Friday, December 12, 2014

Why Crime?

By Art Taylor

Two weeks back in my last post here, I gave a tongue-in-cheek response to the question of whether my characters reflect my values. That post was scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving, and I figured between the post-feast, tryptophan-induced coma, the manic frenzy of Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, and the big traffic of post-holiday drives home, most everyone was going to miss whatever I had to say anyway. (To my credit, I offered a little more than what Alan had the day before. A selfie, Alan? Really?)

But this week's question—"Why do you write crime instead of another form of fiction?"—sent me thinking once more about that previous question and about the fuller response I might've given if I wasn't post-tryptophaned and shopping-frenzied myself. And then yesterday, lots of talk was bubbling up online about the BuzzFeed column "51 of The Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature"—with folks on social media offering their own contenders for that same honor. Picking my own two sentences got me thinking as well....

The passage I picked was from Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog"—undeniably one of the great short stories of all time.
He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.
As soon as I cut and pasted that passage on Facebook, I realized that it wasn't a great fit for the list, which seemed primarily to rely on lyrical language and unexpected turns of phrase as much as sharp bursts of insight. Chekhov is a tremendously fine writer—to say the least!—but the passage here is ultimately driven more by philosophical insight than by poetic language. It's a striking revelation, a stinging truth, but not necessarily a beautiful set of sentences. And yet....

In my own writing, I'm often drawn to exploring moral dilemmas, and this Chekhov passage may stand at the center of such dilemmas: who we are on the surface versus who we are at the core; what our secret selves might think and do when the conflict between the two is forced; what the outcome might be of that secret self being revealed.

Crime fiction isn't alone in being able to force the collision of the surface self and the secret self, but to me, crime fiction offers the kinds of urgency, the kinds of dilemmas and drama, that make such a collision most gripping—often with life and death stakes as opposed to inward-looking, more existential musings. If my stories don't often reflect my own values in terms of how people should act or how justice should be served, then they do try to explore how the most deeply held or most deeply hidden values and passions and fears and doubts and insecurities and more drive me and others—and at the core of it, I hope my stories glance toward the question of what I (or any person) might do if pushed into certain corners, muscled into some pretty tough choices, forced to bring that deeply held, deeply hidden self up to the surface. (On a not-unrelated point: As a tip of the hat to Chekhov, I actually wrote a story inspired by "The Lady with the Dog" and testing some different moral dimensions of the story; "An Internal Complaint" was published in the June 2007 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.)

It's been said that the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction hinges on where the action resides. In the former (whether crime fiction, science fiction, or romance), the action takes place at the level of the plot. In literary fiction, on the other hand, the action can be found at the level of the sentence—in the language itself. (And again, I think this idea ultimately drives the BuzzFeed list I mentioned above.) I understand this distinction, but I don't entirely agree with it. The best genre fiction can indeed succeed both with a gripping plot and with gripping, insightful language, and likewise, the best literary fiction isn't diminished by telling a good story, whether it leans toward what we think of as genre writing or not.

Why do I write what I write? As Meredith and R.J. said earlier this week, the easiest answer might be that I write what I like to read—but the reasons behind both of those impulses might be hinted at somewhere in the nebulous intersections of everything I've been writing about, trying to write about, here.


Paul D. Marks said...

That's a great passage from Chekhov, Art. And I think it does describe what lies at the bottom of much crime fiction. As Marquez says, "All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret." I think it's the latter that comes out in crime fiction.

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Art! (For the record, on Thanksgiving, I was going to blog about the existential differences between dead Russian writers (and their post-modern influences vis-a-vis the larger world of Eastern European literature), including an extensive quote from Tolstoy, but in the end I just went with a clip-art turkey graphic.)

B.K. Stevens said...

I enjoyed your post, Art. Among other things, it gave me some insights into your stories, and into why I always find them so interesting.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul, Alan, and Bonnie. I appreciate the feedback here—and those kind words about my own stories, Bonnie! ...though sorry to have missed the post that Alan hinted towards..... Maybe another week!

Susan C Shea said...

Several good points for me to chew on, Art, but something you said sparked a recent question I asked myself after reading what one blurber called a "literary mystery." Pretty good crime fiction, but nothing breathtaking and I couldn't fathom why it was designated "literary." Not for words, or sentences, or plots, or characters, or ideas that stood out.

(Hey, Alan, nice try!)

Art Taylor said...

Would be curious to know what the book was, Susan (though surely better to email me off-blog about that). I find that term "literary mystery" such a mystery in itself. Bibliomystery is a fun phrase, but the "literary" seems more like marketing lingo—in the same way folks talk about books that "transcend" the genre. Oh, boy.