Crime Beat: Point blank realism?
Last month I had an email exchange about crime fiction with krimi fundi Gunter Blank who reviews for the SonntagsZeitung. At one point I said crime fiction wasn’t in the realist tradition – largely because of the conventions it has to observe. Of course I shouldn’t have used the term realism. Gunter came back with guns blazing. You could say he fired at point blank range. Here’s his salvo (although I have to add that Gunter is uncomfortable with the gun metaphor and at shooting at me. Which is a wise decision on his part. ‘Let’s say,’ he says, ‘your remark triggered some extending musings…’ So here are those musings:
I was kinda surprised that your answer of crime fiction being realism was rather a no, insinuating that crime fiction was always kind of over the top and that real life was never so violent/heavy as described in crime novels.
Well, I would say that’s not the point. Crime fiction is certainly not naturalism, as in Zola or Gerhard Hauptmann his German counterpart and predecessor depicting a one to one picture of working class misery. But then realism has always transcended that. Actually it came into being as a distinction to naturalism. I guess the bottom line definition of realism if we extend the term into the twentieth century and include writes from Dos Passos to DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen is somewhat that it draws an accurate picture of society or individuals or aspects of both, by exaggerating, distilling, condensing even ridiculing real facts into a literary form.
Postmodernism and it’s kid brother comic book violence might have further complicated the definition of realism, but as I tend to include satire in the realm of realism (Mark Twain belongs to the original canon), I also tend to call films like Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained as maybe extra matrimonial kids of the realism family.
Tarantino was confronted with similar absurd critics about his portrait of slavery being excessively violent, to which he simply said, well we didn’t show the worst atrocities, so shut up.)
As you might have suspected I therefore tend to include most of contemporary crime fiction in the Realism Family.
Let’s go back for a moment to where it all began:
Hammett, Cain and Chandler in my opinion belong to realism as much as Hemingway, Döblin, Dos Passos and Steinbeck (the latter I would even put into naturalism). The same goes for James Ellroy, Charles Willeford, David Peace to name a few. I would put them all in the same box as Don DeLillo, John Updike or Carlos Fuentes.
Of course realism may only be one aspect of a given writers work, his novel may contain other elements romanticism (as in the case of Raymond Chandler), or the psychological approach of James Cain. I cannot see much difference in the narrative approach of Henry James (a canon realist) and James Cain. Hammett, still my favourite, actually had it down in all areas, from comic book violence in Red Harvest to psychological realism in The Dain Curse, to gritty no nonsense realism in The Glass Key, still one of the best crime novels ever. Not to forget The Maltese Falcon – a perfectly balanced seesaw of realism and metaphysics. And to ice it, he made fun of all of this and especially of himself in The Thin Man and seemingly effortless achieved a Fitzgerald-like portrait of the upper classes.
Of course we can and should add all kinds of adjectives to the term realism, to better distinguish certain styles, or schools or whatever.
So back to the South African crime novelist. At least those I know I would all call realist, and to start a decent discussion should deal with whether they achieve a believable crime fiction structure and how they achieve a believable portrait of society (or aspects of it) or of one or more characters. (I recall some discussions about Roger Smith’s Capture where most everybody said, that kid should have been abused and killed in the end, that would have been more realistic. It was felt that the forced happy ending it took away some of the intensity and credibility of the narrative. So who’s over the top here – reality or the writer? Actually twenty years ago I would have subscribed to this argument, but I guess I’m getting old and sloppy – at least, these days I don’t mind a happy ending every now and then.)
So from there on one could start a comparative study of South African crime fiction. But never mind, most of my colleagues on the KrimiZeit Bestenliste jury probably wouldn’t subscribe to that, with the exception of maybe Thomas Wörtche an old defender of realism in crime fiction. And you might be surprised that even on that common ground I guess I could have the direst discussions with him about what contemporary crime fiction should accomplish.