Sunday, July 29, 2007

Crime Fiction Should Know Its Place, According To Some

For the first time, as I listened to a radio special on Harrogate Crime Festival*, I was actually glad I hadn’t attended this year. Not because of the rain and floods, but because of the “spat” (as some called it) between David Roberts and Mark Billingham. I don't think I could have handled myself as reasonably as Mark Billingham did.

David Roberts throws down the gauntlet at the beginning: “What could be more old-fashioned and artificial than that? I’ll tell you what. It’s the gritty, realistic, blood-soaked corrosive rubbish that you see spattered all over Waterstones every day.”

Mark counters: “Crime fiction is uniquely placed to tackle rather important issues that I know you find terribly distasteful David, but issues such as child abuse and hate crime and terrorism. We live in a very scary and violent world and fiction that completely puts its head in the sand and refuses to address this is hopelessly out of date.”

David replies: “What is sad is that crime fiction, which is supposed to be entertainment, should try and think it’s superior enough to take on these major, gritty, realistic, subjects like child abuse and they love to have a violent scene with perhaps some woman or child being tortured. Is that what we want to read? Yes, if you’re a serious novelist, by all means tackle big social subjects but not if you’re a crime writer.” He goes on to say, “What we do want to avoid is the pornography of violence that is so prevalent.”

What’s with this recent trend making carte blanche statements against “blood-soaked corrosive rubbish”? In particular, the way this statement is made makes it sound like anything that’s a bestseller qualifies, which is hardly true. Roberts asserts that these books are detailing things such as torture and dismemberments, and yet the overwhelming majority of crime fiction I read – which undoubtedly falls on his ‘corrosive rubbish’ pile, does not detail such things. The majority of any violent acts happens off the page.

I have to say that if someone’s setting the rules that crime fiction can only entertain and not address serious issues, it’s time for me to stop reading crime fiction. I enjoy being entertained as much as the next person, but not at the expense of reality.

I realize that I’ve also had my say on this to a large degree a few months back, when I talked about how insulting it was to dismiss the harsh realities of crime. How the hell can you write crime fiction – make your living off of criminal acts – and then insist the books stay civilized, bloodless, without any pain or discomfort to anyone? That’s bullshit, and incredibly offensive to anyone who knows what it’s like to have a loved one murdered, raped, assaulted, etc.

And that doesn’t mean that you have to spend the book dwelling on that. But you don’t gloss it over and keep crime oh-so-civilized. Crime wreaks havoc, it rips lives apart.

You do not have to be gruesome in order to display that either. I know a friend who works in a Waterstones store has told me they’re getting more and more Laura Lippman in and the books are selling well, and I’d hardly call her work “blood-soaked corrosive rubbish”.

The truth is, the crime fiction genre is big enough for all manner of stories. I may not be particularly wowed by the idea of cat mysteries or cross-stitch mysteries myself, but they’re there for the people who like them. And as much as they aren’t for me, attacking them (and their readership) if I was so inclined would be a waste of energy. The people who primarily like those types of books aren’t as likely to be interested in my type of work. In some respects, SC is the ‘lightest’ thing I’ve written. While I don’t consider it hard-boiled, my work is definitely moving in darker territory, and that’s where I prefer writing. The readership is distinctly different.

What’s really unfortunate is that I found the comments made so distasteful, erroneous and offensive that it’s put me off reading/watching anyone Mr. Roberts commended. The truth is, sometimes I enjoy something that isn’t so bleak, but I have a hard time reading anything that’s serving as a way of looking down on the rest of the genre. And that, to me, was what really got me. It was the sense of this snooty attitude, of being more evolved and enlightened as to have better taste than those just putting out carnage.

You want to know what I admire most about Mark Billingham’s work? How careful he is to develop the victims. You have a sense of what they’ve gone through, of the loss, the cost. They are not used as items of convenience and dismissed. I try now to pay more attention to my victims, and that’s with particular credit to Mark.

And for the most part, the books I enjoy most are about the journey of the main character(s). As they are confronted by things, they struggle to deal with them. Over the course of time the crimes they’re confronting take a toll, and that is realistic. The problem with bloodless crimes that nobody gets too worked up over, in my opinion, is that your character can’t really be affected by them. After all, you’re taking such care to make sure nobody else is disturbed, so seeing a bad crime scene isn’t going to prompt your protag to drink, or keep them awake at nights. Let’s just keep it all nice and civilized so that nobody’s too offended by the crime… so why should anyone care?

Thing for me is, if I don’t care, why read it?

“The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. They characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.” - Norman Cousins

Whatever else I’m guilty of, may I not be guilty of that.

And here’s another quote from Mr. Cousins:

"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."

Hence my interest in series characters and journeys. It doesn’t mean every book will end badly, or that there will never be moments of happiness. But that quote alone sums up what it is that captivates me about Jack Taylor. Its got nothing to do with any violence on the page – you either get it, or you try to find scapegoats to dismiss what you don’t understand.

Here’s to keeping it real, and those who do such a fine job not shirking from the realities of violence while also not glamorizing it.

* There will be a short lifespan on this link, as I expect come Wednesday it will be gone. That’s my guess, anyway, as I believe the ‘listen again’ feature is only good for a week.


Randy Johnson said...

You're right. Crime is not polite. The realities should be addressed in crime fiction. That doesn't mean one should wallow in blood and gore(like so many of today's crappy horror movies), but there should be some in a good story(whether on scene or off) to contrast "good and bad" characters in the story. I remember watching old movies(especially westerns and crime), seeing someone shot, and at most there might be a spot of red. Unrealistic! They sanitized the violence and did disservice to the story. At least for me.

Peter Rozovsky said...

The truth is, the crime fiction genre is big enough for all manner of stories.

Amen to that sentiment, Sandra. It makes far more sense than anything else in this pointless debate. But then, are such debates really to be taken seriously? I suspect that an element of sensation-seeking lurks behind them.

In any case, assuming that both sides are serious, who the hell is David Roberts to say what crime fiction "is supposed" to be? And even Mark Billingham, the good guy in this debate, veers close to sanctimony. He seems to know that crime fiction’s place is to tackle contemporary issues. I'd say that anyone who holds forth on what crime fiction is or what it should be has too much time on his hands or is desperate for a debate topic. Why don't such folks prepare themselves to be surprised by something that does not meet their definitions?
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Sandra Ruttan said...

Randy, I'm definitely with you. I don't want bloodbaths either, but I just don't find a lot of authors crossing those lines. In all my reading in years I've abandoned two books I felt breached the limit. That's an insignificant number.

Peter, I agree about the sensation-seeking possibility. I think the main reason this irritates me is because of all the throw-arounds about 'torture porn' and keeping crime 'civilized' lately. I swear, someone says to me that murder should be dealt with in a civilized fashion over tea they might just find out how uncivilized violence is.

Nobody should presume to know what a whole genre is, and certainly the arrogance of the statement made about what crime fiction is supposed to be is staggering. In a single statement he insulted me and pretty well every single author I admire.

And whatever the motives, I'm aware that a number of people who weren't at Harrogate listened to the radio broadcast and found the exchange tense. If it was staged for entertainment it failed to translate that on the radio broadcast and seemed, in fact, serious. There's a growing problem with arguments stemming out of convention panels and sweeping generalizations made on blogs and elsewhere that are leaving people with hurt feelings. To me, an issue is an issue, and a disagreement doesn't have to be personal. It's when people make it personal that it becomes a real problem, but not everyone can separate that out. And if people feel there's tension between others they may feel awkward around them. No matter what, I'm glad I won't be attending a panel with Mark and David any time soon - I don't really want to see that right now.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, boy, the torture-porn debate. The invaluable Kevin Smith posted an excellent comment about senselessly violent "neo-noir" a while back, which you may have weighed in on, but he undercut his argument by failing to give examples, and thus sparked another debate.

With respect to violence in crime fiction, I posted a comment this week about Ken Bruen's Ammunition, whose most terrifyingly violent scene came across as a strong statement against violence.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

angie said...

It's husband actually picked up one of David Roberts' books the last time we went to Poisoned Pen. He's a fan of the Dorothy Sayers books, but he couldn't finish Hollow Crown. I haven't looked at it - not exactly my cuppa - but the impression I got from the hubster was that the author's attitude from the BBC interview was heavily reflected in his protag. Yuck.

I'm not touching the torture-porn vs. "civilized" crime fiction debate. I think the whole thing is silly and subjective. I have issues with both extremes, but really, the debate is pointless. Folks will write and read the books that appeal to them and some will feel compelled to publicly sneer at books they don't agree with. Whatever. The soapboxes on both sides are getting worn out, as is my patience with all of the attendant sound and fury...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Peter, I read your post. I don't think there's anything strange about the fact that the scene comes off as a statement against violence. Some of the very best authors don't include violence to glamorize it, but to paint the scene of what is in an accurate sense. If there's no shock, no sense of outrage, how can there be a sense of loss? I feel comfortable saying that Ken is not portraying violence to glamorize it in his fiction and you're probably one of the few people that's really hit on it.

Angie, my major thing with the sweeping statements goes to the issue of the KBS topic Peter mentions, and specifically what undermined it: Not saying what books one is talking about. Is anything that doesn't leave the bodies confined to the parlor room, with manner of death being a nice, bloodless poisoning one of the 'blood-soaked' books being referred to?

I've griped here about the attitude of some towards crime fiction and what it should and should not be about more than enough times. I suppose I should be glad people raise their hand and say what they're about, because in all honesty a book set in the 30s touching on the rise of facism leading in to WWII might be one I'd pick up, but now I don't think so. The attitude bugs me to no end because it's dismissive to the real way real victims feel.

Case in point is one I thought about mentioning in the post, but it's a bit sensitive. Someone I know was severely abused and that included being locked in a cellar for long periods of time. They commented to me about Mark Billingham's Buried, because it was very real for them what the one victim went through. They found the fact that it wasn't glossed over cathartic - somebody understood. And that can be the wonderful thing about identifying through fiction, the sense that someone in the world can relate to you. It lessens your isolation. By tarring all books with the same brush and limiting what they can and can't be in a person's opinion as a writer they've committed the greatest sin: completely ignored the needs and wants of the readers.

Cozies have a place for people who can't handle stuff. I'm actually a very squeamish person. Anyone who doesn't believe me can talk to my best friend, who's a nurse, and her firefighter husband about how they used to taunt me with stories. I've learned to handle it. Not everyone wants to.

angie said...

"By tarring all books with the same brush and limiting what they can and can't be in a person's opinion as a writer they've committed the greatest sin: completely ignored the needs and wants of the readers." Well, yeah. The thing is, there are readers for all kinds of crime fiction.

You know I'm much more inclined to the dark side than to the cozies. I'm also way more interested in books that deal with characterization, psychology, and/or social issues than in cross-stitching, crime-solving chefs who crochet sweaters for wayward cats in between murder cases.

On the other hand, I have had books that I haven't been able to finish because they completely grossed me out. And yeah, I felt like the level of torture/rape/murder detail was over-the-top. Most recently that happened with McDermid's The Torment of Others - and I'm not saying it was a crap book, or that she was merely trying to titillate, just that I couldn't hack it. But hey, that's just me.(I'm not picking on her, but I know folks get all irritated when people are unwilling to be specific. I've set aside other books for similar squicky reasons.)

I don't think crime fiction exists only to entertain, or only to explore social ills or criminal psychology. There's a whole range of styles and sub-genres to choose from and it just seems like one of those topics that folks aren't going to agree on. I just don't get the weird elitism that crops up on either side. It feels almost like the ongoing bullshit about "literary" vs. "genre."


Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know, I'm no philosopher, but if the variety of human experience is infinite, why should crime fiction be an exception?

The crime novels that I like best and that stick in my mind always do something unexpected. Hakan Nesser's novels offer all the social concern one would expect from a Swedish writer, not to mention a mutilated body or two, but they are shot through with playful humor. Karin Fossum's He Who Fears the Wolf is a psychological novel that gets sympathetically inside a killer's head, but is also full of humor and delightful interaction among characters you or I would probably describe as losers.

And what about Colin Watson's Flaxborough Chronicles? Cozy? You might think so until you actually read them.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Unknown said...

Interesting to read how this discussion came across on the radio. In the session itself, I don't think anyone was taking David Roberts too seriously*, though Mark in particular seemed a bit flabbergasted by his comments at times. In fact, it served the panel well to have such polar views on display, because it meant there was actually a discussion (albeit one where Mr Roberts often found himself without much of a leg to stand on), rather than the bland agreement that often comes out of these debates.

* - Hard to tell whether David Roberts was taking himself seriously, but he was upper-class and consequently appeared to have time-warped in from the ninety-twenties, so perhaps it was just that no one quite understood the era he was coming from. Also why he unintentionally prompted most of the laughter during the panel.