Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What if I said...

"The slice-and-dice books aren’t noir, but thrillers?". Since the blogs are in another round of ‘shame-on-some-unnamed-authors-for-making-books-too-violent’ it seemed appropriate to pull this out.

According to John Banville, in a conversation with Donald Westlake in an article in Newsweek, when asked why they thought that in the last few years the fiction best-seller lists have been "monopolized" by books about crime and murder, Banville said:

I think we live in a very violent time. The vast majority of people have never seen any violence in their lives at all. They might drive their car into their neighbor's car and their neighbor might shout at them, but that's about as near as they get to violence. So there's thing we're missing out on: "There's all this violence, all this blood and horror and so on. It must be quite fun. But I don't see any." So they get it from books. And I notice this trend of thrillers that are absolutely dripping with blood, seriel killers slicing people up. (My thanks to John McFetridge for pointing this out to me.)

The interesting thing about the comment is that when I do think over the books I’ve read so far this year, and consider the most violent of the bunch, they are usually thrillers. Said hero is shot, stabbed, beaten, deprived of sleep and threatened repeatedly but somehow finds the strength to carry on. And when our hero can endure all that physical stress, it’s little wonder the books can read like a poker game where you keep upping the ante, because you have to wonder what it will take to actually bring the guy down.

Despite that, it would be ridiculous to make a sweeping generalization about all thrillers here. And I wouldn’t keep reading anything I thought was gratuitous, so I would certainly not start throwing accusations at any of the authors I’ve read of late. I’m not interested in this debate or any finger-pointing. However, what it has made me think about is the real nature of suspense in a book.

John Rickards said with every fresh book of theirs or a friend’s comes the temptation to push the envelope that little bit more. In Book A, our hero is drugged by a hooker he picks up in Vegas, robbed and left by the side of a highway with no way of getting home and with the terrible prospect of explaining himself to his wife and family. In Book B, he’s drugged and robbed, but not just of his own money, but also that of a friend who turns out to be a mobster who wants him dead. In Book C, the mobster wipes out his family before the end of the story – after he’s had to admit he cheated on his wife. In Book D, the hooker gives him AIDS first. In Book E, she also takes his kidneys and maybe a foot.

I can certainly appreciate the temptation for some. I’m going to look at this through my own writing, because I haven’t got a ****in’ clue which books others think are gratuitous and I don’t care. That isn’t the point here. I’m going to talk about style and suspense, and at least if I pick on me, I’m not hurting anyone’s feelings.

I have a manuscript written called What Burns Within. Police procedural. Three protagonists. Multiple plot threads. It’s not what I’d call a lazy read. There is a ticking clock, which gives it a thrillerish aspect. It’s contained to a short period of time, with primary focus on the investigations. All of those factors can contribute to building up the suspense. A lot of people told me that once they read the first couple of chapters of SC they couldn’t put it down. (What I call the build-to-a-boil.) The difference with WBW is that you start off flying, and it’s actually a while before you get to catch your breath.

When I started the sequel, The Frailty of Flesh, I knew right away that the tone for the story would be a bit different. Oh, there are still three protagonists. The exit of some peripheral characters from WBW and entrance of new ones allows me to play with some different relationship dynamics. (And damn the one person who waltzed on me from WBW. I didn’t see that coming until I hit that page, and that really sucked.)

However, the tone for the story builds the tension in a very different way. A lot of the tension in TFOF comes from within, instead of without. WBW was working under pressure. TFOF is about facing the fears we all carry inside us, confronting your own doubts and, in some cases, demons.

There is skill involved in both forms. The advantage of proceeding this way means that TFOF allows me to dig deeper into the characters. When I started it, though, I worried about it. I worried that the pace was different.

In reality, the book is no less suspenseful, no less intense. Perhaps in some ways, it cuts deeper. I think of it this way: WBW is repeatedly being smacked in the face, TFOF is being knifed in the gut. I do personally believe that every book should be different. The flow of the story should compliment the nature of the cases being pursued. (This is one of those reasons when people talk about formulas I start tuning out. The movie script one has gone out of my head right now, but basically it’s where you have to have your major hook points at specified intervals through the story. How boring. I love it when I turn the page and the story just explodes or something comes out of left field and completely surprises me. I can’t stand it when things are too predictable, within a book or within a series.)

I was beating myself up comparing apples and oranges. (Really, I was indulging that nonsense most of us go through when we’re pleased with a manuscript, and then wonder if our next work can match it or better it.) Suspense in a story is built in different ways. I am not carte blanche dismissing serial killer books (having written at least one story like that myself… maybe more) but we all know there’s a temptation to drop a body to bolster the tension. Some openly admit it. One author told me whenever they didn’t know what to do next they asked, ‘What’s the worst possible thing that could happen now?’ and then they did that. Following that line of thinking, you can begin to understand how an author struggling with a manuscript might find themselves putting their character through beatings and dropping bodies left, right and sideways.

The thing is, I have no doubt that some authors somewhere are doing those things. Just none that I typically read. I think the book that came closest to the realm of unreal for me this year was The Bloomsday Dead, a book which does not qualify as noir but does qualify as a thriller. Score one point for Mr. Banville.

On the other side of the equation, African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou, Sob Story by Carol Anne Davis, A Thousand Bones by PJ Parrish and The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby were all excellent examples from recent reads of stories that built up an incredible level of tension within the story, literally keeping me up late into the night, turning pages. And they did it without dropping body after body after body after body, and without having people continuously beaten down. (And the new Spinetingler, which is up now, has reviews of the last two – the first two were reviewed in the Spring Issue.)

Frankly, I’m finding more authors with incredible talent for building up suspense not through action but through emotion, through the power of connection. You keep reading because you fear for the protagonist, or perhaps in spite of that fear. You keep reading because you have to know what happens.

End of the day, if a book is just one beating, one violent act after another, with a tiny bit of story sprinkled in between, it’s an action book. It’s not suspense, and I’d debate book to book whether it even falls in the broader category of crime fiction. Personally, I find more risk of thrillers going into the realm over overkill than noir, per se. However, I strongly disagree with Mr. Banville’s statement above, about how people think violence is fun.

I don’t write crime fiction because I think it’s fun, and that isn’t why I read it either.

That is always the problem with making sweeping generalizations. It’s easy to disprove the point inside of two minutes. In the same way that there might be some action films that I find too violent, there may be others that don’t bother me at all. Same with thriller books, same with noir.

But I must say, if the same old tired conversations about violence in noir and what noir means are dominating the forums and blogs, at least I’m not missing much. I had to laugh when I read John’s post (and used the excuse to link to it) because I’m just relieved there are others out there who’re sick of it.

Read what you want to read. Don’t read what you don’t like. But to tar a whole subgenre with an unqualified judgment is pretty weak. I don’t see any new trend emerging to publish stuff that’s increasingly violent, so either it doesn’t exist or I didn’t get the memo.


pattinase (abbott) said...

As usual, nice analysis.

Anonymous said...

I think all this discussion about noir is a smoke screen. Subgenres are usually poorly defined. Unless your style mimics a pioneer such as Chandler because of whom the subgenre was defined, there will always be someone who will say an author doesn't fit into their definition of the subgenre.

The question of why some authors are becoming more graphically violent, well that is a really a hard question to answer. I think some people use the violence to define their work. Does that make it right or good? That's hard to say. But when people talk about the decline of literature from the good old days, that is just pointless. There is a belief that violence sells. Does it though? If we look at the most 'important' bestseller lists, do we see graphically violent books as bestsellers? I don't think so.

But to the people who decry this as the end of society, then write something different or read something different. If ultra-violent books don't sell then no one will write them.

But as they say, one man's gorefest is another's light reading.

When I read Mr. Smith's post, I recognize the same rhetoric used by people who ban books. If you don't like it, that is your right. If you tell me not to read it because you don't like it or ridicule me as a poster on crimespace has done to violent book readers, that is censorship of the worse kind. We have the right to disagree but not to restrict or mock my choices.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patti, I think it could go on for ever... but I don't think the topic is worth it, personally.

Well, as you know Kev, I bailed from the Crimespace discussion early on, because terms were being thrown around that weren't defined, and when I raised that as a question what I got was that they were using it because someone else brought it up. Suggests to me they don't know what it means, which then has me wondering why they care who reads it and how they know anyone does, anyway?

Not to mention most of these people tend to be noir purists (it can only mean what it applied to 50+ years ago) but they're taking other terms and manipulating them. I have no trouble with a term evolving, but it's a bit hypocritical to suggest one term must remain pure and another can mean whatever the hell you want it to mean. And for crying out loud, if you're going to manipulate a term, define it.

I do stand by the fact that more thrillers that I've read have pushed the boundaries than noir. I think it's because they're action-centered stories, usually. Of course it's a gross generalization to say they're all gratuitous. They aren't.

But yeah, the censorship talk/ridicule... As has been said many times, if you don't like it don't read it.

Anonymous said...

Proclaiming that something is "too violent" is just a form of intellectual slothfulness. The measure of violence should be its gratuitousness. Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho is the perfect example - it depicts some of the most depraved acts imaginable, but they are all justified in the context of the book.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Kris, I completely agree. (I loved the movie, btw.)

Chris said...

I find it disturbing that this blog post had nothing in the way of celebrity gossip and/or inflammatory political rhetoric. After all, that is what blogs are meant to be; straying from that basic purpose diminishes the medium, rends the moral fabric of Western culture, and makes puppies cry.

To be honest, a lot has been made of late of this debate, and it drives me nuts. There are, as anyone trying to shop a book around can tell you, like eleventeen-bagillion books around. If there's room for like five different scrapbooking mysteries out there (which I find slightly disturbing, if only because 'scrapbook' seems to be a verb, now), how hard is it to simply avoid the stuff you're certain you don't like in favor of the thousands of books you might? People need to learn to delineate between "bad" and "not my cup of tea." Evil Kev's got it right: if no one wants it, the marketplace will take care of this alleged plague of violence itself. You ask me, the books in question reflect modern culture rather than shape it. Of course, nobod asked me. Then again, nobody asked most of these other folks, either.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Here here Chris! I'm in complete agreement.