Thursday, August 4, 2022

Cain kills Abel and we're off to the races, by Catriona

Q: We crime writers write about murder and violence. What are your thoughts about profiting—however meagerly—from the tragedy of others, even if it’s fictional?

My conscience is clear. People have always composed tales of wrong-doing where innocent victims get in some degree of trouble. And it helps that I've never written anything "ripped from the headlines", I think. Plus I don't write much on-the-page depravity anyway. Or if I do, I write it from a moral perspective, where the depraved get their come-uppance in the end.

That's the thing for me. It very much depends on where the author, and the book, are standing in a moral sense. Bad things happen and then order is restored, justice is meted out, good triumphs and evil trips and farts, right in front of an old boyfriend. Or bad things happen and it's a problem that order is not restored, justice not meted out, that good withers and evil walks away looking cool. 

But what about the fiction where that doesn't happen and no one in the fictional world thinks it's a big deal? The Sopranos was always problematic for me. I had to keep reminding myself that Tony was a murderous sociopathic thug, not worthy of my empathy just because he also had a mawkish attitude to family. (And I've got a good friend who has never seen The Godfather, because he can't be doing with the glorification of the mob.)

The most shocking account I ever heard of a mass moral failing, with respect to fiction, was when a reviewer of Schindler's List said the cinema where he attended the screening was mostly full of youngsters - teenagers - and they sniggerd their way through scenes of the most abject suffering as if they were watching Beavis and Butthead. Or as if they themselves were Beavis and Butthead. That chilled me then and it chills me now: to think that an unvarying diet of "cool", affectless, consequence-free violence might blunt human empathy to such a degree.

However, Schindler's List was itself a story on a screen. There's no reason to think those sniggering people would react - or fail to react - to a real life event in brave and compassionate ways. 

And, for sure, the idea of "degenerate art" is not one to entertain lightly. 

I just re-read that paragraph about B&B and the words to highlight are "unvarying diet", I reckon. I would hestitate - hang on, that's not strong enough - it would never occur to me to produce or consume a body of work where . . . Hmmmm . . . where all the cops were heroes, all the women screamed and fainted, guns saved the day every day, all the religious people or rightwingers or atheists or leftwingers or white people or black people were wrong'uns. 

But hang on again. I might have just argued myself to a completely different stance, if I'm going to be honest. And I think I am. (This is a really great blog prompt!) Objectively, given what I've just said, the cloudiest patch of my conscience is surely caused by the way I do produce the same unreality over and over again: the bit where I write resolutions, not the bit where I write trangressions. That crime-writer's habit of supplying endings to problems, rather than depicting the unending unaddressable mess of real life. 

Are we harmed by a diet of soothing final chapters? Am I doing harm by writing them? I think, on balance, I'm going to fall back on Jill Paton Walsh's defence of crime-fiction, and not for the first time. She said it offers "a dream of justice" and argued that as long as we remain able to see the gap between that dream on the page and what happens in the world, we can keep trying to close it.




Brenda Chapman said...

"The dream of justice" is what keeps many people going. A thoughtful post, Catriona.

Catriona McPherson said...

Thank you, Brenda.

Susan C Shea said...

Closing the gap between reality and the world we dream of is essential for some of us. Maybe that's part of why we write? Excellent post, Catriona, thanks..

Ann Mason said...

Thank you for this post. Much food for thought. Xo