Friday, April 21, 2006

On Getting Away With Murder

Rosina has a way of making me think with her posts, which is probably a sign that she was an excellent professor. Last night, however, I was blog-hopping just to get tired enough to go to sleep, and instead (when I finally went to bed) my mind was filled with ideas and opinions. The trigger was a very interesting post she has on the artificial lines between literary fiction and genre fiction in which she says:

“There are some writers out there who are unapologetically not-literary-genre-focused and who are both commercially and critically successful. Burke is one of them. Elmore Leonard is another. Both of them write crime fiction, and both are very good at what they do. They deserve general praise and love and lots of readers. But I'm busy wondering how that happens. Why are some authors who write outside the literary genre spared the sneering of the crit-literati? Is it that some genres are lifted into the realm of literature over time? Think of the first big immigration waves from Ireland and Italy, and the discrimination those people had to deal with. Within a couple generations they were running city hall and giving fancy balls. With enough time they lifted themselves into the higher society and took their turns sneering at the new immigrants.

Is the crime genre like that? Has it been around so long that it's been subsumed into literati land? Any ideas?”

My answer to this is that it has nothing to do with time and everything to do with the nature of our acceptance of death and murder over sex and fantasy even when it is contrary to our own laws.

When I was in high school we did several plays a year, and inevitably anytime a play had a character of a sexualized nature (prostitute, courtesan, woman/man in an affair) someone would explain. We did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and we had several people complain that the high school girls playing the courtesans would get ideas. They would become prostitutes themselves. Never mind that the ancient Greek definition of courtesan had little to no resemblance to the chickie swinging her leather-clad behind down Burnside, who cares that many courtesans in ancient Greece became wives; we were doomed to be whores. These same people had absolutely no problem with a play where two old women kill old men to put them out of their misery (Arsenic and Old Lace), and were not afraid to congratulate us on our performances and choosing to do something better than one of those sex plays.

Why? One could argue that Arsenic and Old Lace is funny, and the humor negates the heinousness of the murder act, but it would have been the same if we’d done a serious play involving the same topic. Burke, Leonard, Lehane and others are all excellent writers (don’t get me wrong, I love these guys), and that allows them to avoid the criterati (as they shall now be known), but it also helps that murder and violence is pervasive and accepted in our society.

An eye for an eye, mercy killings, gang violence, murder/suicides, murder rampage: all accepted terms that make it on the daily news and on the paper. We talk about murder. We dissect why the preacher’s wife killed her husband, who killed Jon Benet, and what about that bloody glove? We’re asked daily what we would do to protect our families and ourselves. And we all have that moments in the office or at home or in the car when we think, “I’ll set the building on fire…

It doesn’t matter that the characters may be more gray than black and white (because that’s what Burke, Leonard and Lehane give us) because the nature of murder is very gray. Was it a mercy killing or straight homicide? Vigilante or man looking for revenge?

Was it justified?

The very fact that we have terms like justifiable homicide and self-defense which allow murder and death to occupy a level of realism and acceptance in the literary world and in the real one. Sex is dirty, wrong, only between a husband and wife, or a man and a woman, or only for procreation (insert your qualifier here), and you certainly don’t talk about it, you hussy (which if you follow the entomology originally meant housewife). Fantasy and sci-fi are made up, it can’t/hasn’t happened, it’s not real. Murder and death are solid and not only in your book, but on the television, in the paper and down the street where the yellow crime scene tape is waving like a flag.



Think I should have just hijacked Rosina’s comment section and done something else here?

I want to hear your thoughts because I have more of my own, but I don’t have time to write a really in-depth piece right now.


lady t said...

Society is abit more accepting of violence in entertainment than sex in this country-just look at the fact that while there are dozens of actress who've had major nude scenes in films,you can count on one hand the number of actors who've truly exposed themselves(butt shots and taking off shirts are nothing compared to how much skin the ladies have exposed over the years).

Getting back to your main point,the crime genre has been more expected over time but there's still some lines drawn-for every Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasson and Michael Connelly,there's a John Grisham or a James Patterson who gets the sneer treatment for his/her "commerical" work. Also,there's a blurring of the borders between crime and mystery-Mary Higgins Clark and Sara Parentsky can both be found in the same section of your bookstore or library and those ladies are as different as night and day.

lady t said...

Oop,meant "Accepted" not expected! Strike that,change it!

Natalie Damschroder said...

I will admit I don't read a heck of a lot of crime fiction, so maybe I'm way off base. But I think crime fiction gets less sneerage because the goal of the story is to RESOLVE the crime. It's noble to obtain justice, and it makes us feel good, sometimes, to read about people doing things we would never do.

Then again, as a genre, romance and women's fiction sell a lot better than anything else, so who cares what the criterati think?

Doug Hoffman said...

The crime fiction genre, IMO, plays host to some of the best writing out there. Thank heavens they don't fall under literary critical scrutiny.

With regard to MY reading pleasure, literary fiction is nearly dead*. The last "serious" literary fic I read was back in the 80s, Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. I recently picked up Elizabeth Costello and only managed thirty or forty pages before Coetzee put me to sleep.

*Not for want of trying. I do pick up these books when I browse. I really do. And I put them right back down again.


Hmm. Now that I think about it, I read Wiesel's Night trilogy a few years ago.

Paul said...

I think you're conflating two entirely different things: critical acceptance and attitudes towards sex/violence. John Updike and John Cheever aren't any less critically accepted because it's all adultery, all the time, and very little violence. War and Peace isn't lauded while Anna Karenina gets slighted. Flaubert didn't need murder in Emma Bovary.

In terms of popular culture, I suspect sex stays strip-tease because that's the only way it's interesting, by retaining a prurient angle. Otherwise, as Johnson said, "Sex: the expense is damnable, the position is ridiculous, and the pleasure fleeting." Life and death stop being interesting only when life does.

Lisa Hunter said...

Why isn't genre fiction more respected by literary critics? Um, look down at your list of How to Know You're Not a Romance Novel Heroine. That's part of it.

Literary novels have their own cliches and conventions -- dysfunctional childhoods, adultery in affluent suburbs, professors at elite colleges suffering existential crises of their own making, etc. But they're not as fun to mock as a heroine kidnapped by pirates. (And their covers seldom feature bare-chested men named Brock.)