Thursday, November 27, 2008

Serious stuff: Existentialism and politics in crime fiction ...

... considered separately, I mean, as this post has two parts.

The existentialism part is thanks to an essay Ali Karim posted on his new Existentialist Man blog. His main concern is crime fiction and the capacity it affords for moral introspection. This fits nicely with my recent reading of Naguib Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs, whose protagonist cannot escape from the consequences of his own acts.

The politics comes by way of Mike Nicol, whose recent guest post here at Detectives Beyond Borders about South African crime writing reflects on the country's tumultuous recent history and that history's effect on crime fiction:

"Initially serial killers – or to put it in a broader perspective, crimes of deviancy – were the subjects of choice for both English and Afrikaans writers. Perhaps in this there was a desire to steer away from the political issues dominating a nation in transition, although this attitude is changing. Social and political concerns are back on the agenda, and the bad guys are now as likely to be politicians, business moguls, and figures of authority as perverts, drug dealers, serial killers and gangsters."
Crime fiction, then, can offer windows on the self and on the nation-state.

So, when I become king of the world, no one will be allowed to say a crime story "transcends its genre" unless he or she can also explain why an author capable of transcending the genre chose to write within it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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19 Comments:

Blogger John McFetridge said...

Good post, Peter. Windows on the self and on the nation-state.

For me, crime fiction will remain relevant as long as there is crime.

It makes sense to me that there would be a bit of a progression from crimes of deviancy (great phrase) which affect very few in the population - though in the most serious possible way, usually death - to social and political concerns which affect many, though much less directly, or maybe I should say with less immediate consequences.

Crime is irrational behaviour - especially in the crimes of deviancy (I'm going to use that a lot) or subversive behaviour if it's mostly for profit in an otherwise 'free' society.

No meaningful, honest conversation can take place about economics or sociology without consideration of crime, on the personal level and for the nation-state. And yet we do it all the time - in most places in the world the black market may be healthier than the legitimate market. There may have been criminal behaviour involved in subverting the legitimate market.

So, no meaningful, honest literary tradition can exist without consideration of crime.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

And to paraphrase something McFetridge said a few weeks ago, paraphrasing someone else...

Does a great piece of jazz transcend to become classical?

Or, perhaps, to put it another way, it is what it is and what it is ain't bad.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, among other things, your comment makes me wonder (as others have) at the extent to which we in North America are in the thrall of stories about crimes of deviancy.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Linda, maybe. You could argue that Coltrane's A Love Supreme is classical. ;)

November 27, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Peter,I think I'll trascend the post,and,rather than express an opinion,I'll point you to this not unrelated article on Carlo Lucarelli's Carte Blanche .
I've discovered the site through an Italian article-it is apparently a British/Irish/Italian/Spanish magazine,which seems a nice idea.
And,as you will see,"Il mondo è piccolo"

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda, if only these various art forms could take from one another without all this talk of transcending.

Does a great piece of jazz transcend jazz to become classical? Does classical transcend classical to become jazz? I dunno; ask George Gershwin.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I'm thinking about going to see the Australian Pink Floyd show in a couple of weeks. The reviews are terrific. And it'll probably be a lot better than the time I saw Pink Floyd at the Autostade in Montreal.

But no members of Pink Floyd will actually be on stage.

I wonder if there was a time when people said, meh, I'm not going to that show, Bach won't actually be there.

Has Pink Floyd gone from classic rock to classical? Has the music actually transcended?

Anyway, in my comment I wasn't thinking about a literature/genre issue at all, I was thinking about crime subject matter for books - any kind of books. It just seems to me it's a part of our lives that we can easily choose not to look at and therefore books are a great way to open up discussions. That certainly is a function of art, isn't it?

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I hadn't thought of it, but "A Love Supreme" is something like a four-movement Romantic concerto for tenor saxophone, isn't it?

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, Marco -- piccolo mondo is right. I like the article's portrait of De Luca especially. And I'll investigate the magazine further.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, your comment does much to make tribute bands respectable. Does the Australian Pink Floyd Show transcend the type?

In a way, a show like recapitulates an earlier stage in the history of what we call classical music. Until about the middle of the nineteenth century, musicians did everything: composed, performed, taught, led choirs and ensembles, and all this for private patrons. There was no conception, as I understand, of today's separate professions of composer and performer, which did not come along until later. Maybe some rock and roll, traditionally the product of musicians who wrote and performed, is now passing into something like a repertory, to be performed by other musicians, in the manner of classical music.

Now, if the promoters of the Australian Pink Floyd Show can sell that concept and thereby raise their ticket prices a few dollars, I want a cut.

The one illuminating criticism I have read of the "transcending a genre" trope (and does any serious writer about crime fiction or any other genre actually use those words, anyhow?) was that it was unfair. A given crime story that does things crime stories had not previously done does not transcend its genre. Rather, it expands it. And isn't such flexibility wonderful?

November 27, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

The Australian Pink Floyd Show are pretty much already there, Peter.

there's also something called Classic Albums Live:
http://www.classicalbumslive.com/
which I think is the beginning of a repertory.

We'll see how many of these "classic" albums outlive their original fans (or maybe we won't see, but our kids will ;)

And I really like your point about expanding not transcending.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

... transcends its genre ...

This can be such a condescending phrase. As if genre fiction can't address universal human experience.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I read online that the Australian Pink Floyd Show numbers among its fans Roger Waters, David Gilmour or both, which suggests that Pink Floyd itself my welcome the idea that its music is becoming part of a repertory (not to mention generating royalties every time the Australian Pink Floyd Show performs).

The idea of music being preserved from generation to generation via recordings rather than by popular transmission is an odd idea and probably signifies the death of folk music in any meaningful sense of the term.

As for classic albums outliving their original fans, somewhere, somehow, someone is listening to an old recording of the crappiest songs you and I can remember from our youths. That trend will probably only accelerate as it becomes easier for bands to distribute recording music and easier for listeners to store it.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right-o, Loren. A lot of genre fiction does not address Big Issues. That doesn't mean it can't do so.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

... and that also doesn't mean it has to try.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

The only thing I would say is that if genre fiction is going to address Big Issues, it needs to be aware of how these topics have been covered outside the (in this case) crime fiction base. With the recent growth in crime stories dealing with issues of identity etc, and particularly with the boom in stories with a 1930s/WW2 era setting, I'm becoming increasingly irritated by the tendency to assume that masses of new ground is being broken, and that the genre is dealing with important social and historical issues that have been neglected. (I admit this is one my research topics, but even so...) The existing literature may not be all that accessible or widely known, but it certainly exists - a lot of careers have been founded on the analysis of it! - and every time I see something proclaimed as pathbreaking and then find it reads like a Cook's Tour through Robert Musil, Kafka, Alfred Doeblin and Kurt Weill et al., I feel like grinding my teeth. And I think it wastes one of the key advantages of genre fiction, which is its ability to integrate interesting and sometimes alien ideas via the more accessible medium of exciting plot and characters. Instead there seems to be some sort of claim to moral authority or authenticity via pastiche.

(I've just finished Second Violin, and though I really liked the prose and found parts of it excellent - and extremely accurate - certain elements/incidents that I've seen praised for their ingenuity have resonances I'm not sure should be casually evoked.

That said, I'm becoming increasingly aware that I'm not the target audience for a lot of the new crime fiction, and that's not because I'd prefer to be reading Henry James. Historical awareness seems to be badly hindering my reading pleasure.)

November 28, 2008  
Blogger Ali Karim said...

Great post even if you cost me money, as Naguib Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs, sounded damned interesting!

Also as a long time Floyd fan, Gilmour, and co are big fans, in fact the Aussie Floyd were hired by Floyd to play their recent private party - But Waters was absent

Ali

November 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, or The Woman Who Knew Too Much:

I think you edge close to one of the hazards of crime fiction and Big Issues. I would hate to see critics start expecting Big Issues from crime fiction and authors start feeling an obligation to comply. That would be no fun. But crime fiction can break ground in other ways, too. Garbhan Downey avowedly sticks to older literary forms, but he writes about the Troubles in Northern Ireland with a tone that is new and exciting for its subject matter. Without knowing which books you have in mind, I would say that there's nothing wrong with crime writers following a path first trod by the authors you mention (or by Celine, either, who seems an ideal source for cool young historically minded noir authors to steal from except for the annoying matter of some of his political beliefs). But critics need to be aware, as you suggest, of how the subjects have been covered outside crime fiction. And the authors need to write well enough to justify whatever pastiche or borrowing they do. I suppose I'm cautioning against blaming authors for the shortcomings of mainstream-media critics.

Second Violin evokes certain elements and incidents with surprising or even daring off-handedness. I think that's a calculated strategy on John Lawton's part to make the incidents even more horrifying than straightforward invocation might.

Speaking of Kurt Weill, I recently watched From Russia With Love, featuring Lotte Lenya making the best of what seems today like a stereotype.

November 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ali, The Thief and the Dogs is a thin volume available in paperback, so it won't cost you much money.

I had read about the Australian Pink Floyd Show being hired to play at a Pink Floyd party. I was unsure whether to consider that a great tribute or a huge act of narcissism.

November 28, 2008  

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