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.