Aren’t mystery novels kind of weird? Like, what does their prevalence say about our culture?

MV5BNDkzNjkwMDk2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDMyMDczMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_The most popular kind of fiction (in terms of sales) is, by a huge margin, the romance genre. And that makes sense to me. Falling in love is a major focus in our culture. I’d say it’s even more important than finding the right work, since, for most people, the latter is a pretty constricted thing: people generally only have access to a few occupations, and most of those aren’t very much fun. Whereas there’s _always_ the possibility that you’ll fall in love, and your whole life will be transformed.

But the second most popular genre are mysteries. And what is up with that? Murder is an extremely uncommon thing in our culture. And most murders aren’t particularly mysterious. They’re one spouse killing each another, or maybe someone flying off the handle during an argument. Nor does murder feel, to me, like a particularly common wish-fulfillment scenario. I consider myself a pretty evil-minded person, but there aren’t very many people who I’d want to murder. Also, it feels like the the nexus of identification during a mystery novel is usually with the detective: the person who solves the crime and brings the murderer to justice.

So what’s the appeal? And why is that appeal particularly strong during this day and age?

I don’t know, maybe it’s that we live in a time of decreasing social mobility, when people are working more hours and earning less, and people want to be reassuring that stepping outside the system is actually a doomed scenario. They want to be reassured that justice will out and criminals will always be caught, because otherwise their decision to refrain from committing crimes would be more difficult.

That feels particularly true of the crop of anti-hero shows. They’re a weird sort of wish-fulfillment. It feels as though people want to imagine what it’d be like to be a meth kingpin or Jersey gangster, but they also want to be reassured that those lives are ultimately difficult, doomed, and unsatisfying.

Also weird: all the shows where the heroes are cops. Like, it’s strange to think that the heroes of Law and Order and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are the NYPD: the same cops who’re so frequently the target of all this controversy. It’d be easy to say that cop shows are only enjoyed by conservative and retrograde parts of society, but that’s obviously not true. For instance, I love a number of cop shows, even though I’m not particularly enamored of real cops.

Oh well, a hundred years from now, some French sociologist will explicate this for the benefit of everyone who’s still alive.

[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who’ve read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I’m a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn’t already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then…I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can’t put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, “Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that’s apparently what I write now!” So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, “Oh, okay, I’ll read the great works of modernism.” And I read Jacob’s Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn’t continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, “Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I’ll read a bunch of german novels now!” And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I’d spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn’t want to do it…

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc…)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don’t even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and…well…I’ve pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don’t know. I’ve been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you’re actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don’t watch myself, I’ll stop reading “difficult” books. But I don’t know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it’s readable…but it’s also a book that’s repulsed me in the past. So we’ll see. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

The joy of short novels

Noir novels are often quite short. Absurdly short. They’re short in the way that books aren’t allowed to be anymore. James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are between 30,000 and 40,000 words long. Jim Thompson’s novels are between 40,000 and 50,000 words long and most of the rest are somewhere around there too.

Now, there was a time when a lot of novels were pretty short. That time was the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The Great Gatsby is only around 40,000 words. Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm is circa 30,000. Slaughterhouse Five is 50,000. Brave New World is around 65,000. The Catcher In The Rye looks positively bloated at 75,000.

Now I don’t know why novels would have been shorter back then. Perhaps it has something to do with new modes in book distribution technology. This was the golden era of the mass market paperback, and a lot of the above books were published in that format. Maybe the modern era’s switchover to trade paperback means that publishers feel like they should be offering thicker books to justify the higher prices (often twice as high as most mass-market paperbacks). Or maybe I’m just a fool, and this is a false trend, and novels today aren’t any longer or shorter than they used to be.

But the point remains, I adore short novels. And it’s because of any fancy aesthetic reason…it’s just because finishing novels is at least a third of the fun of reading them. Each novel is another notch in my belt. It’s another plot digested. It’s another setting and scenario and character arc that I’ve internalized.

Long novels excel at detailed description of ordinary life, the little telling details that are something which only novels (well, and paintings) are good at drawing one’s attention to. And I love those details, of course. I mean, I have just as much Harold Bloom and James Woods in me as the next guy.

But there’s also a part of me that revels in packing it in and moving on. There’s a part of me that loves the novel as experiential roller-coaster ride. I love going to bed with an unopened novel and finishing it before I wake up. I love being able to reel off a long list of books that I’ve read in the last few weeks. I love being able to make my way through a substantial portion of an author’s oeuvre over the course of a weekend. Short novels give you a sense of completion. They make you feel like you can master this body of work…or that you can understand exactly what is going on this novel. A forty thousand word novel is comprehensible: it can be grasped in your hands; it can be held in your mind all at once. You can download it straight into your brain’s RAM and then crunch every portion of it at the same time.

Short novels don’t require less thought, but it somehow feels like they’re more able to reward thought. To me, they feel less intuitive and more intellectual. But that’s probably a load of bull. Maybe the real truth is that I’m shallow, and that I place more value on having read a book than I do on the experience of reading it…..

Oh well.

Wherein I learn something about noir literature

If you follow my twitter feed you’ll know that I recently took Nick Mamatas’ 9-week fiction writing class at the Writer’s Salon in Berkeley. It was really good. The next session is starting on October 9th. If you live in the East Bay (or San Francisco) and you are a writer who is as good as or worse than me and you want to become alot better, you should definitely take this class.

Anyways, during the class, Nick mentioned several books that I was totally unfamiliar with. I not only had never heard of the books, I’d never even heard of their authors. The books were The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford. When I looked them up, Wikipedia said that they were “crime” novels and/or “noir” novels. The former is about a murderous deputy sheriff in a small Texas town; the latter is about a Florida-based art critic who gets a tip for a hot interview with a reclusive European artist who’s bunkered down in a nearby cabin.

I read both books. And they were both awesome. But they left me confused. The two novels clearly shared some DNA. They were both first-person narratives starring amoral wretches who succumbed to temptation (and got their comeuppance in the end). They were both detailed, well-observed portraits of very small milieus. They both had a strong sense of setting. They were both fast-moving and gave short thrift to explanations. They both had structures that played around with narrative chronology (Thompson’s novel has frequent, quite long, background explanations and most of Willeford’s novel consists of an internal flashback). They were both quite short (around 40-50,000 words). And they were both unlike anything I’d read before.     Clearly, I was dealing with a whole strand of American literature that I’d never encountered before.

But I was (and still am) a little confused as to what that strand is. I am, after all, at least somewhat familiar with detective novels. I’ve read Hammett and Chandler. I’ve read Sherlock Holmes. And I’ve read novels about organized crime, like Mario Puzo’s works or Layer Cake. But these novels weren’t really anything like that stuff. There was no mystery or procedural element (although in Thompson’s book, at least, there was a question as to exactly how the killer would be caught), and there was no detective.

In a way, the novels were like an adjunct to the mystery genre: the story of a crime as told from the criminal point of view. But they didn’t offer the same pleasures as mysteries. They didn’t hinge on any sort of revelation. Nor were they, quite, psychological novels. The criminal impulse was, in both cases, glossed over. In a way, it was seen as being somewhat obvious. Of course anyone in these situations would be driven to commit crimes…the only difference is that these guys actually did it.

The major joy of the books was in seeing the consequences pile up. It was in seeing intelligent people thrash around against the limits of their environment and try, desperately, to outwit the almost insurmountable odds they were facing. The minor joy was in reading about the kind of people and the kind of places that aren’t normally the subject of novels.

So I decided to investigate further, and conduct something of a survey of this kind of novel (which is, I guess “noir” literature…although that is a term that I had previously associated with Raymond Chandler’s detective stories).

In assembling my reading list, I relied heavily on the Library of America’s two compilations of crime novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s and American Noir of the 1950s.

The novels I read were:

Thieves Like Us Edward Anderson
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain
Double Indemnity James M. Cain
The Big Clock Kenneth Fearing
Down There David Goodis
Nightmare Alley William Lindsay Gresham
Real Cool Killers Chester Himes
The Killer Inside Me Jim Thompson
The Grifters Jim Thompson
The Burnt Orange Heresy Charles Willeford
Pick-Up Charles Willeford
I Married A Dead Man Cornell Woolrich

In addition to these, I am currently planning on reading Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Willeford’s Cockfighter, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

It’s been a really interesting journey through noir literature, and over the next week or so, I hope to post more about what I’ve learned. But the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is astonishment that I could have been unaware of something–a whole subgenre–that was (and to some extent, still is) a vibrant part of American literature. I mean, I know that it’s impossible to read everything, but I had thought, for some strange reason, that I knew–at least in broad strokes–about all the kinds of stuff that I hadn’t read. But clearly that was not true. I wonder what else I’ve missed?