Thursday, May 16, 2013

Telling The Truth For Fun And Profit

By Jay Stringer

First of all, everyone at DSD sends congratulations out to the big mac daddy of the website, the grand poobah, professor Steve Weddle. He's signed a deal with Tyrus books to publish Country Hardball. Tyrus are a great publisher who get behind new and interesting voices, and Weddle is one of the most supportive people in the crime fiction scene. It's a perfect match.

Now onto today's epic post. 
(Trigger Warning.)

McFet's post on Tuesday set my brain clicking and whirring. I posted a quick reply to the post, but I wanted to return and expand on it. The hamster that operates the wheel is old and fat, so it takes me a few days to process a thought.

John's piece came as a follow on to Adrian McKinty's thoughts from Sunday, of a list of things to ban from crime fiction. It goes without saying, of course, that I'm not taking taking the list at face value as things that Adrian thinks we need to remove from all books, but rather as a good starting point for a conversation. 

I'm not generally a fan of lists of rules, but it's always worth walking the idea around a little and finding out what the root issues are, and then seeing where we agree and disagree. Adrian mentions the DOGME 95 manifesto, where a group of film-makers signed up to a set of rules (or principles) for their projects.

  • Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
  • The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
  • The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
  • The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  • Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  • The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  • Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  • Genre movies are not acceptable.
  • The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  • The director must not be credited.
  • One of the inherent problems with lists like this is that they serve more as a checklist of which rules will be creatively broken than which will be adhered to. Possibly the most famous rules we refer to in crime fiction of Elmore Leonard's "ten rules of writing," but each one is written with the nudge-nudge-wink-wink acknowledgement that you can break each and every one of them if your talent allows. 

    The DOGME 95 crew started breaking the rules before the ink was dry, and the original founders of the manifesto have long since left it behind. The list was the fun starting point for a conversation, but was never truly adhered to. It was simply one expression of a good idea.

    So what list does Adrian use to express his idea? For the sake of completion, I'll quote the list, but please do go and read the original post. The idea is to get rid of;

    1. Clever serial killers 
    2. Stupid serial killers 
    3. Child Murderers 
    4. Serial Rapists 
    5. Everything from Scandinavia 
    6. Torture Porn 
    7. Working class stereotypes  
    8. Architects9. Gallery owners 
    10. Books with recipes 
    11. Detectives baffled by basic scientific facts/mathematics  
    12. Detectives who solve crimes with magic or fairy dust (Lizbeth Sallander, the BBC's Sherlock etc.) 
    13. Detectives who solve crimes with cats 
    14. Cops who haven't heard of Ernest Hemingway or other basic elements of contemporary culture (this is an extension of #7 above). 
    15. Super villains.
    Before I start picking at the things I don't agree with, let's take a look at what I do. Well...most of it. That is- I agree with the ideas behind it. If I never read another "clever serial killer" story again, it will be too soon. I hope to never again have to sit through some populist TV show that relies on a bizarre mis-reading of Edgar Allan Poe to explain a serial killer who is more or less a magical plot device. I'm a big fan of cats, but not so much of detectives who solve murders with cats. I tend not to like magical thinking in my fiction -even in my fantasy fiction- and there are a great many stereotypes that make me want to hurl my book, kindle or television out of the window. 

    I share Adrian's feelings on the use of violence in the genre we all write in. I've written many times of the issues I have with crime fiction's treatments of victims, and of the tendency to "crime tourism" and exploitation. I've written at my frustration about how crime fiction still has a tendency to being very white, and to not filling it's own potential to see things from other points of view. 

    I agree with the ideas being expressed by the list, and of McFet's comments about violence against women and children. I strongly agree with the comments about the banality of evil. But I would suggest  that we're really discussing something else. Whenever we discuss tropes and cliches, we're really talking about honesty. Or the lack of it. We're not really saying that we don't want these things to be included in our books, we're saying we want them to be dealt with honestly and with emotional truth.

    I'll focus on a few items from the list to try and make my point a bit clearer.

    1& 2 both deal with serial killers. I hate serial killers in fiction. But in using that phrase we really tend to mean a specific thing; we mean those magical walking plot devices who do crazy things for the sake of moving a story forward. They kill people in ways and for reasons that people tend not to kill people. And they often kill attractive young women, or housewives, or schoolgirls, or other forms of victim that help sell books and films to men. I don't need to labour that point, we all know the kinds of character and tropes that I'm talking about. Season Five of The Wire made the point (somewhat clumsily) that we have a disconnect between how we crave the fictional serial killer but ignore the issues that lead to the serial killing of people. We write about characters who kill a lot of people. Okay, so it's for drugs, or for money, or for gang rivalries or sectarianism, but that simply means we're closer to being honest. But we tiptoe around the truth all to often. 

    Point 4 mentions 'serial rapists.' Once again, we've all seen this handled badly. I have very strong feelings about the way rape is used in fiction. It has a tendency to being a cheap plot device, to being exploitative, and to being a way to degrade and look down on the victims. We often see how the rape is used as a cheap trick to motivate a male protagonist to enact revenge, and some writers feel they're being progressive by using it as a cheap device to motivate a female protagonist to enact revenge. Because revenge is wholesome. (Though I accept it can also be honest)

    I argue that the issue here is not that we put rape in fiction, it's that we don't deal with it the right way.

    I live in a city that has something of a rape problem. It's happening quite often. It's happening in very public places. It happened at the "occupy" campsite in the city centre. It happens ten feet away from one of the busiest roads in town. It happens in car parks. In one appalling case recently it happened on the top floor of a double-decker bus, while passengers were on board. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is something that is being discussed loudly and is on the front page of every newspaper in town. You'd be wrong. It's hidden away, it's on page four five or six, if it even makes the newspaper at all. When I attempt to discuss the issue in the work canteen I'm greeted by empty stares or strange looks. People don't know it's going on, and they don't want to talk about it. We deal with existence of the crime in a far more secretive and discreet manner than the people who actually commit the crime, and we blame the victims for it. In presenting the fictional version in the way we do, as the fetishist and sensationalised excuse to exploit, we hide away from tackling the issue head on. I agree with the list if we're saying we want to stop this version of the story.

    But I have to add the clause that I think we need a lot more stories that tell the truth of the issue. We need to make it something we can discuss and debate, something that people can see being played out in fiction in a way that faces up to what needs to be tackled. We can present the ugly side of life honestly. We don't want to shut down the discussion of rape in fiction, nor the discussion of serial rapists, but we want to shut down the exploitation of the issue. Carry the responsibility of using the issue, and go about it with some truth. We can talk about the victims, and the emotions, and the hypocrisy. 

    Those are two weighty examples -and neither  of them are issues that Adrian dismissed in his original piece- but they show why I can never sign up to any DOGME 95 style list. Lists are fun conversation pieces, but they oversimplify. I don't want to argue for an end to representations of violence against minorities, women or children in crime fiction, I want to argue for an honest examination of it. 

    For a lighter example, I've often been heard cracking jokes about writers who fill their books with references to certain musicians. I've often criticised the brand of British crime fiction that seems to be one long tribute to the Rolling Stones or Joy Division. If I was going to add to Adrian's list I'd probably add something about crime fiction that relies on music, or books that are named after a song from the 70's or 80's. But that would be an instant cheat; the protagonist of my Eoin Miller trilogy is a moody male who obsesses over music. Okay, so my books mention The Replacements or Frank Turner where Ian Rankin mentions the Stones or John Martyn, but there is no real difference between the two. My second book is named after a song lyric rather than a song title, and I have an ebook out that's named after a Whiskeytown album. But if I was to ask that crime fiction start to broaden out to reflect more styles of music, and to bring in something other than a moody male singer, I think I'd have the ghost of a point. I just wouldn't have a hard-and-fast rule. 

    This also isn't an attempt to be holier-than-thou. My first novel contained a mystery that centered around the body of a dead woman. You could argue, I suppose, that the book also contained a serial killer- though it depends on your definitions. My second novel featured a serial rapist. In both instances I told myself (and readers) that I was using those tropes for the right reasons. It's down to the readers decide whether I've earned the use of those plot elements. The best part of McFet's post on Tuesday touched on this issue. Each of us has done one or more of the things on the list in some way at some point. When we have these conversations (and we need to have them far more often than we do in the crime fiction community) it's often for our own benefit. When we draw up lists, we're really drawing up the ideas that we want to hold ourselves to. And there is the merit. We need to hold ourselves to be the best writers we can be.

    So, after a whole post of saying I don't really agree with lists, I'm going to suggest a list.

    I think everything in Adrian's list, and everything in the DOGME list, and for that matter everything in Elmore Leonard's list, comes back down to honesty. Forget worrying about trope and cliche. Find the honesty in the story. Find the honesty in the emotion. Find the honesty in the character and the issue.

    I've come up with a list. I think it can be applied to all situations, and this is what I will be trying to hold myself to;

    1. Tell the truth.
    2. Listen to the victim.
    3. Entertain.


    Thomas Pluck said...

    I found his list snarky and childish. I'd like to know what crimes haven't been done to death? Rape and child abuse are important issues; they HAVE been written about badly, used as plot devices to excuse lazy characterization. "Why is he evil? He was abused as a child! / she was raped and wants revenge, etc"
    Neglecting the truth that most victims of abuse live normal lives and do not become abusers themselves.
    When you look at the statistics for sexual assault, scratching stories that involve it off the list seems petty, and frankly idiotic.

    And really, cats? Fuck off. It's a matter of taste. I have never read a cat cozy, but if you're so upset about sharing shelf space with Lillian Jackson Braun, seek therapy. I'm sure the cozy writers are tired of being next to "Woman Killed in Graphic Detail on Page One" books that we continually endure. I don't care for puzzle murder mysteries myself, but I don't care how popular they are. To each their own.

    I'm also tired of serial killers, but I'd read a good story about one. I liked Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates. It's not as if they stopped existing. Write one from the perspective of the family. The BTK killer was married with children. I know "Dexter" tried to do this justice with Jon Lithgow's character, but that show is a comic book. I'd read the hell out of that book, if Laura Lippmann wrote it (I wouldn't doubt if she has already. I need to look)

    The Dogme 95 list and this one both seem crafted as attention-getting exercises by artists who feel unjustly unappreciated by the world. Get over it, and write the best story you can. If you want fame, make a sex video with a bored heir(ess) or something.

    Steven J. Wangsness said...

    Many congrats to Steve!