‘New political novels’ not so political

Is Crime Fiction the New Political Novel?, 12 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


Let’s open with an organising axiom: crime-fiction is surging through the cultural circuits of South Africa. There are plenty of theories as to this re-energised interest in the theme, but most centrifuge around the idea that crime generates an uninterrupted flow of anxiety among the un-fortressed public, and these books – with all their catharsis/fantasy and possibilities to purge in text what cannot be so graciously excised from reality – are not mere entertainment, but rather serve a “socially diagnostic” function: they refract the chaos and questless violence that actually exists. Rita Barnard has written: “The prevalence of crime-fiction, along with the counter-discourse of law and order it has provoked, has become one of the most important features of postapartheid society, and one that has had a profound impact on literary production. Crime writing and detective fiction have flourished since 1994.”

So, slithering off the Rue Huguenot in its autumnal sunshine, we are promised a vigorous inquiry into this galvanic new presence in local literature. (I am obliged to mention also, that two goblets of Porcupine Ridge Syrah have dripped like acid down my gullet and I am perplexed that in a town of such knighted wines, Porcupine triumphed with sponsorship rights). The conversational panel is made up of academics/authors: Leon de Kock, Imraan Coovadia, Margie Orford and Lynda Gilfillan.

Gilfillan begins by stating that “ever since postmodernism has been on the horizon, genre fiction is pretty much mainstream. People are writing postgraduate theses on it. It’s got an academic status.” It does, of course, but one might wish to rejoin by quoting Terry Eagleton, who remarked that “in some cultural circles, the politics of masturbation exert far more fascination than the politics of the Middle East.” Academics, in other words, will write about the most inglorious shit in their holy pursuit of tenureship and foreign travel grants. Cynicism aside, though, that academics are paying attention to crime-fiction as sociological/cultural artefacts is not surprising – dramatic mid-century turns in cultural theory have torn apart banal high/low cultural distinctions, and cultural studies now has the whole of society – from its piss-stained alleys to its gilded palaces – as its legitimate objects of inquiry.

The purpose of this debate thus seems to be the desire to rescue crime-fiction from the hawkish clutches of so-called “genre-snobs”, who mark it as “schlock” or “pulp” or “trash”, and to inquire into its intellectual dimensions: its socio-political content, modes of operation, sociological connections, effects and circulations. But there is a lurking and confusing element in all this. These academic inquiries should not be seen to grant a kingdom-wide pardon to all who write within the genre, as if suddenly being taken seriously by intellectuals grants you a ticket to aesthetic redemption and lines you up on the next Nobel Prize shortlist. These sorts of inquiries have to occur on a book-by-book basis, not as some genre-wide appeal. The point is to ask, as Leon phrases it, “What’s going on in the discourse of crime?”

He opens the debate by saying that crime-fiction is a “sticky signifier” and that “it often occludes”. Interest in crime-fiction has “amped up significantly in the last ten or twelve years”. He cites cultural anthropologist team Jean and John Comaroff’s studies into the phenomenon, an upcoming special-issue of the Critical Writing journal, and a recent colloquim at Yale University on “Crime and its Fictions in Africa”. He continues: “One of the things crime-fiction is doing is mediating socio-political anxiety. Since the transition of 1994, it has become increasingly difficult to separate friend from foe, the strange from the familiar; the signs have become occulted.” At which point Margie delightfully interjects: “You don’t think [academics] just ran out of Jane Austen PhDs to write?”

Imraan, who offered a handsome and charismatic extension of the territory in his contributions, begins by asking whether these books do things differently to other literary forms and if so, whether there are signs of this. His first insight is that crime authors are able to architect sequential narratives around the same cast of characters. “Sherlock Holmes can turn up in fifty stories, but Hamlet only in one. If you think of it like a chessboard, at the end of Hamlet all the pieces are down or have been moved irretrievably out of position. In [crime] novels however, the enemies are still standing: the corrupt chief; the guy who runs the morgue; the detective, whatever. The fact that they’re still standing means we’re dealing with different things.” Regarding the concern of asking whether crime-fiction is the new political novel, he says “I mean, gynaecologists and dermatologists don’t have seminars where they say anaesthesiology is the new gynaecology.”

Leon remarks on the “economy of prestige” in which writing operates, and says that “A lot of people who are sympathetic to crime-fiction feel that it is underrated, that it is regarded as ‘genre’, and a kind of schlock, when it actually does more. Crime-fiction allows you to traverse society across and down.” He says that these novels don’t make literary shortlists, and that the “way people rate literature matters”. Imraan addresses Margie playfully, asking: “What do you guys want? You want the Nobel Prize – it’s not going to happen. What is it that you’re arguing your case for? If you want your writing to be popular, sensational and make money, then why do prizes matter? Why does prestige matter? I mean there are five hundred kinds of prestige – like being the tallest person in Paarl or the most charming red-headed prostitute in the world.”

Regarding some of the inquiries that the form of crime-fiction is supposed to allow, Imraan’s provocations are worth quoting at length: “I don’t see a lot of crime-fiction writing about black people, or poor people, or working class people as central to the issues of crime”, he says. “In Shakespeare, you feel more sorrow or pain for one king than you do for the hundred thousand peasants who are starving in the background of the play. Crime-fiction is particularly unfair because it focuses on certain types of murders and not others. It’s not an accurate version of society at all. It’s about certain sensations, certain politics at the level of the newspaper.” He says that “books are little machines”, and wonders what kinds of sensation you get out of crime-fiction rather than other types of fiction. Citing Lolita and Jude the Obscure as counter-examples, he says: “It seems to me that the feelings or sensations or the kinds of violence or the attitudes toward violence [in crime-fiction] are basically different to the attitudes and perceptions of other novels. The novel at its most interesting has a different point of view on these sensations. If you want one from the other, you're not going to get it. It would throw the whole machine off-balance.”

Margie, illustrious author of various crime novels, extends Imraan’s perceived problem: “You’re writing within a convention. A crime novel is very much like a children’s story. ‘Once upon a time’, and then there’s a disruption… what’s satisfying about reading and writing them is that you reap revenge, gain justice.” Her reason for entering into crime-fiction stemmed from being pissed-off with postmodern novels in which authors were either too “stupid or lazy” to give you a sense of closure. She finds her attractions to the genre in that “it is both political and not political. It sets out to write about the ‘politics of the everyday’, how ordinary people live their lives.” But she admits of its limits, saying, “one of the problems I found with [her latest novel] Gallows Hill is that you can’t mess with the genre. You can push against it at certain points. The detective character functions as a scopic eye: a way of doing an internal examination, exploring all sorts of aspects of South Africa. But one of the things [crime-fiction] could never do is write a novel about how poverty functions in Gugulethu.”

These contributions by Margie and Imraan seem to reinforce the idea that crime-fiction is bound by certain rules, that it must subordinate history and politics to convention to preserve its particular sensations. Rita Barnard has written that Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak offers a “sense for the pressing issues in contemporary South Africa – sexual violence, generational relationships, affirmative action, the fate of Afrikaans and so forth.” Yet she notes slyly that “the inevitable Colombian drug dealers have to be dragged in for an exciting denouement.” Imraan says that while our lives are infiltrated by (often racialised) anxieties about crime, these novels “don’t exorcise, or manage these anxieties. They exploit them.” So academics will continue to pursue the sociological intrigues of the crime novel, which are plenty. It seems however that any ambition to garland it as the new “political novel” (whatever that means), and to thereby earn for its authors the celebratory cultural capital that that term desperately tries to conjure, will meet with some serious difficulties. Some crime writers may deserve much lavishing, but this will occur on its own terms. The talk was altogether entertaining and, unlike crime novels, left most of its questions and mysteries unsolved.



John Eppel says:

I agree. This is play – nothing like the seriousness of my monthly bills, or the fact that there is over 80% unemployment in Zimbabwe.

You’re a good sport, Wamui – you could have pulverised me!

Let me bid you farewell by quoting from one of my favourite plays: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.

Wamuwi Mbao says:

John, your first point is given meaning by how much or how little stock one places in Hamlet. And I find much to take from your second point (more than I would from Hamlet, anyway). And while I was tempted to invoke Derrida’s right to absolute non-response, I will simply say that I apologized not so much for binarism itself as for the clumsiness it resulted in there. As you remark, some binaries are more interesting than others, and the binary I used was in danger of being little more than Tupperware (so much metaphoric possibility there), hence the apology.

Incidentally, Derrida also bequeathed unto us a healthy understanding of the enlivening possibilities of play, and I’m sure nobody here is taking this literary jousting too seriously…

John Eppel says:

Derrida gave us useful tools for destabilizing the rhetoric of power. Some binaries are more interesting than others. For example ‘male and female’. Could it be that this one came about as a result of sound rather than sense? ‘male and female’ is more pleasing to the ear than ‘female and male’ because the former has an aural pattern: trochaic dimeter (stressed unstressed / stressed unstressed). The latter, on the other hand, breaks the pattern: a trochee followed by an iamb (stressed unstressed / unstressed stressed).

A certain Scotch whisky might have had something to do with my next example: ‘black and white’. this binary is mostly used idiomatically, indicating an extreme or oversimplified attitude. But it originally referred to print: black ink on white paper (and black and white films). The phrase is metonymical.

It seemsto me that the sexism and racism in these two binaries are not subtexts but imposed texts.

‘Positve and negative’ is an interesting binary if you connect it (pun intended) to the two opposing discourses of philosophy and poetry. The Hegelian dialectic jogs off with it into the mists of metaphysics, while the Joycean epiphany makes it spark.

John Eppel says:

Of course, Wamui, but this doesn’t explain why you apologise for the binary. Let me be more specific: without the binary, there would be no HAMLET. Or, let’s take light and shade: no dusk, no dawn, no Rembrandt. Where philosophy ends – in paradox – poetry begins. I don’t think Aristotle was a total idiot, and I don’t think Derrida meant you to take him quite so seriously.

Wamuwi Mbao says:

Ah but John, is lyric poetry not lifted above the realm of nursery rhyme by multivocality, the play of voices alongside (and interrupting) the binary?

John Eppel says:

Wamuwi, why do you apologise for the binary? Without the binary there would be no metaphor, and without metaphor there would be no lyric poetry.

Leon de Kock says:

Touche, Wamuwi. I yield. 🙂

Wamuwi Mbao says:

Leon, while I agree with your contextualizing points (and certainly didn’t mean to convey that all-too-studied pose of ennui one tends to fall into when confronted by too many over-enthusiastic subscribers to the ‘new’ church of Krimi), my suspicion is that there’s more going on in the way we bear witness to this re/development than we’re able to talk about while either (forgive the binary) toasting the (re)surge of the crime novel or making out like it’s nothing new. Queue endless dissembling and talk about conversations that still need to be had, etc…but I DO think that novels like Ian Martin’s Pop-Splat are entering a different field of meanings to what James Mclure or June Drummond or the Drum chaps were doing, hence the (renewed) attention. And if it gives us something to look at and keeps us in jobs and conferences, so much the better.

Leon de Kock says:

Yes, indeed, Wamuwi, and I would add the occasional outburst of spontaneous enthusiasm about the supposed ‘now’ … as if it’s any easier to capture the past ‘nows’ than it is to grasp the now ‘now’ (we’ll get there, now-now) … an empty, posturing signifier if ever there was one. But science fiction in SA isn’t a new thing, isn’t in the ‘instant of its happening’, and nor is ‘crime’ or ‘thriller’ fiction. It also seems a peculiar (and perhaps peculiarly SA) habit to cultivate studied forgetfulness, such as the fact that if anyone takes the trouble to look hard enough (not a common practice by any means!) one will see that ‘science fiction’ can be found in the annals of SA writing, too, way back … remember Peter Wilhelm? … remember Jane Rosenthal’s Souvenir … and then we have crime fiction by a man called McClure going back to the 1970s, and others. Yes, naming things is the business we’re in … I mean, if you discount the untrue notion of anything being very ‘new’ at all, can you really, truly say naming things is a ‘habit’ worthy of the ever-so-slightly supercilious sneer?

J.D. says:

If you can name it, you can describe it. If you can describe it, you can box it. If you can box it, you can control it. If you can control it, you can use it and dictate how it’s used.

We have a history of some with enormous power and some with none. Power doesn’t like to give ‘cept for where it must. It continues today.

Or something like that, I suppose.

Wamuwi Mbao says:

It seems a peculiar (and perhaps peculiarly South African) habit, to want to define and find meanings for something in the instant of its happening. Sort of like naming the baby on the night of its conception.

Yvette Morey says:

As a South African observer from afar (UK) I’m wondering why the same debate isn’t taking place about Science Fiction in SA? I’m thinking particularly about Moxyland and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, and perhaps Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes (although Henrietta may not view her novel as Science Fiction). Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, albeit a film, is another example. I realise that Science Fiction is a contentious category but it strikes me that as a genre it’s had its own struggle for credibility. Lauren Beukes’ post on Books SA refers to an existing body of work and wider debate on ‘Africa as Science Fiction’ but, while South Africa is undoubtedly part of this debate, it doesn’t touch on the specific South African political context. I was once asked to do a presentation, as an exercise in reflexivity, about any aspect of myself that shaped my research. When I chose nationality a colleague remarked, ‘it’s not about nationality, it’s about coming from South Africa!’ Could Margie Orford’s brilliant quip ‘our politics is the new crime fiction’ as easily have been ‘our politics is the new science fiction’? And I’m not just thinking about Daily Sun headlines about the Tokoloshe. Or perhaps one of the reasons is that homegrown SF isn’t as established or as big a market as krimis yet?

Leon de Kock says:

Kavish, that’s an incisive report. Thank you, brother. However, it tends to repeat the occlusions that occurred during the debate. The eloquent, entertaining Imraan stole the show, and we all loved his beguiling turns of phrase, his well-chosen literary examples, and his bon mots, but he consistently read the debate as one in which claims were being made for crime fiction being Great Literature. That’s never been the issue. So Imraan was flogging a dead horse, quite elegantly, it must be said, but the horse was still a dead one. The issue is not whether crime fiction is equal to Hardy or Nabokov – what an absurd idea! – but that there’s something to read in crime fiction in SA that is worthy of critical attention, and that this something has a distinctly political flavour. I stand by my statement that, in terms of readability, crime fiction often serves as the ‘new political novel’, although such a statement requires that we talk about what a ‘political novel’ is and isn’t, something we failed to do at Franschhoek because there was so much anecdotalism and entertaining talk going on. The subject, clearly, is still very far from being exhausted, although Imraan’s statement that sometimes ‘you have to take academics’s toys away from them’ (not verbatim, listen to the audio of the talk) suggests that he regards this debate as one of those toys which are unseemly in the hands of adult, professional academics. Well, to typify this debate as one of those toys won’t, I think, remove the salient issues: why is crime fiction cross-pollinating so much with ‘serious fiction’ in this country? Why are so many concerns being voiced in crime fiction here that are sui generis to SA (not transportable to anywhere in the world or vice-versa, as Imraan suggested in his comments)? Why does he himself keep planting bodies in his own novels (but not solving the crime, something Margie Orford kept addressing him about, in quite a teacherly way!) Why does the polarity Imraan kept insisting on between great, non-crime literature and ‘generic’ crime literature keep breaking down in SA letters? Such questions will not be quite so easily dismissed, despite the possible desire that they should go away.