Friday, December 2, 2011

Sick Transit Gloria

By Russel D McLean

“I think crime writers are very sick people.”

Thus spake a commenter on this article on Patricia Cornwell. Let’s leave aside whether one likes or dislikes Cornwell’s works* and think about this commenter.

“…very sick people.”


“Once one has had even a glimpse of a wicked deed as words on a page, it stays put in the imagination- the torment is transmitted by a third party, crime writers spread about their material- it is the canker (sic) of warped minds.”

Which sounds like a bad thing. And maybe it is to a degree. In reality no one wants to confront the worst that humanity has to offer. Yet myself and other crime writers (or worse, horror writers) do so all the time. We distill terrible acts and place them on the page in the name of entertainment.

What the bloody hell is wrong with us?

Well, let’s leave aside the fact that our readers are clearly worse because they want more of the same and right now, please. And let’s think about entertainment.

The Greeks were clearly as sick – maybe more so – as any modern crime writer. Their tragedies were built on buckets of gore. Oedipus Rex is clearly the work of a screwed up mind. Yet it is a classic of literature. Even Shakespeare - - he wrote Titus Andronicus, where incest, cannibalism and a thousand other atrocities are depicted, and of course Hamlet where just about everybody dies**

Drama – at its heart – is conflict. And conflict is not pretty. It never has been. It never will be. I can accept that certain people don’t want to be reminded of ugly truths in this world – and in fact, at times, even I can’t take it and want to escape from such things – but the principle of entertainment is not merely diversion. Fiction and drama are our ways of coping with the world. By dealing with something in a fictional narrative we are excising it, in a sense. By confronting darkness on some level we process our reaction to it in a safe environment.

Fiction without conflict, without some essential darkness, is worthless. Even in the lightest of comedies, there is conflict and loss and struggle, even if it is over seemingly inane stakes. The fact is, however, that crime fiction and other dark forms of writing allow the reader and the writer to make sense of those things in the world that may otherwise be senseless. A person cannot cope with life by running away from that which makes them uncomfortable.
Good fiction – whether we see it as harmless “entertainment” or not – is always about making some sense of life. To be effective in doing this, sometimes that means going to places that we may find unsettling, confronting parts of ourselves and others we might otherwise run away from. There is no sickness or “canker” in admitting that people do bad things. There is more sickness in denying this, perhaps, in pretending that the world is all sweetness and life.

Not that I propose for an instant all fiction should be a bleak and soul-destroying gaze into the absolute depths of human suffering.

Far from it.

As in all things, I believe in balance. Sometimes I’ll want to be reassured and reminded that things can work out for the best, that there is good in people. Sometimes I’ll want to try and work out why people behave in the terrible ways they sometimes do.

Fiction can and should tackle both these extremes and everything in between.

Fiction should – no matter if it does it by subtext, by text, even by accident – make us think. Even if that thought is merely, “This is/isn’t how I want to live my life”

If it doesn’t do that and if it doesn’t strike a balance, then I wonder, what the point would be of it at all.

*For what its worth I think her first four or five books utterly revolutionised the crime fiction scene and were in and of themselves very good examples of the new genre. After that, well, I found the series lost its rhythms. But clearly hundreds of thousands of readers disagree. And mu opinion's just one drop in the ocean.
**There was originally a joke here that was based on the fact my brain was tired and utterly misremembered the plot of Hamlet. Which just goes to show that even your beardy hero slips up every once in a while***
***There was also a third foot note which is the one Ray Banks refers to.


Unknown said...

Nice work, Russel.

Ray Banks said...

Re: *** It's definitely not true. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern definitely die in Hamlet. Stoppard's title is a line from the play.

Russel said...


I realised that this mornning. I was tired, it seemed like a good joke...

Ray Banks said...

Oh, I'm not complaining about the joke. It was a good joke.*

*I love footnotes.