Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Raymond Chandler on realist fiction

In the classic essay on the genre of the detective novel, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler is keen on distinguishing realist detective fiction from escapist detective fiction. The latter, in its most celebrated manifestations of Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot, follows basic formulas of studied improbability and non-realism.

Chandler, on the other hand, wants to write detective fiction that does have something profound to say about reality, and thus, he says, "The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket." The entire paragraph is worth citing or reading, but I want to get to the description of the "world" that grabs my attention in this particular historical moment. This world is one
where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
I would not take sides in the debate over what is art or "serious" literature, as I think Chandler mistakenly does (or as does W.H. Auden, in an even more elitist, unfair manner, in his similarly celebrated essay on the detective story), but I would make the observation that escapist detective fiction (or any escapist fiction) does not move me by, say, its accounts of death or injustice. I read it for very different reasons, and a character's death means no more to me, usually, than that of a character in a video game. Realist fiction, by contrast, exists to say something about the reality I live in, not to help me escape it. Thus, a detective story like Crimen en el barrio del once moves, saddens, and angers me as it makes me ponder the themes that Chandler alludes to of state violence and systemic injustice.

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