Roger Smith and the ‘genre snob’ debate

Dust Devils by Roger Smith, Serpent’s Tail, 2011.

Roger Smith's third novel, Dust Devils, is similar to his previous two, Wake Up Dead and Mixed Blood, in one important respect: there are no “good guys”. There are almost good guys, but they are “good” only in a sense that is relative to the degrees of venality elsewhere. Everyone is rotten. The system is rotten. No one who works inside the system can escape it. And there’s no action outside the system. So the “good” guys are the corruptibles who eventually take out the rotten cops, the township gang-thugs and the law-unto-themselves types in a blaze of self-destruction. No one survives intact. Smith’s social analysis – if one dare call it that – is that nothing and no one is “clean” anymore.

The resolutions to Smith's novels are a kind of karmic inevitability of mutual self-destruction, the mildly corrupt going down alongside the hyper-corrupt in an orgy of revenge and counter-revenge. Lawlessness rules. The only use for the law is to aid one's passage to the pig-trough. And my, he spins a good, gripping yarn, with character names like Benny Mongrel, Billy Afrika, Disco de Lilly, Ernie Maggott, and other inhabitants of hell-in-SA.

But now this review must take a detour. It won't do just to say what you like about a book, or don't like, or to describe the plot, an action which celebrated South African reviewer Robert Greig aptly calls (in a SLiPnet review scheduled for early February) a "sophisticated form of baby talk". (Please take note, graduate students.) It won't do any more, especially in the case of crime fiction, about which hot debates start running the moment anyone takes a stand against the genre - or for it. Witness the comments on this site ever since Lynda Gilfillan dared to challenge the "genre snobs" who pinch their noses every time they encounter a new South African thriller.

The point is, it's not only the "genre snobs" who do this. The critics appointed to adjudge each year’s best published work for the country's major prizes also still mainly pinch their noses when they encounter crime fiction. But there is one problematic exception which might just change the game – Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, which won the 2011 Sunday Times Prize, although it failed to make the shortlists of other major prizes.

What’s interesting about Young Blood is that it unscrambles categories that have perhaps become too easy to deploy, categories that possibly promote lazy criticism, or criticism that doesn't make sharp and detailed enough discriminations. Until Young Blood, crime fiction writers were the “krimis”, or they wrote “commercial fiction” (Mike Nicol’s words at Franschhoek last year), and this (partly) self-categorisation has made it all too easy for critics to sideline such “genre” work (along with other genre writing such as “chic-lit”, “hygromans” (erotic novels), and popular romance).

The fact that Young Blood is classified as “crime fiction” at all - as it often is - strikes me as problematic, because this novel is so much else, too. Yes, it’s about crime, but it’s also a coming-of-age novel, giving it that venerable world-literature categorisation of the Bildungsroman, or even better, the anti-Bildungsroman. And it’s implicitly a "political" novel, too, which until perhaps about the year 2000 or thereabouts, was the acme of ‘SA Lit’ as a preferred highbrow form.

There’s another big difference between Mzobe and, say, Mike Nicol: Mzobe writes from the point of view of the township, and he does not make large assumptions about state corruption in his deployment of event and motive. That is, what I would call the isomorphism in his fiction is a relation of event and social milieu. What happens to

characters in and of the townships are crystallisations of township conditions. Read Nicol (and Smith, in Dust Devils) on the other hand, and the isomorphism is a relation between event and state corruption, usually ministerial, the tentacles spreading downwards like so many evil fingers, crystallising in wonderfully wicked characters like Sheemina February (Nicol) and Inja (‘Dog’) Mazibuko (Smith).

But if you look even closer, and continue to refine your critical discriminations, then it becomes clear there are major differences between the various crime/thriller writers who now enjoy prominence; between Deon Meyer's offbeat character-in-motion studies and Margie Orford’s in-your-face fictional expositions of particular themes; between Michiel Heyns’s delicate, literary whodunit style in Lost Ground and Roger Smith’s sharply cut screenplay mode of presentation, or Kerneels Breytenbach's Henry Fielding-like narrative asides in Piekniek by Hangklip; there are differences in voice, form and effect, not to mention readership "segments" or reception dynamics, if you prefer. And, as Cape scholar Lucy Graham has reminded us in a SLiPnet comment on the Gilfillan "genre snobs" debate, we need to go back to Tzvetan Todorov's pioneering essay, "The Typology of Detective Fiction" (in which Todorov makes critical narratological distinctions between different sub-genres), and to some poststructuralist readings (definitely serious) of Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps the progenitor of indubitably excellent literary writing which takes pleasure in imagined, represented horror.

In short, my sense is that we need to do a lot more unscrambling of the “krimi” category, which has perhaps now outlived its purpose. Cut to Gilfillan's suggestion (citing the perception of “many critics”) that crime fiction may have become what Gilfillan delicately brackets as “the new ‘political novel’ ”. Before anyone harrumphs out aloud too quickly at this, perhaps recall that Gilfillan is a PhD literature graduate with a bulky thesis behind her entitled Theorising the Counterhegemonic. She knows a little whereof she speaks.

What Gilfillan is suggesting is similar to an argument I made in the Mail & Guardian in 2011 about Nicol’s silkily smooth thriller, Black Heart: that the dividing line between “crime fiction” and “serious” so-called SA Lit is becoming increasingly blurry. So-called crime fiction, using “genre” elements (hardboiled noir style, thriller pace, stereotypical or sensational presentation of character and scene, the fascination of hyper-evil, horror, and explicit violence) has perhaps become the only readable form of “political” fiction. Yes, it is "genre" - as Kavish Chetty points out in his comment on Gilfillan's piece - but it's also more. It's the "more" that we should perhaps be interested in, and how that margin of "more" is performing some of what one might call the "uses" of literature in reading bewilderingly changed political out-theres. Some of those "uses", many of us will recall, are to instruct and to delight (hey ho, Sir Philip Sidney!) We've got the delight part working pretty damn well here, but what about the brief to "instruct"? I would argue that literature, in any form, is engaged in shaping the sensemaking capacities of particular cultures and people at particular times. And that, seriously, is what it's about.

If we forget for the moment the aesthetic or even the "artistic" shortcomings of crime fiction (or genre fiction for that matter), and concentrate on how the contortions of "genre" are creating a very particular fictional imaginary, a kind of isomorphism of the perceived but ungraspable political "real", then surely we are back in business as critics of South African writing? As critics, moreover, of a field that is hungry for contention and re-mapping, rather than a sated, bleary place, as it is sometimes perceived to have become.

I fear that this debate will lapse too quickly into a faction fight between "aesthetes" and "utilitarians", or "aesthetes" and "democrats", as Michael Titlestad once described such a redundant polarity in his review article

on the brouhaha unleashed by the poetry anthology The Heart in Exile in the 1990s. Otherwise put, a contest between adherents of highbrow literature and those of "popular" writing (in the SA Lit days, "populist" and "workerist" had distinct political connotations - see Kelwyn Sole's comment below). Remember Stephen Watson versus Andries Oliphant and any number of other sinners against aesthetic excellence? Such polarities are there in the current debate, and implicitly in the fiction, too, but there's also a lot else going on. We've had these debates before. Too often. Remember the rebellious critical revivals in the 1980s of "populist" South African literature (such as miner's novels in the 1920s)? Remember the lip-smacking Leftist condemnations of "elitist" criticism for attending only to highbrow works of "Literature" (rubbing it in by adding the capital L and the scare quotes)? Do we really want to go back there? Can't we take those debates as mainly read, now, and move on?

As far as "political fiction" goes, "crime thrillers" are about the most operative and readable kinds we have going right now. I won’t mention any names here, but one could cite a few examples of political novels written by heavyweight writers in the “old” style, in recent years, which have proved mesmerisingly unreadable. Something had to give in the older style – the documentary manner, the serious overlay, the earnest, almost sanctimonious posturing, the high ground, the mythologisation of struggle-hero types, the relentlessly tedious social realism (give us some "genre"!), and the utterly predictable outcomes, despite layerings of ambiguity and Fanonesque warnings about neo-colonial corruption.

Smith’s first two novels explored Cape Flats gangsterism and Pollsmoor prison horrors, but Dust Devils is set mainly in the Zululand fiefdom of a warlord called Inja (“Dog”) Mazibuko, a feared and murderous Induna who works directly for the Minister of Justice, a big bad political wolf jockeying for ultimate power. The means to power, here – similar to Zuma’s perceived and reported means to power – involve corruption and cronyism. Like the corrupt, murdering Nat functionaries under P.W. Botha, F.W. de Klerk and their predecessors, the hitmen working for the ANC-bigwig in this novel stop at nothing: they kill, they manipulate the judicial process, they rule by terror and by favour. They are a law unto themselves. As former pacifist (and conscientious objector in the older days of white conscription) Robert Dell discovers, the only way to fight violent evil is by violently evil means. You don’t approach hitmen with court orders or warrants.

Reading Roger Smith raises difficult questions: how much of it is “genre” and how much is socio-politically isomorphic? We read endlessly in the media – a media now being threatened with an arguably unconstitutional Secrecy Bill – that government politicians at all levels are knee-deep in nepotism; that they are engaged in corrupt, self-serving malpractice. The former Commissioner of Police has been convicted in the highest courts of law for corruption. The current Commissioner of Police has been suspended on allegations of corruption. Ironically, these two facts simultaneously affirm and contradict the isomorphic adequation of Smith’s fictional world. Yes, it’s very bad in the real world out there. There can be little doubting it. But no, it can’t be quite as bad as Smith makes out, because somehow two Commissioners of Police have been caught with their pants down, and they’re paying the price. That couldn’t happen in the hyper-evil South Africa that Smith (and perhaps Nicol, too) present to us.

Does this mean that, in the final analysis, “genre” rules, or at least that it overpowers responsibly complex historical adequation? Does it mean that this kind of crime fiction has some way to go before it can be called

“political”? Should “genre”, and the SA crime thriller in particular, be appropriated to the “political novel”? What “entertainment” or perhaps “cathartic” function is fulfilled by the deliberately overdone crime thriller (the symbolic restoration of order)? As Margie Orford says, at least in fiction you can exact some kind of justice. There is satisfaction to be had in that, a kind of satisfaction often denied in reality. Must fiction serve the ends of what Fredric Jameson famously called the “political unconscious”, where history is, must be, the “ultimate horizon” of literary and cultural analysis?

Smith is an ex-scriptwriter and he’s sharp. He has several storylines intersecting each other, converging on themes like marital rape (within sanctioned patriarchal Zulu customs), the culture of professional "hits", democratic accountability and its perversions, and the futility of liberal pacifism, among others. Near the end of Dust Devils, it seems as if the novel is, after all, grasping for an ultimate democratic form of justice by having a corrupted minister called to account by public exposure, even if such accountability would be merely convenient for political enemies. But this alternative resolution is turned on its head when another twist in the plot upsets any such outcome. In short, the desperate, last-gasp grab at a “constitutional” remedy of juridical accountability is confounded by more guns, and more killing. There are simply too many cronies, spies, killers and guns around, especially in the Cape and KwaZulu Natal, where Smith’s novels have been set, for “justice” to be restored, in any sense whatsoever. And no one survives, apart from one or two hapless parties. Smith’s fiction, taken as political allegory, therefore, sees the country as an apocalyptic hell, surely an exaggeration for the sake of genre. Here, I tend to agree with Titlestad and Ashlee Neser, who (in a paper delivered in 2009 at a University of Johannesburg symposium on post-transitional SA Lit)* argued that Nicol’s work was doing the same: listing towards the demands of genre at the expense of historical - and human - complexity.

But is that the last word? If novels like Dust Devils, or Nicol's Killer Country, get it "wrong" in some critics' view, they also get it "right" by compelling such critics to make their claims about what's accurate and what's not. As the ultra-cool SA cultural anthropologists, Jean and John Comaroff (also working on SA "crime" and its representations) suggest, it's all about mediation, both the fiction and the criticism. And that, ultimately, is why it's all to the good, because mediation is the space of a critical democracy, the best antidote to any kind of closure, any kind of totalitarianism, whether by politicians or by critics, or by writers, for that matter, too.

* Published in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol 45 Number 2, 2010, as Turning to Crime: Mike Nicol’s The Ibis Tapestry and Payback.


Lynda Gilfillan says:

Kelwyn, with governments taking over banks in capitalist Europe, isn’t this a kind of a nationalisation, a shoring up against the ruin of a capitalist system whose rampant greed consumes itself? It is a kind of a ‘post’, I think, a bewildered morning after a debauched night before.
And Leon, I’m not sure that ‘postindustrial’ applies in SA, after Zuma’s SONA call for infrastructure development and the re-industrialisation of South Africa – we’re still mining dirt, not digital. Clearly, I’m confused.

Leon de Kock says:

For the sake of argument, DP, how much difference would it make if Lynda had used the term “postindustrial” rather than “post-capitalist”? A lot of people seem to think we’re in a “postindustrial” age, i.e. the Information Age (cf. Daniel Bell, the Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and works which followed in Bell’s wake). The (admittedly contestable) notion that South Africa is (even if only partly) “postindustrial”, does have particular resonance for this debate, I would imagine.

DP says:

Post-capitalist world, hey Lynda? My, you’re optimistic.

PS: Even Conan Doyle’s stuff was “whydunnit” not just “whodunnit” – the two are rather intertwined- there is no criminal without motive, hence who/why.

Kelwyn Sole says:

Ok, now I’m really lost, Lynda – what is a ‘post-capitalist’ world?

Lynda Gilfillan says:

In SA, the best crime fiction is a ‘whydunnit’ rather than a ‘whodunnit’, I’d say. In a post-liberation, post-capitalist world that is in headline crisis, we’re way past simple declarations such as ‘elementary, my dear Watson’. It’s no accident, therefore, that Michiel Heyns draws on Altbeker’s ‘Fruit of a Poisoned Tree’, and that Orford herself invokes Altbeker’s ‘A Country at War with Itself’ in her fictional probing of the reasons behind the inescapable fact that there is ‘so much aggression in this lovely place’.

Some more public debate would be a good idea. I became a crime writer because I could not bear to write the footnotes for a doctorate. So, a failed and impatient academic. It is quite surprising to me that there is such an adversarial approach – either crime or literary fiction. Either refined academic discourse or self-congratulatory promotion….I did not choose the genre because it was a genre. It just seemed to me that the only literary protagonists that could traverse South AFrica’s stratified society with any kind of plausiblity were cops and journalists (pathologists too, but they are bound to their gurneys most of the time, so to speak). Also, the question facing South Africa – why is it so violent? – is so simple. It is the simple question that a good investigative journalist asks, that a good cop asks, that a good citizen should ask. The answers are complex though – much more complex than I ever imagined. And it is particularly that study of violence – intimate and public, economic and political – that is so fascinating. Crimes – of all sorts – are in many ways symptoms of an individiual, a social, a political and an economic pathology. And a crime draws together people who would often never meet (apart, I imagine from incest or domestic violence victims) in a non-criminal life. That is so interesting to me – what happens when South AFricans who never see each other are suddenly bound by the unbearable intimacy of violence. There is a great deal of complexity in the everyday – it is the hardest thing to capture, to represent. I am working on my fifth novel in my Clare Hart series – and each one has been a way of looking at one particular aspect of violence. And how violence acts as a mirror to each of us. I had no way of seeing – to use John Berger’s phrase – that did not simply project what I thought I knew. Five books have undone what I thought I knew about how and why things work – how people survive, how they keep being gentle to their children (sometimes) and why there is so much aggression in this lovely place.

Kelwyn Sole says:

You know, the question for me is not really so much about the burgeoning of popular genres – crime, horror, fantasy – in South Africa at the moment: the existence of popular forms and people who want a ‘good read’ happens in any literary scenario, and doesn’t indicate a problem. What is fascinating is that this is happening when mainstream SA fiction, and poetry, are not in a happy state. There’s not a huge amount of new mainstream fiction writers emerging – certainly not on the scale of what’s going on in crime, for instance – and book publishing of poetry is in the doldrums.

It’s this scenario, myns insiens, which is helping generate some of the exaggerated claims being made for e.g. crime fiction. To say that it’s the ‘new political fiction’ strikes me as hyperbolic, except insofar as it is a symptom of social unease about crime, and desires to understand (resolve?) these on paper. This is not to say that some crime writers cannot be socially and politically aware (Margie Orford, for instance), or that they can’t consciously tackle political issues….

but it then means that this is not just a question that can be answered on the aesthetics level. Any attempt to answer this, IMO, needs to look at book publishers’ and their policies, reading markets and publics, as well as the old social and political questions about who is reading, and why, and what they’re drawn to; and, come to think of it, who’s not reading.

Part of my thinking is that this may be a temporary phenomenon, fuelled and exaggerated by publishers attempt to cash in on previously untapped markets for popular genres with a ‘local flavour’. If it has any negative aspects at all, it’s that it’s starting to happen in the absence of sustained discussion and interest re other forms and genres of literature.

Lucy Graham says:

Kelwyn is correct to say that we, as readers/literary scholars, need to maintain some critical distance from South African crime fiction. Of course, we should resist indulging simply in promotion of and admiration for this emerging genre.

Traditionally, discourse on “crime” – as it is commonly understood – is a right-wing agenda. Therefore I remain skeptical about any increase in discourse on “crime”, including this sudden explosion of (interest in) crime fiction. That said, I was surprised to find that many South African crime novels are very politically complex and astute, and even self-consciously “politically correct” in some cases.

Moreover, apartheid was a crime, in another sense, on a massive scale. Now in the post-apartheid era we suddenly have the blossoming of “crime fiction”. So maybe the fact that we can now write about “crime” in this way signifies our status as a liberal democracy, our partial release from the shackles of apartheid.

But personally I think it’s too easy (and maybe even an insult to the struggle against apartheid) to suggest that this is “the new political fiction”.

I still believe in the category of “great literature”. But the questions I find interesting about South African crime fiction are precisely about genre – why is this type of fiction suddenly so popular? How have certain generic features been transplanted and adapted into the South African context and how have these mutated here? How does the city feature in South African crime fiction, and why is it represented like this? How do the characteristics of South African crime fiction measure up to genre conventions as defined by other scholars such as Todorov? Even this debate about whether crime thrillers are some kind of political fiction or not, is interesting. Of course, the other interesting part is being aware of the opportunities genre fiction creates for its own subversion – Paul Auster’s City of Glass being an extreme example of a very open-ended novel that is modelled on and inspired by detective fiction – and as Leon points out, there are South African novels that nod to the krimi genre at the same time as they subvert it.

To answer Kavish on the relevance of Poe’s Purloined Letter to South African crime fiction. Well, to begin with, if some clever crime writer would use it as an intertext in a novel about the Protection of Information Act, that would be great! 🙂 But seriously, this entire debate is starting to sound like the rivalry between the police inspector and Dupin in The Purloined Letter, or between Dupin and Minister D-, or even (horror of horrors!) the rivalry between Lacan and Derrida in analysing the text of The Purloined Letter. Who is cleverer? The Purloined Letter is interesting because it prompts questions about detection, hermeneutics and rivalry on a meta-level, and to my mind these questions are directly relevant, not only to South African crime fiction, but also to this crime fiction debate (and perhaps to all literary debates, i.e. to the work that we as literary critics do).

On a completely different note: Chris Warnes at Cambridge University argues that it is in popular romantic fiction in South Africa (published by Kwela under the Sapphire imprint) where the really interesting genre stuff is happening…

Kelwyn Sole says:

Kavish, there are one or two places I would want to agree with you, even as I think your implicit separation of the mainstream/academy’s notion of good literature from more popular or less traditionally highly regarded genres is really problematic.

Nevertheless, I have a hunch that your remark about ‘cultural capital and symbolic prestige’ might have an element of truth in it. It’s becoming clear that what’s at stake for some of the present SA genre writers is first and foremost a movie contract or the equivalent, rather than questions of aesthetics. In the light of this, I think one has to be careful to buy into the way in which genre fiction in SA at the moment can use justifications coming from debates around, say, the quotidian or the autonomy of ‘the literary’ in the academy (I remember when John Coetzee first gave his ‘The Novel Today” piece – hope I have the title right – as a speech at the M&G Book Week in CT many years ago … even as he defended an autonomous space for literature in the face of the ‘political’, he said “I am not, of course, merely defending the right to have a ‘good read'” – or words to that effect). Well, look what’s happened, and what’s resulted …. do I get a consequent whiff of anti-intellectualism, here and there, in some of the Book Fair speeches I hear?.

In the face of this. I’m also getting a bit alarmed at the amount of self-promotion and mutual-admiration that’s going on in popular genre circles. This might be a generational thing. Yet it seems to be becoming a defence against any and all criticism, or evaluation. In fact, if everyone’s a carrot, it might be time to look carefully at the sticks….

Finally a number of issues, not always in congruence:
– be aware, IMO, of the way in which the academy can evaluate in terms of their existing preconceptions, rather than be open to new/different formal and aesthetic explorations: I remember the times when people like van Wyk or Serote were being rejected by SA literary journals because of their ‘poor writing’. So, in terms of the argument before us, one has to be careful about condemning any form of genre fiction as a whole. Science fiction, for instance: three quarters of it is fluff, but there are works from the genre which hold their own, and went further, than their contemporaneous ‘mainstream’ literature. About eight of Philip Dick’s novels, for instance; Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, still one of the finest political novels I know; Lem; the Strugatsky brothers; and quite a few others, all the way to contemporary writers such as China Mieville. It’s not a good idea to be dismissive per se about any form, or genre.
– ‘mainstream’ works can contain tropes from genre fiction, without buying into the whole shebang. A whodunnit? plot doesn’t necessarily label a work a krimi: various genres of fiction can, and do, interpenetrate. Science fiction, again, has (alas) recently been invaded by a slew of plot structures of the whodunnit? variety: Mieville’s The City and The City, Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and so on. Moreover, in some languages the crime genre/plot does have an easier, more constant presence in the mainstream – novelists in Spanish, for instance: Molina, Marias and even Fuentes.
– to argue against the above, on the other hand: personally I am not that keen on crime fiction because I think it may have a tendency built within its structures and assumptions that runs against my own liking for ‘open’ endings: i.e. their tendency to resolution and closure. Even here, as you and others point out, though, not all individual works follow the rules. But I find this a real block.

Kavish says:


Excellent rejoinder. I submit.

Leon de Kock says:

Lesley’s rather perceptive comment has a bearing on the question Kavish raises: what’s in it for the academics to get tangled up in debates with the crime writers themselves? (My original suggestion was to have one or two panels on which the “krimis” themselves sat, in conversation with the growing band of scholars who are doing research into what they call “crime fiction”.)

Factually speaking, Kavish, it seems there must be a lot in it for the academics, although I get where you’re coming from. I say this because hardly a day goes by that I don’t encounter yet another scholar – or graduate student – who says: I’m doing research on SA crime fiction. Or – I want to do research on crime writing.

In fact, I can well imagine the “krimis” backing out of such an engagement first, because they so often profess to detest “ivory tower” pronouncements on what they’re doing, all the while claiming to be, simply, enjoying themselves. They tend to say things like, “leave us alone, we’re engaged in a form of pleasure here”. They seem to see the academics, those hated idlers in sheltered employment behind closed doors high up in the tower, as wanting to appropriate their work, their pleasure, their sport with the genre. So, my reading of the situation is that it’s the academics who have the most invested in the “crime fiction” research menu. They’ll be the last to back out. At least, those who want to do this kind of research.

Why? Because it eventually gets them on subvented overseas trips to jaunty conferences in far-flung areas of the globe, paid for by the fat research funds held by universities, funds that are substantially fed by the subsidy earnings on “accredited” journal articles. So, circumlocutious (some would say “jargon-riddled and irrelevant”) Ivory Tower talk – at least, this is very often the perception – earns money for more Ivory Tower talk, in an endless series of self-enriching circles.

Those of us who actually have to live out our lives in the low-stakes, high-insult miasma of academia know that it’s nowhere as simple as all this – but this is often the perception out there.

The play of perceptions aside, there is some truth – and validity – in the idea that academics have a legitimate interest in taking the crime fiction debate away from the writers and the “aficionados” themselves – making it mean more than the “I read for fun” people might want it to mean.

This is where Lesley’s comment is useful. She’s right – there’s no genre-free form of writing. All writing is about other writing (cf. Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence), and the “crime fiction” genre is seldom deployed by writers in a way that is not “deviant” or a play on other versions of the genre. Look at what Kerneels Breytenbach has done with “crime writing” in Piekniek by Hangklip – turned the “genre” inside out and written a Etienne le Roux-like satirical comedy. Look at what Mzobe did in Young Blood, or Michiel Heyns in Lost Ground – turned the form in to a pretext for an investigation into the nature of what I would call social hermeneutics (in Heyns, the social hermeneutics of sexual identity, to boot). Each one of the crime writers “plays” a different game. In fact, if you’re a writer and you want to get read at all beyond a handful of copies spread among your own family and friends (plus a few reviewers), you’ll understand the appeal of the “crime genre”. Critics, if we’re to do our work, are the ones who should be spotting the play and calling the meta-shots. Much like a referee. Without a ref, the game has no point …

Sure, you can choose to read De Lillo rather than Lotz, but that’s not the work of literary criticism. At least, not in full. Literary criticism must classify, describe, and discriminate what’s out there in the literary and adjacent cultures (cf. Rene Wellek in his famous histories of literaure). That’s its work.

In addition, we’re now in age (have been there for more than three decades) in which the disciplinary ambit of “literature studies” has shifted decisively from the “Great Text” to “text”, as in textuality, in all its vast ramifications (most things can be perceived to be, in some way, a text, and readable). Sometimes, for example when literary critics do semio-analyses of dog-food recipes, this strikes some people as going a bit far, but the point is that we can hardly claim as the “proper” ground for literary studies one form of literature above others, one genre above others, one evaluative rating of interest above another – a semio-functionalist approximation of certain forms of writing, for example.

Of course, one has every right to insist upon a return to some form of evaluative normativity, or even some kind of agreement on what it is literature scholars study, but that insistence – nowadays – is often regarded as old hat. The game has changed for good. One must stake one’s claim and bid for the interest of the learning market.

Lesley says:

I am interested that, an idea seems to be surfacing that there is fiction that is genre and fiction that is not. Literary writing also adheres to certain conventions, doesn’t it? I think it is also a genre.

Kavish says:

Don’t want to get totalitarian (I’m lying), but if I had to have a go at your last question, Leon, I’d probably irreverently say academics would back out first on account of having almost zero to gain from the conversation. Commercial writers on the other hand, not satisfied merely with reaping more cash over their “serious” counterparts, will want to keep arguing in pursuit of cultural capital and symbolic prestige. This is kind of defeating your call for dialogical debate. I ask this sincerely, though. What’s at stake here, in the end? If we raise “crime-fiction” (the ones I’ve been talking about) to the level of “serious” literature, we’re just diluting the categories, and forgetting that these categories exist in the first place because of several heterogenous ways of apportioning value. I probably won’t ever relinquish myself to the idea that some of these crime writers are the equal of Franzen, Amis, Marechera, Zadie Smith. Having politics lurking around in your book is not redemptive at all.

A friend of mine just cut through the bullshit by saying: “[T]his [the meta-argument we’ve been having] has little to do with the books themselves. Those, irrespective of their possible genre-categories, seem pretty shoddy.” I’m not sure whether I’m democratic enough to hear someone tell me how Sarah Lotz is swinging in the same league as Don DeLillo, or whatever.

By the way, really digging on your review of Killer Country in the Sunday Independent (which I only recently read), which hits some important ideas re: the saturation point of this fiction.

Also, read “The Purloined Letter”, earlier. Very enjoyable. But – as “a tale ratiocination”, a prototype for the detective tale – does it share much in common with contemporary SA crime fiction and its aspirations, Lucy? Had a good chuckle over this line: “Not altogether a fool,” said G.; “but then he’s a poet, which I take to be one remove from a fool.”

Leon de Kock says:

Thanks, Kelwyn, for the comment on ‘populist’ and ‘workerist’. In the strictly historical sense of the 1980s in South Africa, I used ‘populist’ incorrectly. My point is how the political/artistic value of that which is perceived to be ‘popular’ (of the people) – once a kind of political virtue, an antidote against elitism – is now often figured as indulgent and effete. Thank you too for pointing out the spelling error in ‘Sidney’. I have taken the liberty of fixing it. Agreed, whether or not crime writers are “another gated community struggling to make sense of a scary world” is something the critics and the writers must sort out in public exchange; if the political imaginary presented in crime fiction is perceived to be, as you put it, “restricted to stock representations and critical responses”, then let’s argue the matter out. But such arguing needs to be done in good faith on the part of critics, too. First, they need to forego what is often a reflex prejudice, a refusal to read “crime fiction” at all, or with any negative capability to speak of. Second, they need to allow the sensemaking capacities of the writers – their ideological prefigurations if you will – a certain suspension of disbelief. The writers, in their turn, should desist from slagging off academics as if they’re some species of corridor vermin every time a scholar dares make a comment on crime writing in public. Let’s make the debate dialogical. Let’s have panels on which crime/thriller writers and scholars actually talk to each other. Who’s gonna back out first, I wonder.

Lucy Graham says:

The Brothers Karamazov is a whodunnit 😉

Kavish says:

Hi Leon.

Thanks for a compelling, thoughtful essay.

My primary critique has survived here. I say this with a certain hesitation, to the extent that we can territorialise “crime-fiction” at all – there is an unimpeachable structure at work in those texts we choose to call “generic”, but certainly the limits and fringes are not properly set. In crime-fiction, history is subordinate to convention which reduces complexity for the sake of “delight.” But I want to add, it’s taken for granted sometimes that “serious” fiction veers toward the pleasureless, while genre writing is “entertaining”. Apologies to Nicol – I resist euphemism here – but Killer Country is my stylistic Antichrist. Prose which trembles in mortal dread of the semi-colon; which hesitates to connect more than two syllables. Try reading its opening paragraph out loud, navigating that morse code sprawl of full-stops. It’s like trying to orate while performing a certain sexual practice which tends to leave the mouth rather occupied. Its narrative is quite familiar, just switched out with local signifiers. Put simply, there are two snobberies in play – the one denies “serious” literature its sovereignty, the other denies genre literature inclusion. (are the premises irreconcilable, based on different ideas of which literature is serving better existential need?) This cheap polarity needs to be abandoned, sure. But until it is properly committed to the ground, it’s an animating force. But certainly, the sort of reductive framework I was placing myself in, in my replies to the Orford review, were engaging an argument of such reiterative proportions as to have become a “genre” itself.

So to move forward, we need engage the excesses of crime-fiction, its “more” than. But what precisely is the nature of this “more”? What does it actually consist in/of? Is the “more” constrained? The early question you raise – how much is genre, how much is sociopolitical? – evolves later on in the essay, where I think you stage the question of what the connective tissue is between the two, rather than what proportion they occupy in a text. Can it be demonstrated that the “genericism” definitively works to cutrail the socio-political isomorphism? The conclusion certainly appears to be present in Smith: “an exaggeration for the sake of genre.” But then let’s ask again, what does this “more” mean in the umbra of that phenomenon? If I had to isolate my criticism, it would agree with much of what you say here. Crime-fiction can have social issues, but what do they function as? A carnival for pleasure and symbolic catharsis? I certainly would not disagree with your following comment: “[L]iterature, in any form, is engaged in shaping the sensemaking capacities of particular cultures and people at particular times. And that, seriously, is what it’s about.” But how is Smith/Nicol (and the writers who may be grouped with them) shaping those sense-making capacities? All text in circulation shares a complex interrelationship with its audience, one of reaction and instruction, a multilateral flow of knowledge. So then let’s not deny crime-fiction its agency, maybe we shouldn’t even ask whether it’s “the new political novel” (because that’s just playing another, less elitist genre game). Let’s search after this “more”: its constitution, its freedom, its function. If it can extend beyond characters with brutish names like “Mace” and “Pylon” who lives in a world where (basically) “the only rules are there are no rules”, where does it extend to? Context ain’t enough, yo.

So, I’m just providing a little pro bono advocacy for the devil/elitists. I agree that we’re confronted with a “field that is hungry for contention and re-mapping”. Sorry, I feel a little anxious about this very hasty reply, that is perhaps just repeating a lot of what you’re saying in a more cynical register. I’m going to buzz off to the library now and hunt up Poe and Toddy-rov.

Kelwyn Sole says:

Firstly, one or two corrections.
-”Populist’ in the 1980s was not a catch-all phrase meaning ‘political’. It was a phrase that emerged to define one of two possible strategies of political affiliation, direction and means of social description of (especially black) society that was being debated in the trade union movement i.e. ‘populist’ vs. ‘workerist’. As it happened, the COSATU/populist option won out. As far as I remember, in literary debate, it was used by people such as Vaughan to describe black literature that tried to interpellate (the sexy term of the time) black people in terms that regarded them as an undifferentiated ‘people’
– the then current terms for the ‘aesthetic/utilitarian’ dichotomy you speak of was ‘formalist’ vs ‘sociological’. It was Jeremy Cronin (a political critic) who demonstrated the false nature of this dichotomy in an article published as early as 1985.

Other than Todorov, I would suggest Moretti’s essay on ‘Clues’ in his early ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’ as an important critical yardstick for debates on crime novels.

I would agree that there is ‘more’ in this popular genre than can be readily be ascertained. It is not redundant to point out that, along with Sidney’s (sic) notions of ‘instruction’ and ‘delight’, that these novels serve an ideological function: that they imagine and prefigure a social world through literature, which perceives certain aspects and not others; which highlights some and ignores others. This seems to me close to what you’re describing as ‘sensemaking capacities’. This athwart, implicit role of literature is ineluctable. The question that needs to be asked then, is whether the people writing this genre are sufficiently diverse in their social being, their imagination, their understanding of South Africa to allow a multiplex view of our society to emerge from this genre. If not, crime fiction bids fair to become just another gated community struggling to make sense of a scary world: in other words, a way in which the political imaginary will be restricted to stock representations and critical responses.