All ‘Bout the Money

Bemoaning the current state of crime fiction is a péché mignon of mine and I realize it may grow tiresome over time, especially when one doesn’t agree with me, so be warned that I’m about to indulge in this dubious pastime once again – with a difference though as I’ll do some vintage-bashing too for good measure.

The main reason why I’m hugely skeptical of contemporary crime fiction – even the one that sells, even the one that wins awards – is that I find most of it to be formulaic and lacking in imagination and experimentation, relying on a Bolero-like small set of characters, themes, subjects and plotlines (even titles!) It is easy and probably accurate to blame part of this phenomenon on authors and their frequent ignorance or neglect of the basics of the genre, but this is not the whole story. There is an even simpler explanation for the rise and triumph of the formula in crime fiction: That’s where the money is, and always has been.

Take a look at any Best Seller list and check what kind of crime fiction manages to make, not to mention top, it. Very few of it is the kind that discerning fans and critics regard as first-rate. What we have is never-ending series, prefabricated thrillers and run-of-the-mill mysteries by authors who have been writing the same book for decades. If lay readers were really into originality and « edginess » – whatever that means – it would show even a little, wouldn’t it? Whether in books or in movies (hello, Kevin Feige) or in music our contemporaries love nothing more than the simplistic and the familiar. The entertainment world got the message and gives people what they want, that is, mediocrity – and authors like it or not have to go with it.

Not that it is something completely new. The crime fiction genre has always been formulaic, both by nature and because it has to sell. Success even in the Golden Age – especially in the Golden Age! – has always relied on finding a recipe and cooking it again and again until exhaustion, with a few new components now and then to make people forget they’re always eating the same meal. Even well-established, well-reviewed writers had to stick to the formula. Granted, the best ones once having reached a secure position tried to experiment within the constraints of the model. Some even gave up on any model altogether and went their own way – but did it pay well? That freethinkers like Anthony Berkeley, Fredric Brown or Mark McShane were never in a position to achieve bestsellerdom may be a clue. Originality and experimentation without limits has never been a feature of the genre, except maybe in those brief halcyon days of genuinely out-of-the-box crime fiction, the Fifties. Even then, however, the big sellers were not Margaret Millar, Stanley Ellin or Dorothy Salisbury Davis but rather Richard S. Prather, Mickey Spillane or Carter Brown, none of which cared much about innovation. Also, crime fiction in those days didn’t dominate the best-seller lists like it does now.

So yes, a lot of contemporary crime fiction is bland, more-of-the-same or unchallenging. It has indeed to do with writers pursueing other goals, such as « writing the Great American novel » or more prosaically making a living. They’re not the only ones at fault, however. Editors, those banes of genuinely creative writing, wouldn’t let them do something else anyway and even if they did the general public wouldn’t read it. It’s a conspiracy of dunces, and it’s sadly working.

What are we to do then? Well, support the few writers that try something else, and show publishers that they too can be profitable. Also if not with excessive optimism, trust future generations for hopefully they may realize that Thomas H. Cook was a better writer than James Patterson.


3 commentaires sur “All ‘Bout the Money

  1. Hitchcock’s Vertigo was not a popular success. With his next film, he recaptured the audience with the most entertaining film he could (and would) make. North by Northwest is not nearly the film Vertigo is, but it made a lot of money. And now, sixty years later, Vertigo sits near the top of many lists for the best film ever made.

    Time will destroy the passing fads. Of course, opinions change over time. Maybe after we’re dead, future generations will see elements in Patterson that we missed. ( I doubt it)

    My favorite filmmaker is John Cassavetes. When I was younger, I would often rail against the success Steven Spielberg enjoyed. His films were not challenging in any way. I likened them to a parent holding his child’s hand for fear they might wander off and get into trouble—safe and boring.

    Now I see things quite differently. Spielberg does what he does and Cassavetes did what he did. That’s who they are/were. The popularity of one over the other is not relevant. You could say Patterson is cynically pandering, but why doesn’t everyone do it? Is it because everyone is incredibly principled and won’t sell out? Or is it because Patterson has a genuine talent for it. I might not like his work, but I couldn’t reproduce it even if I wanted to.

    Patterson is like a Big Mac hamburger. He’s not very good, but he ticks a lot of boxes from a large group. It’s easy to be discouraged by his success, but there’s another, more interesting result—the joy of good taste. There’s something delightful about being in a smaller group. (You could also say elitist, but this comment is getting far too long to delve into such matters)

    I was rereading Nabokov’s Despair in a coffee shop many years ago. A young woman was walking to the door. She stopped at my table and interrupted me. I imagined this to be a rare occurrence for her. Her hair covered most of her face, her voice was uncertain, body language stiff and unnatural—she seemed shy. The woman said, « That’s a great book. » It took everything she had to say it, but it was necessary. That’s how much she liked the book. At that moment, I felt a kinship with her. We seemed to belong to a select group.

    Think of the joy you feel when you discover a little-known author. Yes, you want to share it with the world, but the selectiveness, the feeling of a rare experience, is wonderful. I have a feeling if the authors I love were suddenly hugely successful, I might not like them quite as much.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

  2. Market size has become less of a restriction in the choice of what to publish.

    The beauty of electronic publishing and print-on-demand technology is that they have reduced the fixed cost of publishing a book, thereby making it economically viable to cater to niche or at least non-mass tastes.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  3. Editors, those banes of genuinely creative writing, wouldn’t let them do something else anyway and even if they did the general public wouldn’t read it.

    I think that editors and publishers are a very very big part of the problem. They’re incredibly risk-averse. It’s the same with movie studios and TV networks. Nobody ever got fired for playing it safe. But take a risk and if it doesn’t come off you can start clearing your desk because you’re out the door.

    I suspect that public taste is slightly more adventurous than publishers think. Even if something slightly unconventional does get published it won’t get promoted and most people won’t even find out about it.

    Of course another part of the problem is that the unconventional stuff is often terrible. That’s the thing about taking risks – you do get a lot of failures.

    Aimé par 1 personne

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