Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Can a posh author write crime fiction with an edge?

(Mural in San Francisco's Mission District, photo by your humble blog-keeper)

Val McDermid suggested during her interview of Bouchercon's international guest of hono(u)r, Denise Mina, that an author's working-class background can lend her books a hard edge.

Mina agreed, suggesting, among other things, that "crap jobs are good for dialogue."

Mina said she left school at 14, not for those crap jobs, at least not at first, but rather to sit around and smoke and watch TV. She later attended university and became an academic, though she says she misused her grant money by writing a novel instead. She went on to become a great success as a novelist, graphic novelist and cultural critic. If a working-class edge is so important, I asked her, how does one maintain that edge in the face of success?

"That's a brilliant question," she said. One of her ways is through charitable efforts whose benefits go directly to the people who need them. One current effort, she said, gets people into higher education.

What's your take? What does a writer's background bring to his or her fiction? What does a working-class background bring? Can a posh author write crime fiction with an edge?
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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26 Comments:

Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Well, I'm from a fairly rough backround, I suppose- lots of domestic violence, I left school at 16 like most of my family , mother sectioned a lot, someone I knew murdered, family in prison.I've doen my own share of petty crime/scams.

But I've never been out of touch with that world. Even when working in London I was a welfare rights worker in the inner city. Stories there.

Now , TEFL teaching in Poland, I'm sort of middle class-in the eyes of my students.Not that I have much money. But, as you know, the TEFL world is cluttered with rum sorts!

So, I think it's been easier for me to have access to certain types of juicy material than some other writers.The trip back for my dad's funeral this year, for example, gave up loads of absurdist stuff!

But I doubt that I'll ever be as good a crime writer as Derek Raymond, who was as posh as they come.Or Highsmith.

s

October 20, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I came from a poor family but my mother's side was educated. So I don't think of myself as one or the other. And my husband's family was an interesting lot of ne'er do wells so I borrow from him shamelessly.
I think in the US especially we don't think about class that much being a ragtag group on the whole. But we do think about money and race more than those across the pond. Although that's changing too.

October 20, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

Sure, the "posh" writer can. A lot of it is ear, especially in the dialog. Do they choose to, and are they able to write appropriate settings, situations, and characters without seeming to write down to them? That's harder. It can be done, but it can't be assumed.

October 20, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Good question.

Dashiell Hammett was born into an "old" family, but left school at 13 and held many jobs, so he doubtless had many experiences himself as a working person, who worked hard and eked out a living for awhile.

This definitely informed his work.

John Steinbeck worked with agricultural laborers and migrant workers when he was young, which also influenced his writings and sympathies.

October 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, that's what my question to Denise Mina was all about: how she stays in touch with that source she says is so important.

Her father was an engineer, by the way, so, although she says the family moved around a lot for her father's job, she probably was not working class then. But she did work the crap jobs, she says, and leave school early. Maybe she's first-generation working class, which is probably of more interest to sociologists than to crime fans.

Sounds like your job in London was a temperamental cousin to some of Denise Mina's jobs after she went back to school. She researched issues of mental illness and female offenders. She tried to stay a touch with a grittier side of things even when she went respectable, in other words.

In re Derek Raymond, he was more than your run-of-the-mill rebellious rich kid, wasn't he?

October 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, it's interesting how issues of education, wealth and family get conflated. I mentioned in a previous comment that Denise Mina's father was an engineer, according to her family, so perhaps middle-class pr bourgeois values, whatever they are, underlay whatever she gained or became when she left school and worked the crap jobs.

October 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, yes, of course a writer from a comfortable background can have a good ear. I doubt Denise Mina or anyone would else would disagree. I suspect she and Val McDermid would suggest that the difference lies in the author's attitude rather than his or her prose style.

The subject was just one of several in an hour-long interview. Perhaps four writers and a moderator on the subject would make a good convention panel.

October 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, your suggestion could not be more timely. I am staying in the heart of Hammett country as we speak -- about two blocks from where Miles Archer was shot in The Maltese Falcon and from a street named for Hammett, and just a few blocks more from where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. Today I took pictures relating to Hammett's story "The Whosis Kid."

Hammett's experience might be roughly comparable to Denise Mina's -- one's own life experience counting at least as heavily as one's family's social and economic background, and perhaps more heavily in the author's eyes.

October 20, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
The right writers and moderator could make this a fascinating panel. Let's hop someone with the authority to make ti happen sees this post.

October 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can make sure the right person sees it. Thanks.

October 20, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Methinks this calls for an appropriate 'Four Yorkshireman' type response: "I used to have to get up in the morning, half an hour before I went to bed, and work 23 hours a day, down mill", so therefore I'm better qualified to write a hardboiled crime novel than any pampered ex-Blackrock College educated toff

But wait, wasn't Raymond Chandler educated at an English 'public' school?
(always thought he was a bit 'soft', anyhow!)

October 20, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What complete and utter horse pucky. It constantly astonishes me the variety of ways people can come up with to declare themselves superior to others. In this case, of course, the declaration draws a fair amount of fawning support since it is the 'right people' declaring themselves superior to the 'wrong people'. I wonder how much support I would have gotten if I had declared my ethnic background caused me to be better equipped as a writer than others? Right. None.

October 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, Derek Raymond is an even better example of a writer of posh lineage who wrote dark crime novels. Or take the lilting, innocent early love songs of the Beatles and the dirty blues of the early Rolling Stones, then guess which group was working-class boys, and which went to art school and the London School of Economics. This would be a good rejoinder had I or Val McDermid or Denise Mina suggested that working-class authors were superior or that such a background was a prerequisite to gritty artistic production.

We suggested no such thing, of course. McDermid merely asked what Mina's own background had meant to her writing and suggested that her rough experiences might have made her fiction what it is -- a reasonable question. Denise Mina apparently had a checkered youth and also writes hard-hitting crime fiction. It's reasonable to ask whether the first was a prerequisite to the second. Whatever Val McDermid may have insinuated, the question of superiority did not come up.

And yep, Raymond Chandler went to Dulwich and was proud of his English education and his grounding in the classics. The thing about a discussion like this is that it's easy to caricature the positions of both sides. That's why the topic might be well-suited to a panel discussion.

October 21, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

I lived near Dulwich School for a bit. Cracking pubs around there. PG Wodehouse went there too, so a good place for writers,then.

The 4 Yorkshireman thing is spot on. I always think that when crime writers talk about there time 'inside.'

Reality is the bacon and eggs and the writing is the fry up.

Val is my favourite writer at the moment.

The point that I hoped I'd made - and that Val was surely making- is that when it comes to writing crime it's actually easier when you're from a working class background. Unless you're writing legal thrillers, I suppose , or stuff where the hero has a girlfriend who owns an art gallery.

I think Anon-nice name ,that- missed the point a bit but I'm sure sure she/he draws a lot from her own experiences. But she's probably not as good as Derek Raymond. Or Patricia Highsmith. Or Val. Or loads of others.Or maybe he's better?

October 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I knew Wodehouse went to Dulwich as well, and I'm told the school has a library each named for him and for Chandler. I hope the lttle blighters who are there now will appreciate those names one day.

I suspect you're right about the point Val McDermid was making.

October 21, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Denise Mina's background definitely informs her writing about working-class characters.

When I read her Garnethill series, about a women who had worked in a social service agency, but was not a social worker, her class identity was a strong part of her personality, thinking and actions.

I may reread that series it was so good!

And then her Paddy Meehan character, an Irish young woman, who lives in Scotland, who works at a newspaper office.

Her family is very poor, some members haven't worked for a long time.

The book portrays the tough lives of poor families in Scotland and the modernization and lay-offs common to newspapers then--and how it impacts families and communities.

Mina's background definitely affected her writing and made it very realistic.

I felt total empathy for those newspaper workers.

October 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, it would be nice to ask Denise Mina about these issues in some detail. I mentioned above that her father was an engineer, so her life was probably nopt one of deprivation, though it was apparently rootless, with frequent moves.

I'm not sure I'd want to read about newspaper layoffs, since they have been going on around me for years.

October 21, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Denise Mina left school at 16, then had a lot of low-wage jobs, including in restaurants and in a meat-processing factory.

No doubt, she met a lot of people in similar circumstances and she was influenced by them and the work.

At any rate, she surely can convey their situations and difficulties they face, as well as write some good mysteries.

Yes, the newspaper layoffs, get that. A friend was laid-off as a proofreader from a major magazine.

Technology has its pros and cons, if it impacts on jobs.

October 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Denise Mina said during the interview with Val McDermid that, while her biographies say she left school at 16, she really left at 14. The truth would be too shocking, I guess. She did mention her waitressing and meat-packing jobs.

I'll keep you posted when I read her work.

October 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

A friend just read, enjoyed and praised "A Darker Domain," by Val McDermid. It's about a major miners' strike. (This friend does not like mysteries where the protagonist is a middle-class or upper-class pretender, phony, snob, aristocrat, etc.)

I definitely have this on my TBR list but have to finish this informal global challenge I set for myself, so going back to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland--not to mention Italy and France will take me awhile.

October 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, that might be a good place to start, though I may prefer a cool, distant approach to novels of corruption in which the working classes, immigrants, or others are ruthlessly crushed. I have Dominique Manotti and Jean-Patrick Manchette in mind.

October 23, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

'A Darker Domain' is a fantastic book.

October 23, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Okay, Paul, as well as Petrona and my reader-friend just convinced me.

"A Darker Domain" just went further up on the TBR list. It sounds fantastic.

October 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Looks like Bouchercon 2010 and you lot will be instrumental in getting me to try Val McDermid.

October 23, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This is just too tempting--Val McDermid interviewing Denise Mina.

Wonder if we can call, phone, email Bouchercon organizers to post these interviews. They must be taped or videoed.

October 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Selected clips from Bouchercon generally find their way onto YouTube. I haven't seen the McDermid-Mina interview yet, but I'll check in from time to time to see if it's posted. This may be shocking, but I don't know if the guest-of-honor interviews are taped. They certainly ought to be.

October 29, 2010  

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