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It Would Be Spring if it Would Just Stop Snowing

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Okay, that was unfair.   It snowed yesterday for about an hour and a half, then stopped, then snowed for another hour and a half, and it didn’t stick.  But it was still annoying, especially as we’d had all the heat off for two days, then had to put it back on, then turn it off again…

Okay, never mind.  Back to novels vs genre novels.

I still say the novel is something, designed to suit a particular purpose.  That may not be a purpose you’re much interested in–the way we live now, the full range of human nature–but that’s what a novel does and what it is for, and it is a good novel or a bad novel based first and foremost on whether it serves its purpose.

Once again leaving out science fiction here–because as far as I can tell, SF people think SF is everything–genre fiction is usually designed to do something else altogether, and n ot necessarily the same something else for every genre.

Genre mystery fiction is first and foremost a declaration in favor of civilization in the basic sense–of the rule of law, the rejection of random violence, and the importance of intelligence and the use of reason to solve problems and keep us all going.

Look back at the classic detective fiction and you’ll find that that definition fits–Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers,  Rex Stout, even  Dasheill Hammet.

There are exceptions, of course–Mike Hammer comes to mind–but the exceptions, at least at that period, are not so far from the core as they might at first appear.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with what a genre novel is, it’s just that, in order to fulfill its purpose, it may–and I think it often does-have to jettison some of the qualities of a novel.

For one thing, such a genre mystery is almost required to present a world the background of which is largely static.  When a change occurs in such a world, that change is almost always for the bed–it’s a murder, for instance–and a good part of the story from then on out is engaged in getting rid of it so that life can go back to being what it was.

This is not an entirely wrongheaded view of the way the world works.   In more areas than we like to admit, nothing has and nothing will ever change.   Human nature is fixed by genetics and evolution.  The therapeutic society is wrong.  We will never get rid of “addictions,” or “self destructive behavior,” or envy, jealousy, violence or greed.  None of these things is a “pathology” that can be fixed with therapy, drugs, or anything else.  All of them are a part of being human, and we’re more likely to have the poor no longer with us than the human drive to be stupid in pursuit of selfishness.

The problem, of course, is that in order to provide a framework for this particular insight in a very short book, a lot of things that do change have to be largely ignored, or somehow acknowledged and made to look as if they don’t actually change.

Miss Marple has some interesting little speeches about change over the years, but most of the changes that actually occurred in British society never made it into either the Marple or the Poirot books, and the New York  City of Nero  Wolfe is frozen in time from the beginning of that series to the end.

The genre murder mystery requires not only a relatively changeless society, but a relatively changeless socity of a certain type–that’s why somebody like Hitchcock, steeped in modern psychological theories, never produced one.  The world of such a mystery is first and foremost one in which human nature is assumed not to change in any significant way, and assumed not to be changable.  Second, it is a world in which people are assumed to have the power to direct their own actions–habits are strong, but they’re not “addictions,” they’re not beyond the power of the person to manage or control; drives like greed and lust are strong, too, but indulging them is assumed to be a decision, consciously made, and within our control if we want it to be.

The genre mystery makes no sense in a world in which human behavior is considered to be deliberate only when it is good, and assumed to be beyond the conscious control of the perpetrator when it is anything else.

In the therapeutic society, eating broccoli and broiled fish for dinner, studying hard for your chemistry exam, and carefully putting away a tenth of your income every month in savings are “choices.”  Eating fifteen taco bell tacos and a giant sized Coke for dinner, ditching your homework for yet another Renaissance Fair, and blowing your entire paycheck (including the rent money) on lottery tickets are evidence of “addictions.” 

That’s why the anti-drug programs run in so many schools are so annoying, and so infuriating to so many teenagers.  “We’re just trying to help you make good choices!”  the “facilitators” of these things cry–but, of course, they’re lying.  They’re not interested in their students making “choices” at all, since there is only one right choice, and that is not to use recreational drugs. 

There are plenty of studies out there purporting to show that kids who take these drug programs are actually more likely to use drugs than kids who don’t take any program at all, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.  You’re not free unless you’re free to make the wrong choice, and that little insight occured to me before I was ten. 

The world of the classic detective novel is a world in which people make decisions which they were fully free to reject, not one in which they are driven by blind forces over which they have no control without ten steps and rehab.

Maybe the real reason why nobody publishes this stuff any more–or few people publish little of it–is that for readers who have grown up in the therapeutic ethos, for anybody under the age of thirt-five, say, the assumptions of the genre mystery would make no sense.

Written by janeh

March 10th, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'It Would Be Spring if it Would Just Stop Snowing'

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  1. I’m going to leave aside the assumptions of unchanging society, because I haven’t fully processed them yet.

    There are other assumptions in genre mysteries, I think. That a murder will take place, of course, but also that eventually the reason for the murder or murders will come to light, and that it will be a reason normal people can understand. Lust, envy, jealousy, greed. A sort of “there but for the grace of stronger inhibitions go I” reason.

    I just finished a John Connolly book, and there, the reasons for murder might have initially been rooted in reason, but they went *way* beyond that into very scary “these people are among us and are unidentifiable until they strike” territory.

    In fact, the murderers in books like these do NOT have choices in their murders…they do it because they have to, or their reasons are beyond the understanding of those who don’t share their psychoses. So reading about murder as addiction is becoming more attractive. Why not, when everything else from cell-phone use to sex is defined as an addiction?

    It may not be just the therapeutic society you refer to that prevents an understanding or perhaps even a need for the “return to normalcy” of genre mysteries. Technological and social change is becoming so rapid that the concept of a “normal” to return to is fading. What was normal six months ago isn’t now. Who knows what will be current in six more months.


    10 Mar 09 at 11:05 am

  2. I’m not sure the expansion of ‘addiction’ to a loose excuse/explanation for all kinds of decisions is really that widespread. I think a lot of people do use the term loosely, but many also think they are making choices, not overwhelmed by forces outside their control. I also think that many people no long know what ‘normal’ is – years ago I read reports that people who watched TV came up with wildly exaggerated crime figures for their own area – mistaking a selected bit of news from a distant city or even country for actual data from their own area. Now people fear abduction and rape of themselves or their children by psychotic strangers far more than has any relationship to the real risk. Perhaps what Connolly’s book was about was the kind of killer some people now think is normal (in the sense of commonplace), but which isn’t normal at all. I also wonder if your average psychotic killer is really much like an addict – I know the categories overlap, but still, some of them seem far more like the nice lady who thinks murdering her husband is much better than a messy divorce than like an alcoholic with a craving for the bottle. It’s like having your voices tell you that you really have to kill the person sitting next to you on the bus to save yourself compared to getting some kind of emotional relief from seeing the blood spurt.

    I don’t know; I think it’s all a bit oversimplified to put the modern fictional murderers in terms of addiction or psychotics and the old ones in terms of temporary aberations…maybe I need to think about it more.

    Maybe some of the modern fictional killers are more in the tradition of the monsters; the not-us of like werewolves and vampires, than of people like us who break the rules and have to be dealt with.

    While I do think the term ‘addiction’ is over-used, and there’s a wider range of what’s considered ‘normal’ (some of it not entirely rational), I also think that human nature under all the flourishes provided by society and culture is essentially the same as it always was. I do think that modern society is far more individualistic than it used to be – which means that people are used to the idea that they should put their desires and impulses in first place – and that must lead in some cases to difficulties in controlling desires and impulses. That’s not addiction – but it might well feel or look a bit like it to a generation convinced that their duty to themselves as individuals must outweigh anything else.


    10 Mar 09 at 5:16 pm

  3. Seems to me the purpose of the mainstream novel is whatever the author–or the critic–wants it to be, and I’m not sure it’s quite kosher for the critic to decide for the author what his purpose was or ought to have been.

    But on the more interesting question of detective novels, of course they take place in a changing world. In BRAT FARRAR, one of the characters is remembering “the days when cavalry regiments had horses, and every demonstration troop had a trick rider.” In one of Heyer’s later Hannasyde and Hemmingway novels, a constable approaching the Squire’s house observes that “once these places had stables and fancy gardens, but them days is gone.”
    “That’s right, lad” Hemmingway replies. “Those days are gone, and those that know it best are those as used to be grooms and gardeners.” (Quotes from memory.)

    As for Nero Wolfe’s New York,if you had no other guide to 20th Century America than a complete set of Nero Wolfes, you’d see Prohibition fading away, war and food rationing, post-war price controls, segregation and the Civil Rights movement right through to the Black Panthers. A Jewish recurring character (Mandelbaum) shortens his name to the more gentile-sounding Mandel–doubtless for professional reasons. There are echoes of McCarthyism and Watergate, and a full novel devoted to the power and lack of accountability of the FBI. Line the Wolfes up in order and watch the immigrant bootblack going door to door and the impoverished bookbinder “who will freeze to death this winter” fade out of the series as standards of living–and hence labor costs–rise. Even the brownstone on West 35th changes a little: Wolfe adds an elevator and, eventually, a television. “Frozen in time?” Pfui!

    But the crime, rather than the changing state of New York and America, is the point. I have read novels in which murder stems from someone’s inability to adapt to changing times, but those were not classic form detective novels.

    As for the critical point “The world of the classic detective novel is a world in which people make decisions which they were fully free to reject, not one in which they are driven by blind forces over which they have no control without ten steps and rehab.” I am in complete agreement, which is why when I go back to Indiana next week, I’ll be stowing away a set of Ian Rankin mathoms, and bring back with me my complete Nero Wolfe. Because “good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

    And despite the “theraputic era” there are plenty of people under 35 who could tell you where that quote came from and approve the sentiment. Responsibility is not dead because criminals, professors and bureaucrats would have it so.


    10 Mar 09 at 5:25 pm

  4. And of course I woke up in the morning and realized I’d missed a critical point: even if some of the writers disliked individual moral responsibility, the writer of a classic detective story is stuck with it by the nature of the story. Ultimately up to half a dozen people might have committed the murder, but only one chose to do so. Yes, there are a handful of simultaneous or sequential murders, but they only work as mysteries because they are so rare.

    A genre–or sub-genre these days–inextricably tied to individual moral responsibility. No wonder Edmund Wilson hated it so.


    11 Mar 09 at 4:16 pm

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