Cancel the Mission

One of the most enduring clichés about crime fiction and certainly one of the most cherished by the community is that the genre has a mission you know – « showing the world as it really is », « plumbing the depths of human psyche » and « denouncing the evils of our society ». So entrenched it is that virtually no one denies it except the odd proud « entertainer » who has nothing to lose anyway since they’ll never be taken seriously or considered for awards. Having already denied the meaning of posterity and the importance of characterization, I have nothing much left to lose myself, so here we go: I don’t think crime fiction has any « mission » other than that writers may want to give it.

I have often pointed out in the past that crime fiction, alike most genre fare but to an even higher degree, has become home to the discontents of contemporary « literary » fiction – people who still adhere to the nineteenth-century realistic/psychological novel and object to the mainstream turning its back on it. Those people not surprisingly also long for the time when novels took a stand on issues of the day. That’s why so much current crime fiction – at least the kind that wins awards – is much more politicized than used to be in the past. I’ve lost the count of how many crime novels published today that have « something to say » about capitalism, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia et alia.

Other than my long firmly-held notion that art and politics mix like food and feces, my problem with this trend is that this commitment to realism and social comment is actually narrowing the scope of the genre rather than broadening it. There are at least two good reasons why « literary fiction » abandoned realism and outright political commitment long ago. First of them is that there are many other ways to get political than writing tracts in the guise of fiction; the other is that strict realism doesn’t allow much in the way of experimention, which is also the point of writing fiction. Proof is that crime fiction has evolved very little formally and stylistically in the past fifty years – only the setting and greater graphicness separate today’s « serious » crime writers from their colleagues from the Sixties. I dissed Joyce in my previous post, but where is the Joyce of crime fiction? Only James Ellroy would come close to qualify, which is saying how low the bar is. There was much more experimentation going back in the Golden Age, ironically at a time when no one cared or craved for literary respectability.

Of course that conservatism has some good aspects, especially from an economic standpoint. The fact that you’re sure of not ending with a book you can’t make sense of is one of the reasons why crime fiction is so popular. It also prevents wild experimentation for its own sake that makes so much « literary » fiction unreadable. But it also entails that more « progressive » yet accessible writers with other priorities (believe it or not, there are a myriad of quite worthy and interesting themes that the genre doesn’t care to address) will stay away – and that the genre won’t grow up.

And yet it has to if it is to survive as a vital form of fiction. One of the reasons why I read and review so little contemporary crime fiction is that I’m tired and bored to read over and over again the same books written in the same way about the same stories, characters and themes. We’re often said that now is the real Golden Age but it is only so if one thinks that Dreiser and/or Forster are the last word on fiction writing. For those of us aware of something called modernity or simply looking for something new it is very frustrating – and we can expect no change for as long as crime fiction is required, alone of all genres, to « show the world as it really is ».

6 commentaires sur “Cancel the Mission

  1. Yup, I agree. I don’t have the intelligence to put it as powerfully as you have here, but the idea that crime fiction today has anything new to offer in a genre that’s been extant for over a century is somewhat insulting to the genuine greats who went before. As if someone clattering out a ‘Girl on the …….’ to cash in on a passing zeitgeist is going to approach their task with anything like the ingenuity of the best GAD works. Who’s going to care in 50 years about the overwhelming majority of even the « big » books produced in the genre now?

    The idea of this being some kind of new Golden Age is surely a joke. The only Golden Age thing about the current market is how much GAD stuff is being reprinted…

    Aimé par 2 personnes

    1. I’m not sure I’d go *as* far as your comment (or even Xavier’s post! But I have to think about it a little); I would hope that the genre has new things to offer for centuries to come, even if it is taking an old idea and going, « But what if we did *this* with it? » But this neglect of its history is an issue, and we can only hope that the return of the classics can rectify that somewhat.

      Aimé par 1 personne

  2. I both agree and disagree to some extent, how marvelous. I feel that the issue is less « crime fiction attempts to say something about the world » and more « crime fiction does it badly. » To quote Rich of the sadly dormant Complete Disregard for Spoilers:

    « Many of the era’s best authors were able to weave together plot, character and social commentary very artfully, often in 50,000 words or less. Most modern crime fiction is far less incisive and twice as bloated. »

    This I feel is more the issue. Commentary that isn’t integrated into the story but that stands separate from it, The story is a vehicle for commentary instead of the plot being allowed to either stand on it’s own or at least allowing for integration. An example of this a book I reviewed recently, A Midsummer’s Equation (and I say this as a fan of the author). The setting of the book is a dying coastal town and there’s a serious discussion if the town should allow drilling to occur nearby, which would make them money but cause environmental damage. This *could* have been interesting but is more or less forgotten about halfway through, and doesn’t have much to do with the mystery.

    Contrast this with Chesterton’s Father Brown tales, which preach to varying degrees yet are loved by people who put plot above all else (but you may not care for them!) I would speculate that this is because A. Chesterton is saying more unique things, or at least saying them better, and/or B. lesson and plot are woven together to support each other.

    This is a long way of saying I agree with what you say! If every book is dedicated to calling out moral evils at the expense of plot, the genre doesn’t advance. I just suppose I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s always useless, or an impediment.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

    1. Actually I have nothing per se against mysteries that are « realistic » and/or have « something to say ». My problem is with it being a requirement. Crime writers should be able to follow their muse wherever she leads them without being told that the genre must be this and do that. The contemporary obsession with realism, relevance and « social comment » is every bit as sterilising as Van Dine’s comments but unlike them encounters very little resistance – the Literati see to that. What’s funny is that readers when given the choice systematically chose mysteries that emphasize plot over message – I don’t think I would lose much betting that Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders sold much more copies despite its shameful Edgar snub than actual winner Attica Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird.

      Aimé par 2 personnes

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