Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Call and response 

When a deliberately provoking article shows up, it's no wonder that comments will ensue. Laura Lippman writes in response to Ben Yagoda's "illogical arguments":

What about mystery writers who don't write series? What about literary writers who also fall head-over-heels in love with their characters, and thus sentimentalize them? A literary innovation must be immediately retired if the first person does it well? Really? Well, there goes the Jewish male coming-of-age novel, I guess. I mean, once you have Portnoy's Complaint, who needs Everything Is Illuminated?

And to extend the argument further, why bother writing a Southern novel after Margaret Mitchell or William Faulkner? Why skewer Hollywood when Budd Schulberg did it so viciously, or try their hands at social manners and mores after Jane Austen? There's nothing new under the sun, King Solomon once said thousands of years ago. If it was true back then, what does it say about now? Only that it's not what you say, or even how you say it, but that there's something microscopically different about the way it's being said. I usually call it voice. The good writers have it, through some magical elixir of plot, character, setting, language, description, narrative, whatever. They have it in an epic or a tight little genre piece, and it's thrilling to recognize the stirrings of that voice.

Another reader chimes in with a counterpoint view:

. . .While I find the tone of Yagoda's piece to be snide and condescending, he has a point. I certainly enjoy the best of today's crime novelists, but I've been reading this stuff since I was a teenager in the late 50s, and Chandler and Macdonald are infinitely superior to anyone writing today except Elmore Leonard. Read the complete works of these three, throw in Hammett, John D. MacDonald and Ross Thomas, and you'll have read the best the crime novel has to offer. And in three consecutive novels published in the mid-60s ("The Chill", "The Far Side of the Dollar" and "Black Money") Macdonald took the private eye novel to a level it had never reached before and would never reach again.

I wouldn't argue with any of those names, although I'd have to throw in Donald Westlake and Larry Block in the list of Grandmasters (not just of the MWA kind) who are still writing today. But there are a few ideas in this paragraph that have to be teased out. First is beating a soon-to-be-dead-horse of the state of the PI novel. Ross MacDonald certainly took it to a different level than where it had been before, trying to elevate the subgenre beyond pulp into something more socially conscious. Though other writers are trying to do that--and some do it quite successfully, both from an artistic and genre standpoint--the PI novel has so many constraints that it often appears to burst at the seams. I'll be honest; if an unknown writer arrives with a PI novel as his or her calling card, I'm really underwhelmed these days, unless there's something particuarly "genre-busting" about the book in question (or see my earlier comment about "voice.") I have some issues with the Shamus Award, which I may expand upon at a later time. Is the subgenre dead? Obviously not, but contrary to some folks' beliefs, it's in a dynamic evolution mode, and shouldn't be beaten down to stay retro.

Second is the simple question of whether past practitioners really are "better" than current ones? My first instinct is to conclude that it's an apple/orange comparison, but I posited this question earlier tonight to my father, who had read and enjoyed Chandler, Hammett et al., in his similarly-timed youth. His tack was that in those authors' time, novels weren't competing much with visual media. There were movies, but not everyone went to see them, or were allowed to; radio was a major player, but of course, there were no pictures to accompany the sound. Thus, authors were required to use descriptions in such a way to evoke places the reader had no access to, to paint pictures in their minds that were otherwise unavailable. Now, of course, there's lots of competition for novels: movies, TV, DVDs, video games, you name it. So florid descriptions will not only turn off potential readers with shorter-than-before attention spans, but might actually impede upon their ability to form visual images like the ones they are accustomed to. There's also more widespread travel and so places once hopelessly inaccessible are no longer so. Thus, a flat, seemingly simplistic book may actually accomplish far more than their forefathers' works would in conjuring up the imaginative processes of the readers' brains.

In other words, in decades past, there had to be more in the words to make the book work; now, "less is more" truly is the way to go.

I don't know if my father is absolutely correct but I know in my own writing, and in what I choose to read, I much prefer clean, tight prose than those hopelessly in love with language and description. I don't need two paragraphs to describe what two sentences could do, and I certainly don't write that way. I like snappy dialogue and concise description. Is it my exposure to visual media? I'm sure it plays a role, but I also like to get to the point. And that's a style, for better or for worse, that's prevalent in crime fiction. Which may explain why I love it so damned much.

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