Monday, October 26, 2009

The Violent Novel

Over at Sarah Weinman's, there's a comment on violence in the modern crime novel. According to some, there's too much of it and it is gratuitous - a kind of "sick puppy" one-upmanship is discussed. The link is meant to draw your attention to that discussion. Part of my own response follows:

"When a serious crime novel is written about Afghanistan or Iraq (they may have already been written, my TBR pile is backed up to about Herodotus...) the violence will have to be grisly if it's going to portray just daily life let alone crime.

Just think: there are five year olds around the world who have seen and experienced violence that would make our novelized serial killers, be they never so gruesome, shiver."

Growing up in the Boogie Down Bronx, violence in the neighborhoods we lived in was always fairly casual. Just a part of real life*. Gangs used to tag our building on Washington Avenue: Apache Warriors and Savage Skulls. As a kid (maybe 8 or 9) I remember watching the David Suskind Show when he interviewed a gang leader from my neighborhood. The man talked about using rape as a way to intimidate. He talked about murder.Just the way things were.

Ed Dee was an NYPD lieutenant in the precinct two blocks from my door. He's got stories too. Magnificent writer, by the way.

Paul Newman came to my neighborhood to film scenes from Fort Apache, The Bronx. Not his greatest movie, but I got close enough to touch him and, yes, his eyes were really a startling blue. Jimmy Carter came to the neighborhood where my mother worked (and where I'd lived as an infant and toddler) and promised to rebuild it. So did Ronald Reagan. Twice. And Bush the First. And when Clinton showed up it, community activists had already rebuilt the area without a federal dime.

I digress.

The quantity of violence is probably not the problem. It's the gratuitous nature of it in some books that bothers. Anything gratuitous, unneeded, is going to be a bad thing in a novel.

Ah, but how can you tell if it's gratuitous? Really hard to say. Try this: If the author is putting in a scene of violence as a mere structural element - "This guy has to do something really messed up in order to deserve what happens to him in the next scene..." maybe then it is gratuitous.


* Or death as the case may be.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Best Sellers

Patti Abbott asked about the top ten fiction sellers of 1959 a while back and whether our generation of writers is producing anything comparable. Here they are:
1. Exodus, Leon Uris

2. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak

3. Hawaii, James Michener

4. Advise and Consent, Allen Drury

5. Lady Chatterley's Lover, D. H. Lawrence

6. The Ugly American, William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick

7. Dear and Glorious Physician, Taylor Caldwell

8. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

9. Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico

10. Poor No More, Robert Ruark

I'm a little ashamed to say I've not read a single one of the books... Or a single title by any of the authors.

I go to thinking about her question. Hard to say if we've produced a Nabokov or Lawrence without the perspective of some time passing. So here is the list from 25 years ago...

The top hc fiction sellers for 1984 (courtesy of NY Times):

1. ''The Aquitaine Progression,'' by Robert Ludlum
2. ''The Talisman,'' by Stephen King and Peter Straub
3. ''. . . And Ladies of the Club,'' by Helen Hooven Santmyer
4. ''Lincoln,'' by Gore Vidal
5. ''The Butter Battle Book,'' by Dr. Seuss
6. ''The Fourth Protocol,'' by Frederick Forsyth
7. ''Love and War,'' by John Jakes
8. ''The Sicilian,'' by Mario Puzo
9. ''The Haj,'' by Leon Uris
10. ''Full Circle,'' by Danielle Steel

Interesting that Uris is on both lists. I've never read any of these titles either. My bad. But then, this does seem a little like a step down from the 1959 list.

Now try the 1999 list from Publisher's Weekly:

1. The Testament by John Grisham, Doubleday

2. Hannibal by Thomas Harris, Delacorte

3. Assassins by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim La Haye, Tyndale

4. Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks, LucasBooks/DelRey

5. Timeline by Michael Crichton, HarperCollins

6. Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King, Scribner

7. Apollyon by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim La Haye, Tyndale

8. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, Scribner

9. Irresistible Forces by Danielle Steel, Delacorte

10. Tara Road by Maeve Binchy, Delacorte

Again, I've not read a single title (geez, Steven, what do you read?) but I have seen several of the movies...Hearts in Atlantis, Timeline, Star Wars, ep. 1, and Hannibal. Don't know if anything else made it to the screen. So is Thomas Harris the Nabokov of our time? Is Grisham our Lawrence? Perhaps Steel is our Pasternak?

Does this comparison tell us anything about readers? Writers? The business?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is obscenely talented. I mention this because I just heard she had a new book out and I immediately thought two things...and these thoughts were in competition with each other so it was painful: 1 - Why wasn't I notified? Is there a way to get updates? I've no doubt James Patterson has a website where there is a clock counting down to the next book. Actually, come to think of it, a regular clock that chimes every twelve hours would probably do, no? But really, for the benefit of mankind, there ought to be a way of signaling people when one of Megan's books comes out. Her and Will Thomas. Imagine what a world this would be if everyone knew when Megan's books were coming out the same way everyone knows when Oprah's on.Or if at the very least, Border's had midnight parties when Megan's books came out like they do for Harry Potter and everyone came dressed in 1940s regalia...

Then, of course, I thought 2- Why God? Why? I love the books. Don't get me wrong. They're great. But then, I'm a mystery writer too. I have feelings. I want to think I'm good. I want to think that I can string sentneces together like few others. Then Megan comes out with a book and you can't help but feel inferior. This might be an unintended side-effect of her writing. Not sure. Still, it's enough to break a writer's spirit. I was, by the way, happy that PW had said nice things about my short story in Uncage Me!. Now this. Ah well.

Bury Me Deep.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Bad News! - Akitada Murdered!

This is indeed bad news. Suguwara Akitada, sleuth from Ancient Japan, is one of my very favorite series characters and now he's lost his publishing home. A gentle soul with real-life problems like a leaky roof or annoying family relations as opposed to the cliched addictions and gambling debts too many PIs seem to share. Maybe that's what killed the series. Maybe Akitada needs to shave his head into a Mohawk, sport a tattoo on his neck and an earring through his nose. Maybe he needs to get hooked on opium. And ride a Harley...

Ah well, IJ Parker promises to try to get a couple more novels into print by hook or by crook. Sad that it has come to this - a talented writer scrabbling. Yes, it's always been this way. No less sad because of it.