorcock, Dan Simmons, Gene Wolfe, Stepan Chapman, Jeff Vandermeer Paul Witcover, Matt Ruff, Alan Moore and Pete Dexter as brilliant writers and personal favorites?

December 08, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

“I say that "genre" fiction, like spy and crime novels, ascends into the `real' fiction category when the world it presents can exert the same tenacious hold on your mind.”

That statement bothers me. It's as though crime fiction is lower by nature and has to rise above its shortcomings to be something else, when in fact there's much that's outside crime fiction that's completely forgettable - including much so-called "literature". I've thrown whole books at walls from that section of the store, because they weren't about anything. More like the author wanted to show off with their phrasing but didn't have a story, a point or anything meaningful to offer to the reader other than nice alliteration.

The truth is, if you start dividing, where do you stop? How do you compare cat mysteries to PI novels to hardboiled to anything else? In the end, there's only one judgment about a book that really matters, and that's an evaluation of it against its intent. Some authors write solely to entertain, some write to amuse... How can I say a book hasn't "ascended" because it's amusing but not "real"? While it's true my own preference is more toward the serious end of the spectrum, I think we have to be careful about divisions that infer quality, when what we mean is taste. Okay, I've probably read enough amateur sleuth books that rely on whole police departments peopled solely with imbeciles and protagonists that are so gosh-darn lucky they just trip over all the evidence without looking to last a lifetime. But that is a question of personal taste.

We can look at awards like the Edgars and see that traditionally more "serious" works get nominated, as with the Academy Awards, and so there will always be more recognition for work that leans on that side of the equation.

As for what books linger? The works of Ken Bruen, now I can add James Sallis, Kevin Wignall, Laura Lippman... Add in Steve Mosby's The 50/50 Killer, which left me feeling uncomfortable for a long time in its wake. And there are others.

December 08, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Brian, I'd put Robertson Davies on any such personal list also. And sure, the desire to reread is another refreshingly direct and human criterion for rating a book, though perhaps a somewhat higher standard than Fallows'.

You and I agree on the debate. Why argue about what's "real"? I've reread Bill James, and I've reread Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

Re your remark about the Oscars, Andrew Sarris remarked years ago that the U.S. has always honored least the movies it does best: Westerns, comedies and the like -- the sort of "genre" movies whose lierary counterparts have trouble being taken seriously.

December 08, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Sandra, I'll cut Fallows a bit more slack than you do. Elsewhere in the piece, he writes that crime fiction "has taken over part of the describing-modern-life job that high-toned novelists abdicated when they moved into the universities." He's just as hard on "real" fiction, in other words, as you are when you throw books. Notice that he also puts both real and genre in quotation marks, which to me indicates amused skepticism of the notion of a, er, generic division between the two.

In the end, there's only one judgment about a book that really matters, and that's an evaluation of it against its intent.

But some "genre" writing can go beyond its intent. Erle Stanley Gardner, based on the evidence of "The Cat Woman" in the Big Book of Pulps anthology, was a superb craftsman, an inventive storyteller and a fine builder of suspense. The story is an unqualified success, in other words. But toward the story's end, the protagonist breaks from the action to deliver a lengthy soliloquy, no break for reaction or even for a breath. Weakness or genre convention, it's jarring all the same.

Contrast that with Paul Cain's novel Fast One, written just a few years later. Cain's book has no let-up. Call Cain a stronger writer, or say that his book rises above convention. The second may be merely a snobbier version of the first.

December 08, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

If a book exceeds its intent, wonderful.

However, there is a subjective aspect to reading, and what is powerful and inspiring for one may be perplexing and ultimately meaningless for another. As readers, we bring something to the equation, and that contributes to the experience. It's the same when you watch movies or TV or listen to music as well. I remember seeing American Beauty in the theatre and being completely choked up at the end. The guy sitting in front of me stood up and said, "What the hell was that?"

December 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I think we agree on the essentials. What I found most attractive and refreshing about Fallows' comment was its subjectivity. And let's not forget the passage of time and changing tastes as complicating factors. I refer once again to the pulpsters, many of whom used diction and grammatical constructions that sound cheap and shoddy today. In their own time, perhaps they did not.

In music, Bach, the god of gods today, was not thought a big deal until a revival about eighty years after his death. Or painting, where Piero della Francesca had to wait almost 400 years after he died to be recognized as one of the supreme masters.

Acknowledging a subjective element to reading is not the same as denying that one book is better than another or, perhaps, even that one kind of writing is better than another. Just don't ask me to say which is which.

December 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Oops. It appears that I credited Sandra's remark about the Academy Awards to Brian. Sorry.

December 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Damn, it's a day for revisions. Piero della Francesca did not have to wait quite 400 years. He had enough of a reputation to make it into Vasari's Lives of the Painters ... in the sixteenth century. But he had certainly been out of mind for quite some time when he was rediscovered around 1880. The point is that what is thought great now may not always have been so.

December 09, 2007  
Blogger Barbara said...

I actually quite like that idea - that a book works, really works, when it leaves you somehow changed. There are plenty of books that try hard not to do that - both in the crime fiction genre and elsewhere, books that work very successfully as entertainment, but which are designed to be consumed, not to last.

I'm not making a moral judgment here, that entertainment is bad, but there are a lot of books that are like food at chain restaurants that serve predictable and non-nourishing meals. People like them because a) they know exactly what they'll get; no agonizing over whether they'll have made a mistake when the food arrives and b) it fills them up for the moment, conveniently and quickly. They enjoy it, then they can crumple up the wrapper and be off.

Sometimes reading is like trying food you've never encountered before. You may not like it, it might even upset your system, or you may discover taste buds you didn't know existed. It's nourishing (and possibly frightening) in a way that quick, easy, familiar food is not.

There's more "fast food" in genres than in literary fiction. It is, after all, "commercial fiction," meaning it has a potentially large audience. On the other hand, literary fiction serves a lot of fussy, trendy, silly concoctions in which the presentation on the plate is more important than the taste of the food and the waiter, who makes sure you know his name is Michael, leaves you feeling small and stupid. Or, perhaps worse, much cleverer than everyone else that you can afford to appreciate such rarefied stuff, even though the food down the street at the Jamaican jerked chicken stand is tastier and more imaginative.

December 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I like the thought that an unusual piece of fiction might be like some "quivering part of some unheard-of fish" on the plate, as a former colleague once wrote to me about a meal she had had in Korea.

Another thing about the "genre"-vs."serious" "debate" is that in the past, practitioners and publishers of the stuff may not have cared. The Big Book of Pulps collection will tell the reader that a given writer may have been compared to, say, James Joyce in his time, or that Dashiell Hammett is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. But it also is forthright about saying that some authors or publications had nothing whatsoever to do with fine style or even literary merit. That goes for enjoyable, exciting stories, even for some included in the collection.

By the way, "My name is Michael; I'll be your server tonight" types never leave me feeling small and stupid. I always think that they must have extremely low IQs to seem so proud of the crap they are rattling off. As Fran Lebowitz once wrote: "Big people talk about ideas. Average people talk about things. Small people talk about wine."

December 09, 2007  
Anonymous Karen C - http://www.austcrimefiction.org said...

All hail the late, much missed Len Evans and his "wine is a bloody drink, so let's drink it" (that's my sort of Wine Snob!)

But it's an interesting question - this memorable book thing and coincidentally something that's been discussed in these parts recently courtesy of a comment on the radio the other day by an author who was talking about scanning the bookshelves and seeing what he could actually "remember" reading as opposed to those worthy tomes he knows he has read.

It depends I guess on what triggers memory. I know, for example, that I've read Moby Dick a couple of times but on your average day I struggle to remember much detail from the book at all - something about a whale and ships and much angst. But then something will happen / somebody will say something and a flood of memory or connections will come back and I'll find myself considering the coincidences between x and Moby Dick.

On a weekly basis the books I remember ebb and flow, mostly because of those triggers.

December 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

”I've read Moby Dick a couple of times … But then something will happen / somebody will say something and a flood of memory or connections will come back and I'll find myself considering the coincidences between x and Moby Dick.”

That’s a positively Proustian take on memory, speaking of classics that are perhaps more talked about than read.

Ambition may be yet another useful way to discuss differences between “high” and “low” art. In music, for example, I recently attended some Chopin concerts. His piano music is full of romantic, dramatic melodies of the kind that would make perfect pop songs, especially slow, “meaningful” AM-radio ballads. The difference is that where a pop songwriter might build an entire song around one such short, melodic passage, a Chopin makes it just one in a suite of melodies and musical ideas. He develops it, alludes to it, recalls it in other parts of the piece. He’s more ambitious.

December 09, 2007  

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