Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Hitch in crime (or why you should read crime fiction and not the news)

I inadvertently left at home the crime novel I'd intended to read on my dinner break yesterday, but the substitute was more than acceptable, and it dovetailed neatly with some recent Detectives Beyond Borders posts.

The author is Christopher Hitchens, the book is his essay collection Arguably, and the passage I have in mind is from the book's introduction, in which Hitchens recounts his support and admiration for real revolutionaries in the Middle East and contrasts these with, among others, "the baroque corruption of the `Palestinian Authority.'”

 "It was clear," Hitchens writes, "that a good number of the audience (including, I regret to say, most of the Americans) regarded me as some kind of stooge. For them, revolutionary authenticity belonged to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, resolute opponents of the global colossus and tireless fighters against Zionism."

Last week I wrote about my eye-opening chat in Tel Aviv about crime fiction in Israel. My informant was decidedly a man of the left, forthright and rueful about, among other things, the Israeli army's bulldozing of houses in Hebron. Yet he was equally forthright about calling Hamas terrorists. And he recounted a naval patrol from his own military service, when he marveled at the white sand beaches of Gaza and at the equally white luxury villas belonging to the Palestinian Authority elite that loomed above, built, presumably, with PA money that did not find its way into Swiss bank accounts.

Like the Israeli Arab driver who shuttled me to Hebron and Bethlehem on the same trip, that informant offered a more nuanced view of Israeli and Palestinian affairs than one is likely to get in America, where Palestinians are good and Israelis bad, or vice versa. And this, in turn, reminded me of Matt Rees' decision to turn to crime writing when he found a story "too good for Time magazine," and of the corruption of Palestinian officialdom that forms an important subtext in his novels but not of media and popular discussion of the Middle East, at least not in the United States.

And what about the Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra, who once told an interviewer
"Algerian readers like me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malayalam, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elites so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity."
There's another sentiment you'll likely not read in the American media, unless the reporters make themselves hip by affixing to it a fatuous social-media-related tag.

And now, readers, a question: "Crime stories reflect reality better than do the media." Do you agree? Disagree? Discuss.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2012

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26 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm not sure the media are always wrong or biased. We are fortunate in the U.S. to have rather good coverage of world events, and if we are in doubt, we can listen in on the Brits, the Canadians, the Australians, etc.

As for crime writers: all too often they haven an agenda that's personal. In other words, they cannot be trusted without additional evidence.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nor do all crime novels that adopt social or political agendas do so to the book's benefit. Nor does all blame rest with media. We consumers of information are often ready to digest what we are given without asking my questions.

I suppose I'm less interested in media than in the process by which a given set assumptions become popular wisdom, the sort of things that people say without thinking. I always liked Matt Rees' novels, but I appreciated his agenda all the more once I spent a bit of time in the Middle East and talked to a few people there.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should add, of course, that my singling out of American media does not reflect a belief that other countries' media are any more incisive, truthful, accurate or unbiased. It's simply that American media are what I'm familiar with.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll add, too, that I would never say crime fiction does provide a better window on the world than news coverage does, but rather that it can, in the hands of especially sensitive and deft authors, do so.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Susan said...

I agree with you, Peter, it's a thought that I have been thinking about for a post soon to come on my blog: that crime novels do portray society more accurately than media does. Specifically, the darker side, where what people really believe in is up against what people really do. We get to see what society is working out, in crime novels, that I think most media give only the rare glimpse of - because each editor is working from a slanted idealism already, in the media. It can't help be slanted, because it's funded by someone's money, and whether it's the common reader or the big publishers, someone has to like it to pay for it. Up here in Canada, almost all of our media is controlled by one source, instead of how it being two or three different publishers owners across the country. So now all our news sounds and looks the same. How can we be getting the truth of anything, when we are only getting one kind of coverage?

As someone who reads a lot of mystery and crime novels, as well as writing mysteries (sadly not published yet!), its' something I've given some thought to. Crime writers have a sort of freedom, they can write what they see, learn, about the places they go to, as well as imagine the darker places the soul can get to. Out of that mix of reality and imagination,we get a vision of what is occupying society at that time. I'm very interested in Matt Rees's books now because of this review! I don't think we get all or even a partial truth of what's going on in the Middle east because so much money and idealism is tied up there. So I would look for crime novels to tell me what the ordinary person there is dealing with, concerned about. A lot of truth comes out in crime fiction, is what I think.

Excellent post and ideas, Peter!

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the compliment. A few days in the Middle East are enough to jump-start anyone's mind.

I'm not sure money and control are the only things responsible and, as I wrote in a previous comment, I don't want to overstate the case for crime novels. It's a rare crime writer who is perceptive enough or is close enough to a contentious situation to do what news media often fail to do.

In the case of the Middle East, commentators in the media and in the public have too great an ideological stake and too little opportunity to visit the countries involved.

Is CanWest the big company in question?

March 24, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Sounds like you learned a lot about Palestinians on your trip to Israel, Peter. But nothing at all about Israelis. Are you sure you didn't carry some baggage of your own on your excursion?

As for the crime novelist v media question, they shoot jorunalists, don't they? Because journalists present the greater threat. They mention names, places, dates. Unlike novelists who disguise their criticism in the mists of fiction.

Some dictator's flunkey who shot a novelist instead of a journalist would be like the famed starlet who was so stupid she slept with the screenwriter rather than the director.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, you're sharp. One reason I appeared to learn less about Israelis and Jews is that I knew more about them going in, having been raised an educated as a Jew myself. Had I been, say, a Palestinian American visiting Israel, my posts might have given the opposite impression. I was struck with greater force by matters relating to Palestinians and Arabs simply because they were newer to me.

Your comment about journalists and crime writers is astute as well (though Yasmina Khadra went into voluntary exile in France from his native Algeria). But perhaps your comment is another way of saying that novelists have greater latitude and therefore more freedom to get at certain hard truths, should they choose to exercise it.

Sleeping with a screenwriter might have farther-reaching effects than bedding a director, but I doubt that anyone would be patient enough to wait for them.

March 24, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

Peter, I am a relative newcomer to your blog, having only discovered it a few months ago, but I find it intelligent and insightful. In response to your query today, I would say that crime writers ( fiction writers of all stripes, really) definitely have the potential to open up world events more widely than media. The primary reason is that they potentially have more space ( both literal, page count, and metaphorical) to explore the issues and motivations behind events. There will always be a bias to some extent, but it seems to me that the media tend to be less focused on motivation and back story, and focus simply on exactly what happened, just the facts. Unless, of course, a celebrity dies, in which case we don't hear the end of conspiracy theories and possible alternatives...but I digress. The fiction writer, especially a native or long-time resident, would have more detail and more possibility to explore than the media, the example being Matt Rees' describing his Time articles being " gutted.". Thanks, and I look forward to more excellent criticism from you and your loyal commentators!

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Jerry House said...

So much of today's news media seems to exist merely to parrot back sound bites. Some genre works get to the core of emotional issues better than most of the media. (I say "emotional issues" because I think they are at the heart of political and social realities.)

Most people, of all beliefs and backgrounds, want only a safe and secure place to raise their families -- something that appears to go against the personal interests of the various suppliers of sound bites. Fiction, including crime fiction, can evoke the universal feeling feelings that are in all of us.

The expanding availablity of crime fiction from all corners of the world helps us to feel that we are sharing our journey on this blue marble with others.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jerry, the question of "emotional issues" may apply especially strongly in Matt Rees' case. Read my itnerview with him for the real-life case that sparked his first novel.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aaron: Welcome, thanks for the kind words, and keep on reading and commenting. To be fair, Rees' comment about his articles being gutted may have been a bit of humorous mischief on his part. I believe he knew at the time of our interview that I am a newspaper copy editor.

With respect to your speculation about news reporting and fiction, Rees made the deliberate decision to include few Israeli characters in his books. He did this, he says, to avoid degenerating into mud-slinging, easy blame-mongering, and easy politics. Conventions of news reporting would have demanded that he get opinions from the Other Side to balance his reporting.

March 24, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

Hi again Peter, I think that Matt Rees did mention his humorous intentions in the interview, but I just felt that it was an example of a fundamental difference between fiction and the media, which is the amount of time and space that fiction is allowed to occupy v media. Jerry actually put it more clearly and succinctly by referring to the media's reliance on "sound bites," which is spot on. Fiction allows stories to be bigger and to occupy a larger portion of the reader's attention and interest...Rees makes Israel the center of the world for the reader in a way that media can't really allow. (I should point out that I haven't read Rees, though I definitely intend to read him now.) And consciously choosing what to incorporate into the story seems to me to be essential to publishing, whether under the banner of "fiction" or "non-fiction" ( labels that I find somewhat specious...nobody would accuse Michael Moore's documentaries of not being biased...I am Canadian, but I have seen a couple of them nonetheless!), at least he is conscious of his bias. I believe that it was Georges Perec who wrote an 800-page novel about a single second in time: we can never fully understand the world but we can better understand it by escaping the reductive world of sound bites and explore further into the worlds that interest us, and fiction potentially offers a deeper, more fulfilling view of those worlds...even with the inescapable biases and limitations. Besides, if a reader becomes especially interested, he or she (I wanted to avoid the singular they) can read other books and, of course, travel.

March 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anyone who shuns the singular "they" is especially welcome here.

Not everyone who writes crime fiction with what I.J. Parker calls an agenda makes a good job of it, of course. Think of that Stieg Larsson guy.

March 24, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

aaron, re: Michael Moore

I'd suggest that rather than say he's "conscious" of his bias, rather say that he's creating agitprop which aims to further his agenda.

March 25, 2012  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I'm tempted to wheel out that old chestnut... "what is Reality?"

All media are a form of art, floating above the real world in my view of things.

Photography is increasingly the medium I cling to when recording outings and I wonder if graphic novels may not be on the increase because readers like images so much more than words?

Just some lazy Sunday morning thoughts...

(I've made this into a post on Moderntwist2).

March 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, from what I know of Michael Moore, I'd say you're right.

March 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"What is reality?" is a dangerous chestnut best left to metaphysicians and college sophomores. "The real world" is no more real than the media that purport to examine it, so we're probably best off acting as if that world were real, and as if various media do indeed capture slices of that reality.

As for the proposition that photography is an especially faithful recorder of reality, I think Susan Sontag answered the question nicely.

March 25, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

Hi Linkmeister- Michael Moore was not the best example I could have chosen, but he just was on the top of my head in the category of non-fiction with a bias. I am certain that he is aware of his bias, too, but for my intentions it wasn't necessarily quite so germane to my overall argument. I just feel that categories of fiction and non-fiction are specious in the sense that there will always be a bias, however slight or however much is done to help avoid it...we're only human, after all. I do apologize, though, and if I think of a more cogent and effective example, I'll let you know!

March 25, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

My agent has been told by more than one famous editor that the reason American publishers don't want to publish me or Colin Bateman etc. is that the stories we tell do not fit in with the narrative of Northern Ireland that is the accepted truth in America: good IRA/bad Brits, evil Protestants/saintly Catholics.

It seems that even crime fiction has its limits.

March 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, it seems that even American publishers have their limits.

March 26, 2012  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Gardeners don't tend to have many problems with "reality". Contact with "nostalgie de la boue" perhaps?

I find Susan Sontage difficult to read, apart from "Illness as Metaphor", a finely written classic.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gardeners are well-grounded, you mean? You're right about Illness as Metaphor. I think about that book at work every time some reporter or obituary writers falls back on that awful cliche of "He died after a battle with cancer. But I was thinking of Sontag's On Photography, which I read years ago and which you might find interesting.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I'd like to think the various South African and Israeli crime writers you've been recommending, - and I haven't read too much of your blogs on the subjects, - are in a distinct style, peculiar and identifiable to their country of origin, - and not slavishly ape too much of American styles.

Bill James is, of course, unique; at least in my book, but I was rather disappointed, overall, in the Carlo Lucarellis, particularly the later serial killer novel, 'Almost Blue'
(although, admittedly I'm not a fan of serial killer novels where we get much 'insight' into the killer's thoughts, and even motivations.)

March 29, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Adrian, growing up in South Tipp in the 1960s, although all of the local Protestants we knew were all very quiet and civilised, and peculiarly well-behaved, - think a climactic scene in 'The Quiet Man', - there was that particular sub-class of Northern Protestants which were referred to as 'Black Prods'.
I never got to know what was so different about 'them'
(nor did I venture to enquire)

March 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, the matter of artistic influence is probably more complicated than slavish aping on one hand and bold originality on the other. Perhaps jazz improvisation is serviceable analogy. A John Coltrane will start with an American standard song, then ring musical changes on it, sometime straying far form the original, sometimes returning close to it.

You mention Bill James. He said in his interview with me that his most important influence was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I've since read two of George V. Higgins' books, and I don't find them especially reminiscent of James. So who knows all the ways in which influence can work?

I should remind you that I've read only Lucarelli's De Luca novels, set amid and in the aftermath of Italian Fascism. The books are The Damned Season, Carte Blanche and Via della Oche.

March 30, 2012  

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