Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Great Expectations

By Jay Stringer

One of the two-part blogs today. A mini-review and then a mini-rant.

I finished reading McFet’s Let It Ride (which translates as Swap, somehow, in Canadian) recently. If you’ve already read Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, then you’re on familiar ground. The third book in the loose series expands on what you’ve already been reading. If you haven’t read those first two, then I’m afraid we have a problem. A you and me problem. An intervention from the men in black problem.

Anyway. I know I’m not the only one who makes The Wire comparison to John’s books, and I also know it’s a slightly misleading one. No, you’re not entering into the world of low rises and desperation in inner city America. This is literally a whole different country. You’re not going to see an Omar, or a Barksdale, or a McNulty.

When I make the comparison, I’m meaning something else. Each story has taken us further, deeper and higher into the world. We see not just the crime of the streets, but the cops who chase it down, we see the business deals that lead to the crime, we see the high power meetings and the civilians throwing money around on the edges of the underworld. Basically we see that crime, like everything else, is a class system. There’s both the blue collar and the white collar.

If we could say that Dirty Sweet was season one; it gave us a few characters to follow, and showed us the edges of the world. Everybody Knows was season two; it delved deeper, it started to show that Lester Freamon was right; following the money is where the real story is. We started to see where the drugs were coming from and where they were going to, and we saw a major power shift in the rival gangs. To follow all of that Let It Swap gives us season 3, which I would call the “shit just got real” season. Nobody trusts anybody, people are fucking up left right and centre, and everybody is after a piece of the pie. The cast has expanded now to take in a whole city in one novel. I’ve seen few novels try and tackle this many characters, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.

I don’t read McFet’s books because I know him; I read them because they’re some of the best crime fiction out there. You want books with wit, and scope and ambition, that still manage to be easy to read? Get the book, get all three of them, I'll wait right here.

The second part of today's blog is either a rant or a question, depending on whether you're standing downwind of me.

Peoples expectations seem to be in a strange place right now. Even with McFet's book, I noticed both how ambitious it was and how rare that seems to be. Here on DSD we’ve questioned the myth of the attention span many times, both on the blog and in the podcast. We’re always told that peoples attention spans have gone. Did we ever really have one? And if so, is it really worse now?

A lot of the early praise for The Wire stated how like a novel it was, with its long form story telling. Things were not apparent after one or two episodes, but things were crystal clear after ten or twelve of them. But it does interest me that, while TV is becoming more ambitious and more willing to take risks, the reading market seems to be more and more risk averse.

Do we want something new? Do we want ambition? And following The Wire are we in a golden age of TV? Not really. The show was one of the exceptions, it seems, not the rule.

And it’s not just about novels or TV. People’s expectations in general seem to be in a strange place. I was talking at work recently about Transformers 2, and I ventured the opinion that it's one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. I started to lay into the writing and somebody said, “Did you expect anymore from a film about giant robots?” I was met with stunned silence when I said that everybody should expect more from the film. A well written film about fighting robots is preferable to a badly written one, right?

I mean, The Dark Knight was a film about men in silly costumes fighting on rooftops, but they still dared to put in the hard work and actually write it. But would we rather walk into the cinema and play down ten quid to see a badly written film that’s over in a flash than sit and invest in something that’s well written and interesting? And surely we should demand that even escapism is still well written? Should we really set our sights any lower than that in the name of fun? Is it that our attention spans have reduced, or have we simply started to value our attention spans so little that we don’t see the need to use them?

It could be that its me who's off base. I don't judge different things by different standards. I want saturday evening family escapism to be as well written as the latest film, and both to have the same care and thought as a novel thats going to be worth my time to read. I'm not going to let anything off lighter than anything else, or hand out any free passes.

These are the sorts of questions that set my brain spinning for hours at a time. Do we value content? Do we want ambition? Would The Wire have gathered so much love if it fell in the forest when nobody was around? Are films, books and TV set into the simple blockbuster mentality because that's what the industry presents to us, or is it because that's how we want it? And where do writers fit into the equation?


Dana King said...

First, you're spot on about John's books. I read DIRTY SWEET because I knew him. (I probably wouldn't have heard of it otherwise.) I read the next two, and his free collection of flash fiction, and what short stories I've found, because they're great. I know he's compared to Elmore Leonard a lot, but he might also be the Canadian George V. Higgins.

As to your second point, well, duh. Escapism or not, there's a standard the writers (directors, set designers, editors, etc) should aspire to if they plan to cash the checks.

What amazes me is how many people will look contemptuously at a show or movie because the production values such as sets or special effects aren't up to snuff, but are completely oblivious to the shortcomings of the story.

(Word Verification: susita, a small Susan, as in Sarandon.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

The ambitious TV shows you are thinking of have very small audiences in the big picture. They are cable shows on the whole. There are very few movies nearly as good.
The numbers are probably equivalent to the audience for a complex novel. I might add, much of the audience who reads more difficult books heads right for the literary section of the bookstore. I can never convince my book group for example, (all well educated women), to read crime fiction. They never read for escapism and they just don't understand that crime fiction can critique society as well as their favorite writers.

John McFetridge said...

Dana makes a good point about the different expectations on things like production values, sets and special effects.

Years ago a producer told me when starting out not to worry about, as he said, "Anything that money can solve." He claimed that execs in the movie biz would understand low-budget problems but that there was no excuse for a bad script (and this is a guy who produced Flesh Gordon and the Cosmic Cheerleaders so he knew scripts).

But it is a matter of fulfilling expectations. As Patti says, some people have pretty firm expectations and won't even try something that looks outside the range.