Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Simple Art Of Truth

By Jay Stringer

This piece has appeared a couple of times now in different forms. It's something of an evolving essay, as each time i return to the point i fail to quite make it.

Obviously i have to think about writing all the time; the craft, the approach, the groupies. Okay, not the groupies.

But I've been thinking out loud for awhile now about social fiction, and my need for fiction that feels true. And it keeps me returning to the old Chandler essay "The Simple Art of Murder." Much of what he write seems outdated, and dismissive of the fact that a great writer can make just about any approach work. But there is a grain of truth in it that i just can't shake, the simple art of truth, if you will.

I'm drawn to trying to decide what kind of a writer i am, whether I'm a realist or a fantasist. I keep coming back to the idea that there shouldn't be too much of a difference between the two. Whether it's a real world or a fake one, it's the job of the writer to make that world feel real.

Now, Chandler seems to have taken a back seat over the last few years. Hammett gets more and more praise, which is great. But there seems to be a need in all walks of fandom to praise one thing by slapping another. You can only like band A if you hate band B. And so it is with crime. You can like Chandler or Hammett. But you can't like both.

That's not really my style though. I don't see the need to choose one over the other, as they're very different writers. It would be like choosing between Steinbeck and Bukowski, or Springsteen and Westerberg. If i had to come up with some simplistic explanation, I'd say the reader in me prefers Chandler and the writer in me prefers Hammett.

In Chandlers essay, he makes certain statements that can be questioned, when taken out of context. He starts with the assertion that 'fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic', which could be taken to town by any well thought out argument, if that was all it was saying.

He gives a great deal of time to attacking the works of certain British crime authors, who's characters and plot existed only to make the crime make sense. The essay rings with such truth, and such passion for the art, that my head is alive with it.

Here's a bit that i like;

“..things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest.”

Here's another;

“There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.”

I'm not going to quote the whole thing at you in chunks. At least not tonight.

The world Chandler lived in and the one we live in are very different. The basic day to day facts of our lives would be the things of speculative fiction to him. But there are things that haven't changed, and will never change, and they are the things that are truest to his essay, to fiction, and to life.

When he said that Hammett 'gave murder back to people who did it for a reason' , he was touching a truth greater than crime fiction. We live in a world that has rules. We may not like or understand the rules, but we recognise them.

I'm not saying good fiction is only that which takes place on some gritty crime ridden streets. I'm not saying that all. I'm saying we live in a world that has a certain dna, certain walls and rules. So for anything to have a feeling of truth to it, fiction has to take place in a world that recognises this.

By this rule, fantasy is okay. It can still, and should still, be intended to be realistic.
Dragons? cool, okay. Dwarves? Magic? Knock yourselves out.
But the story takes place in a world. That world has to seem real. It has to have rules, walls and consequences. No cheap tricks.
No characters doing things for no reason, or things that don't make sense.

To paraphrase Chandler, which i am ashamed to be doing, he took issue with a certain style of crime writing. One where the sole function of the characters and the plot was to revolve around the crime. Some bizarre, meticulously planned, and overly detailed theft or murder. Something that is only believable because the story exists to make it believable.

Crime fiction should contain characters. That should be the starting point as it should be with every fiction. The crime should grow naturally out them, out of what it is they want to achieve and the simplest way to achieve it.

So with fantasy fiction, the spells, the magic, whatever the drug of choice, should grow out of the characters, and the resolution of any situation should grow out of the characters and their understanding of the world around them. Not whatever magic potion the writer needs to get everyone from z-a for the start of the next chapter.

Film students have a term for it.
In their slavish devotion to French cinema, they call it verisimilitude. It means feeling of truth, and basically amounts to the simple principle; be true to your audience, your characters, and the world they each live in.

Don't cheat, because it cheapens the work. Don't be lazy, because it cheapens the writer.
Art has to have a basic feeling of truth to it, even a totally fictional world needs to feel like one in which we could plant our feet on solid ground. And the people in it -be they humans or small furry things from the planet thangar- need to feel like people we can understand, people who have motives and blood running through them.

Without that feeling of truth, that 'realism', what is the point? And where is the art?


Dana King said...

Bravo. I have a copy of "The Simple Art of Murder" on my hard drive so I can search for quotes quickly; I often use them when commenting on blogs or discussions.

Your post here is spot on in several ways. I view Chandler and Hammett as two approaches to the same problem. Chandler will probably always be first for me, because I discovered him first, and through him I found my love of what I like to call crime fiction, as opposed to the "traditional" mystery.

Verisimilitude is critical. If the story is not believable, what point is there to reading it. HArry Potter is fantasy, yet Rowling builds a believable world with its own rules that are as strict in their way as are the laws of physics we all live by. Same thing with Pratchett's DiscWorld, and Tolkien's Middle Earth.

You can write what you want; it doesn't have to be real. It's fiction, after all. It must at least seem real, which means it much be believable, or the required suspension of disbelief will not hold.

Well done.

Dave White said...

Not much for me to say here, other than good post.

Steve Weddle said...

So about all these so-called 'heist' stories. I think when we write/read these sorts of crime stories, we still need more than just the process. We need to know that the main character is personally invested in the caper if we are to be. What is he/she trying to accomplish? Usually it has to be more than just "get cash."

I've been intrigued by the Wallander stories on PBS recently. I've not read any of the novels, but probably will now. The damaged investigator who doesn't sleep and screws up his personal life isn't new. But this dude gets waaaaay involved, taking each case as an attack on his soul.

That seems to be part of what Mr Chandler was getting at. Thanks for pointing it out, Jay.

We care about the people in the stories as well as the jewels. The trick is to make them both sparkle.

Gordon Harries said...

I don't understand why all these boys gotta be Hammett Vs. Chandler about things.

It's not like it equates to The Beatles/Stones debate.. (actully, I'm not sure if you can call 'I like them!', "Well, I like them!' a 'debate', but there you go.)