Sunday Thoughts

This blog has always been billed as my « Random thoughts » though until now there hasn’t been much randomness about it as my writing mostly focuses on one single topic: crime fiction. This post won’t be an exception and yet it will be different as instead of a full article I’ll just post a few thoughts I’ve had lately and which I may or may not elaborate upon later if they deserve or require it. Depending on how well received this new approach is, it may become a regular feature of this blog.

Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion. 

His radio years may have hurt Carr’s writing more than they benefited it, as he increasingly relied on dialogue instead of description, which was always his strongest suit. His later work reads very much like novelizations of radio plays, with narrative passages sounding more like elaborate stage directions.

Stanley Ellin’s reputation as the finest mystery short story writer ever is not usurped even though there were many undeservingly forgotten competitors for the title, but it’s interesting that it often rests on stories that are either outside the genre (The House Party) or barely within (The Specialty of the House) His novel work, while usually and wrongly regarded as inferior, is actually closer to the mark while showing the same thematic and structural versatility.

Flat writing repels me more than bad as the latter suggests a lack of technique whereas the former betrays a lack of personality.

The French as a rule are not great plotters in the English meaning of the term though several memorable exceptions did and do exist, and it can’t entirely be blamed on their embracing noir. Modern French literature has never been plot or story-driven the way others are* and our brand of Romanticism made things worse by setting a false opposition between inspiration (good) and reason (bad) That most rational of all writers, Edgar Allan Poe, was admittedly first embraced by the French but on the basis of a misunderstanding – they saw him as a visionary and discarded his writings that didn’t fit that view. French crime writers thus don’t have the same predispositions than their English-speaking colleagues and it often doesn’t bother most of them in the least as they have different priorities and virtues – but it does account for the historical difficulties encountered by local mysteries in crossing the Channel and/or the Atlantic.

Re « Flat » vs. « Bad » writing, I must admit that I often struggle with Japanese mysteries, especially of the « Honkaku » kind, because of the non-existent prose style. Maybe it’s a translation problem but I find most of them are written in an impersonal, utilitarian writing that is extremely unsettling to this reader. I don’t think this to be a feature of Japanese fiction as people like Kawabata, Mishima or Tanizaki were anything but indifferent prose stylists. Maybe it’s just a consequence of making everything subservient to the plot since « Honkaku » writers – and their readers – often seem to display a very Van Dine like anti-literary mindset which I used to share but no longer do.

* The Princess of Cleves, the purported founding text of modern French literature, is a psychological novelette almost devoid of any plot or action. Also revealing is the comparison between Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations which despite some striking similarities are also completely different as to their construction, Dickens’s book despite some loose ends being more tightly plotted than Hugo’s.

4 commentaires sur “Sunday Thoughts

  1. As someone who delights separately in finely-honed plots AND delightful writing, I can see both sides of this argument. Your point about Carr’s increasing reliance on dialogue is a great one, and the ability to move events on purely through dialogue is difficult. Equally, Honkaku is so much about the overall picture, the big theme or reveal or surprise that, yes, smaller points like dialogue can (possibly in translation…) get overlooked.

    Mainly, though, I’m writing this comment to share my delight at someone else decreeing Ellin the finest short story writer the genre has ever seen. Bravo, I knew it couldn’t just be me who thought so!

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  2. And yet the detective story could – indeed, should – have been a French speciality!
    (That surely is a thought to take out for a cream tea on a rainy Sunday afternoon…)

    When, I wonder, did French literature stop being story or plot-driven? Towards the end of the long 19th century, I suppose; possibly even around the War. The public seem to have had an insatiable appetite for story. We tend to think these days of Baudelaire and Flaubert, but the long 19th century was the age of Dumas and Verne, of Scribe and Sardou and Sue.

    And the detective story would surely appeal to the 19th century French – or perhaps Parisian – temperament. They considered themselves clever, witty, ingenious, sophisticated, worldly. They enjoyed stories full of adventure, murder, impersonation, disguises, and conspiracies. Many works from the time are brilliantly inventive, subverting genres and tropes; look at Meilhac & Halévy’s almost Pythonesque libretti for Offenbach. Others have a sense of gamesmanship and a delight in structure; Verne’s Testament d’un excentrique, based on the Jeu de l’Oie, for instance.

    We are, after all, talking about the nation that invented the pièce bien faite, which anticipates the detective story in some ways: Tightly plotted, moving with inevitable logic through a series of dramatic twists to a surprising but inevitable end that ties all the threads together. Each act or scene contains a carefully prepared shock; the audience is given information whose significance they don’t realise until the author reveals his secret. And there’s a joy in plot construction, in ravelling and unravelling knots, even if some critics complain the characters are puppets.

    Even Hugo’s plays use this kind of construction; the emotions are strong, yes, the dialogue impassioned and poetic, but think of Lucrèce Borgia, where the whole secret is explained in the last line.

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    1. These are all great points Nick, but I think you underestimate how compartmentalized French literature was at the time and remains to this day.

      Plot-driven narratives indeed existed but they were the province of popular fiction. « Respectable » writers wrote about character and/or society and they ultimately prevailed. Not for nothing does modern French crime fiction reject Poe as its progenitor, instead tracing its origins back to Balzac and Zola (neither of which displayed much interest in plotting)

      The French mindset is best reflected in Thomas Narcejac’s Une Machine A Lire in which he says mysteries can’t be « literature » because they’re plot-driven and the characters are not « free » as they are in « genuine » novels. Interestingly, the writers he quotes in support of his thesis are all French and French-speaking. It’s of course as arbitrary and ultimately mistaken than Chandler’s assertion that « fiction has always been meant to be realistic » but it was the doxa for years.

      All in all, I agree with you that France should have been a major player and that it’s a case of opportunity lost, something we French alas do all too well.


  3. There’s been that ever-widening gulf between serious literature and popular fiction and I think the English resisted that trend for a long time. H.G. Wells was taken seriously as a writer of social satires despite writing extremely popular science fiction. Even in mid-century Graham Greene could get away with writing spy thrillers without damaging his standing as a very major writer indeed. Cecil-Day Lewis wrote detective novels but still managed to become Poet Laureate.

    Reading popular fiction also remained respectable in Britain. T.S. Eliot loved detective fiction and no-one in Britain thought that was particularly weird. Reading Wodehouse was perfectly respectable. It was assumed that intelligent educated people read for fun.

    My impression is that the gulf became wider much earlier in France?

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