Posted by stevemosby on January 13th, 2013
This is a quick(ish) and off-the-cuff(ish) response to Christopher Fowler’s piece today in the Independent, about crime fiction losing the plot. You can read his piece here, and I think you should, because any thoughtful discussion about crime fiction is, I think, good for the genre and should be welcomed. My random(ish) thoughts follow.
One obvious problem with any kind of analysis of crime fiction is that it’s a hugely popular subsection of fiction as a whole. It sells – or rather, certain crime fiction titles sell – very well indeed. When looking at any field from afar, there’s always going to be a tendency to notice the tallest poppies first, and it’s important to remember that doesn’t mean there isn’t interesting stuff going on in the undergrowth. To put it another way, any analysis of the deficiencies (if that is what they are) of bestselling crime fiction titles is more a comment on the tastes of the masses that an artistic evaluation of crime fiction as a genre. It should come as no real surprise that if you’re looking for something unusual and different from what is mainstream and popular, you’re more likely to find it at the edges, away from the centre.
That said, I think Fowler’s right to highlight realism – or the pursuit of it – as a problem. It’s quite correct to say that one of the strengths of crime fiction is shining a light on and exploring social issues, but that’s a world away from claiming the majority of it to be realistic. And I think there are a number of problems with doing so.
In a vague and airy way, I’d say that describing any fiction as “realistic” is problematic in itself. What does realistic even mean, in the context of such a claim? Fiction involves characters, events and locations, and not all of them can be real, or else we’re talking about fact or documentary rather than fiction. Realistic, as a concept, is hard to quantify when it comes to fiction. Angels and pinheads stuff. On a basic level, if you tell me “Ian Rankin’s novels are set in Edinburgh”, I’ll reply that I think “set in Edinburgh” is doing a huge amount of work in that sentence – work that, when you really think about it, is actually very strange labour indeed. Fiction isn’t set anywhere, apart from as type on a page.
In the context of crime fiction, nobody really knows what realistic is in the first place. We’re often told crime readers are smart, so you have to get the details right, but at the same time, most crime readers aren’t – for example – trained pathologists. That’s a very specific example, of course, but I think it’s a useful illustration. An average reader’s conception of what an autopsy scene in a work of fiction should look like is not dictated by real world knowledge of what they do look like, but by an ever-enlarging sample of how they have encountered them before in other works of fiction. That is not being realistic. That is an arms race built around suspension of disbelief.
To put it another way, The Wire may well be very realistic indeed, but I imagine a substantial number of people who praise it as such wouldn’t be able to point at Baltimore if they were presented with a map of Baltimore. What matters is not so much that it’s realistic, but that it’s convincing on its own terms, and that it’s very good. Fiction can be just as effective and revelatory and meaningful – and real - when it’s a stone skipping across the surface of reality as when it’s one that actively dives.
Hat in the ring, I think – in my darkest and most private moments – that crime fiction as an overall genre is probably more at odds with realism than at home with it. Crime fiction demands that certain things happen (although different subgenres obviously shift the timescale, camera angle and character focus). Crime fiction as a genre is not simply fiction about crime, but fiction that deals with a crime in certain specific ways. It is usually murder, for example, and it is usually solved. If you do otherwise with your story, you risk leaving the genre.
Fowler is right to say this flies in the face of reality in itself – never mind the often ostentatious nature of the bad guy’s schemes and eventual capture or murder. But even more so, it’s the concept of bad guy that’s problematic. Anecdotally, I’d say most of the writers of procedurals I know are politically left-leaning (thriller writers, more to the right), and I’d say the kind of realistic and intelligent analysis of crime those writers can provide is actually at odds with the more conservative demands of the genre – that there is a bad guy, and that he gets his comeuppance at the end. Of course, some commercially-successful writers manage it (Mark Billingham’s In The Dark, for example, eschews big set-pieces and obvious jeopardy for quieter and more resonant drama), but it’s a tough line to walk, at least while staying in the genre.
And finally, I think one of the real problems crime fiction has as a genre is that our traffic is almost universally one-way. We’re all aware by now that genre boundaries are porous and genre labels somewhat arbitrary, and we’ve all heard that old saw about the best genre books being snatched away as “literary”, but it seems to me that even if all that is true, crime fiction still gives away great authors far more often than it takes them.
By now, as a genre, crime fiction has innumerable recognisable tropes, patterns, characters, settings and so on. If we’re going to suggest that crime fiction is stagnating, I’d suggest in turn that it’s only because we recognise those features of the crime genre in certain arrangements, and not when they’re employed in more experimental ways. Certainly, it is easier for a crime novel to be accepted as an SF novel than vice versa; our passport control, I think, can seem way too strict. There is no reason why China Mieville’s The City & The City, or Lavie Tidhar’s Osama, or Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, or Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass shouldn’t be considered and discussed as works of crime fiction. They use our furniture, after all – our fixtures and fittings. They just don’t arrange them in a conventional order.
But in discussions such as this, those sorts of book, and many others, do tend to get lost in the undergrowth. When you take a step back, and see the land around, I really do think that, overall, it looks like a pretty healthy field.