Guest Post, Tyler Sage: Some Thoughts on the Detective Novel, Form, and Politics

For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that we can distinguish between form and content in writing. The latter – content – could be taken broadly to include things like what happens in a book, who is involved in the action, and the way characters are depicted. The former – form – could be taken to include the manifold ways the story is told and shaped, along with the matters of “craft” the author brings to bear.

It seems that thinking about this distinction might be worthwhile, because in many contemporary debates about writing the focus is so squarely on matters of content. A great deal of potential controversy adheres to the questions of what race, gender and class our characters are; how they act, and whether these actions promote offensive stereotypes; how the other characters refer to them, etc. Because of these pressures, ours has become a world in which authors hire sensitivity readers to double-check the level of potential offensiveness of their work, and a world in which the ability of a person of one race to legitimately write a character of another race is regularly questioned. My point is not to argue the rightness or wrongness of these practices; it’s simply to point out that they posit the main point of importance in political or ideological struggles as being what happens in a story, rather than the way a story is constructed.

Often, this approach is taken a step further and it’s argued that talking about or teaching writing in formal terms is itself problematic, that formal discussion itself is somehow anti-political, a hindrance to the expression of oppressed groups, or to social critique. The MFA program workshop model, and in particular the flagship/Great Satan of that model, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has become something of a focal point for this line of thought. In focusing on matters of “craft” (read: formal techniques in fiction), the argument goes, this model neglects matters of history and politics. Further, arising as it did in the context of the Cold-War, the workshop model approach to fiction carries the necessary stain of American Imperialism and an ideological fixation with radical individualism and Modernist technique that is antithetical to minority experience and revolutionary (or any other) politics. It’s not simply that the slogan of “show don’t tell,” for example, is bound inextricably to white male privilege; any focus on the formal aspects of writing distracts from our ability to write politically, because it pulls us away from personal, historical, and identity-based expression.

Again, it’s not my purpose to take sides in the debate over the worth of MFA programs, to stake a position on the enormous problems faced by women and people of color in the writing and publishing world, or to argue for one notion of revolution over another. My purpose is to defend the notion that the political resides at least as deeply in form as it does in content, using the American hardboiled crime novel as an example.

Raymond Chandler rightly stands at the center of this tradition, and his novels are as good a starting place as any. In them a detective, Philip Marlow, is asked to solve a crime. He begins on this task; soon after, he discovers at least one other seemingly unrelated mysterious circumstance that will in the end prove not to be unrelated at all; he proceeds forward, following clues, getting beaten up, shot at, and lied to, until he closes in on his criminal; in the end, the identity of the killer is revealed, and the machinations of everything that has happened are made clear to us.

The general political critique of Chandler is easy to outline. These are stories that feature a white male protagonist, invested in violence, who solves other people’s problems; in the final pages it is nearly always a woman who is revealed as the scheming betrayer behind the crimes, and it is this woman who needs to be repudiated, if not killed, for justice to be done; minorities are either not present or presented in generally stereotypical and outmoded (and indeed often outright racist) ways. However, this critique rests nearly entirely on questions of content: who is involved, how they act, and how they’re portrayed by the author/narrator.

My question is whether there’s not another – formal – approach we could take to all of this, that would allow us additional insight and, more importantly, additional force in our own writing. One place to start might be with the question of whether, or in what ways, Chandler’s work (and the work of similar writers) could be seen as political. Often presented as a kind of knight-errant questing forward on the shoulders of his hero-detective, the truth is that Chandler was bracingly cynical. He ends his much quoted essay on the detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950) with a passage extolling knight-errantry on the part of protagonists in detective novels; he begins it, on the other hand, by noting that popular best-sellers are

“promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.”

This certainly sounds like someone who’s invested in the idea that the apparatchiks of capitalist culture might be putting their grubby little thumbs on the scale when it comes time to determine which books get published and which don’t. But Chandler’s argument in the essay is not that he’s writing anti-capitalist literature, of course; it’s a formal one. His goal is to distinguish a particularly American style of “realist” mystery writing – in contrast to what he sees as a more class-encumbered English one – and to point out that what his forbearers in that style, Dashiell Hammett in particular, did was to use it as a way of pointing out power relations in the world. “The realist in murder,” he argues,

“writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations…a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket…where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.”

To my ear, at least, there is a breathtakingly strange political mixture in this passage: an absolute condemnation of corrupt political power exerted against the common person goes hand in hand with a sardonic disdain for that common person and a Charlton Heston-esque support for good old law and order.

Confused? Perhaps. But one cannot charge it with not staking out political or ideological claims about our culture. And in a sense, its confusion is exactly the point. Language in writing – and especially the American language, the complexities of which Chandler was trying to tease out, a language that goes back through Dickenson, Mellville, Douglass, and the rest of them, and forward from Chandler through everyone who’s written since – is necessarily political in its form. The words that are chosen, the structures of the sentences, the level of diction: all of it is the ideological ground that lies beneath the content of those words and sentences.

For Chandler, the attempt of Hammett and the rest to re-tether the detective novel to the diction of “the street” was an attempt at a some sort of realist social politics. They believed that the literature of their time had obscured the assaultive horrors of much everyday life, and that these issues could be addressed at least in part through language. Do we agree that they were successful? Perhaps we do, perhaps we don’t; for the purposes of this essay, it’s enough to note that it may very well be the case that for a writer to neglect the formal aspects of the American language is for a writer to inhibit their own ability to write politically.

But the argument doesn’t stop at prose. To write and structure any novel one must think more or less formally; I think the emphasis on plotting in a mystery story makes it an easy place to tease out the connections between the formal moves of the writer’s technique and the political content of their work. Thinking through (or trying to write) a densely plotted crime novel leads one immediately to a realization of the importance of the kinds of things taught in writing workshops: handling of POV in terms of distance and person, showing versus telling, the structuring of scenes, the timing of reveals, etc.

In his famous interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock makes a distinction between “surprise” and “suspense.” He explains that if two people in a story are having a conversation and are suddenly blown up by a bomb, it’s surprising. If we see someone plant the bomb, and then the characters enter, sit at the table, and begin their conversation, it’s suspenseful. What Hitchcock is getting at, in our terms, is the technical question of the effect on the audience created by the manipulation of the formal aspects of storytelling: how much information does the reader have, and when do they get it? How much do the characters have, and how much does the narrator have? At first, this may seem to be simply a matter of using storytelling mechanics to entertain the audience; if we pause for a moment, however, it becomes clear that it’s a formal element that lies at the heart of some of the most political writing we know. By thinking through and controlling POV and the rest, we’re creating a world that feels a certain way, either surprising or suspenseful, and in shaping the world in this way we are in fact making an assertion about the nature of that world.

One obvious place to explore this (and an obvious comparison to the hardboiled novel) is the work of Kafka. The Trial and The Castle are both set up somewhat along the lines of a “mystery” story. A character navigates through an oppressive, claustrophobic, absurd landscape in search of a McGuffin (to use Hitchcock’s term) he’s destined never to find (the facts behind his trial; the authority in the castle.) On a technical level, at least a part of the impact of Kafka’s work arises from his astounding control over formal elements of the art form. Kafka asserted in a moment of self-denigration in his journals that his success came from little more than his ability to re-create the feeling of being in a dream; reading his work closely, we realize that one way to understand this ability is in terms of maintaining a relationship between the consciousness of his reader and his protagonist such that we experience the absurdity of the world exactly as K. does. In somewhat barbaric, reductionist terms, this ability is a matter of being able to manipulate POV and closely control the information the reader has. And it is this claustrophobia itself, along with the power it gives Kafka of projecting us into an experienced world of absurdity, that at least in part allows him to construct a savage critique of modernity.

The connection of this to the American school of crime narrative, and the reason I’ve taken this detour, is to point out that in the hardboiled novel the feeling of being at the center of a claustrophobic maze is one of the most important elements. In a way not dissimilar to Kafka’s characters, Chandler’s protagonists are stuck in a labyrinth, the end result of which is disillusionment. That is to say, if Kafka uses a deep understanding of POV and interiority to write novels that reflect our sense of modernity as a thing that controls us far beyond our ability to control ourselves, Chandler and his ilk use similar mechanics, along with a control of information and plot along the lines of Hitchcock’s distinction, to create the feeling of being caught in a maze-like mystery, with deception and avarice around every corner. The ideological cynicism of these books and their critique of the America of their time come at least in part directly out of these formal elements.

A final way to approach these issues might be to return again to the ways these novels are politically problematic, and to use this to think through ways that we might respond to them with a literature of our own. The work of Mickey Spillane, whose first novel I, The Jury appeared in 1947, provides a wonderful opportunity to do this. Spillane’s work is interesting because it unabashedly celebrates, indeed valorizes, the aspects of Chandler’s work can be seen as the most politically problematic. In I, The Jury the narrator and protagonist, Mike Hammer, declares that what he likes to do is just go out and murder the criminals that the cops are too soft on; in one scene he beats up an African American man he notes is a good-looking “high yellow” and then checks the man’s wallet to find pictures of all the women the man has seduced, and finds that, yep, one of them was white (the obvious implication being that Hammer has righted a miscegenistic wrong); he falls in love with a super-hot woman psychiatrist, finds out that she’s the criminal mastermind behind everything, and murders her as painfully as possible her at the end. The whole is almost unbelievably fascistic. Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand was defender of his work (and he of hers); perhaps even less surprisingly, he sold over 130 million copies of his books and was for many years one of the most successful writers in America.

How are we to critique a writer like this? It’s all well and good to point out the radical misogyny, racism, and promotion of blood-lust in the content of his work, but to find anything more interesting to say, either as writers or critics, we need to move almost immediately to thinking formally. Like the verbiage of Donald Trump, Spillane’s first-person narration is continually over-insistent about its own toughness, intelligence, dynamo sexuality, and animal attractiveness to women. The plotting of the book means that, contrast to Chandler’s Philip Marlow, Mike Hammer is always the master of the situation: it’s virtually impossible to imagine him being played for a sucker by a friend the way Marlow is at the end of The Long Goodbye. To really understand the politics of this – why Ayn Rand was attracted to it, why it was so popular with post-war audiences, the grounds it lays for ideas and narratives that are still with us today – we must think at least partially in formal terms: how is the language working? how does the plotting go to character? what is shown and not told, or the other way around? etc. What these lines of thought show us are the ways power – racialized, gendered, and class-driven – propagates itself in our entertainments and art, the way it seduces audiences, the way it flatters some and silences others, the way it seeps into the fabrics of our stories themselves.

Perhaps more importantly, how are we as writers to respond? If we believe that we can re-shape these stories simply by changing their content, I think we’re mistaken. If we were to rewrite I, The Jury making only substitutions along the lines of the race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the characters, the fascistically violent and power-oriented worldview would remain unchanged. But approaching these narratives on formal terms allows a world of possibility to open up. What would it mean to write a detective story in a language that eschewed the radical tough-guy voice that propels so much hardboiled work? What would it mean to construct a plot which, like Kafka’s, was not solvable and simply led the detective further and further into a maze? What would it mean to adjust our understanding of showing and telling so that we knew everything before the detective did or, conversely, the detective figured everything out but simply didn’t tell us or, conversely again (if that’s possible) the detective found himself unable to read the human gestures that the writer who believes in “showing” to the exclusion of all else depends on so heavily? In addition to an increased attention to the identity and depiction of our characters, might all of this not allow us to write a newly-political detective story? And, in conjunction with changes in content – the identity of the protagonists, the depiction of characters – might it not aid writers in continuing to reshape the literature itself?

I’ll close by noting that I think that, if we step back from the specific example of the crime novel, we see almost immediately that this formal reshaping is exactly what a great deal of American writing has traditionally striven to do. The examples are countless, but we might think through the anti-war constructions of Johnny Get Your Gun, Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, the way race is approached in the work of Langston Hughes, John Edgar Wideman, or Toni Cade Bambara, the way narrative itself is approached in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, the ways politics is investigated in Pynchon’s early work, history is flayed open in Beloved, gender structures pierced by Patricia Highsmith, and our relationship with the natural world is illuminated by Barry Lopez or Terry Tempest Williams. And on and on.

As much as their content, it is the formal awareness of these books that gives them their power. To neglect either – content or form – would be to rob ourselves of the ability to access that same power.

Authors Talk: Steve Howe

Steven Howe

Today we are pleased to feature author Steve Howe as our Authors Talk series contributor. In conversation with Zoe Speidel (of the Spoken Word Hour on KUNM), Steve discusses “Repossession,” his nonfiction piece published in Issue 18.

Specifically, Steve and Zoe discuss how the essay can almost be seen as a coming-of-age story, as it reflects Steve’s own awakening in Chicago, when he first learned how racism occurs on a systemic level. Steve discusses his own privilege and shares the importance of being “careful as a writer to not appropriate anybody’s viewpoint and language that’s not your own.” Steve also talks about his passion for research and reveals that “you need to do more research than ever gets on the page.”

You can access Steve’s piece, “Repossession,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Interview with Michael Croley

Michael Croley grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He holds graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Florida State and the University of Memphis. In 2011, Narrative Magazine named him to its list of “Best New Writers.” He has won awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. His first novel, After the Sun Fell, will be released as part of Narrative’s Library Series in 2012. He teaches at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. www.michaelcroley.com

SR: Your story “Two Lives,” published in Blackbird, contains two distinct stories: a metafictional narrative in which the narrator talks about his writing life (or lack thereof) and the actual text of the story this character wrote. When you began this story, did you set out with the intention of blending two narratives, or did the story evolve into its current form?

Michael Croley: I always remember how this story came to life because it was the first story I ever wrote that made me get out of bed to complete it. I started with the story’s first line, “You don’t know what it’s like to be in the bed as a child and feel the air of fall enter your room and hear the dishes in the cabinets of your home rattle, their doors slammed by some drunk looking for a fresh bottle of liquor.” I wanted the second person to implicate the reader, to say, “Dear Reader, you know nothing.” As I wrote the story and came to the end of the first space break, another voice entered my head with that line, “Years ago, I tried to write this.” Rather than fight the new voice, I went with it and suddenly I realized I was writing two stories inside of one. I’m not really into meta-fiction. I believe that a writer’s allegiance is to the reader, to guiding them through the story, and I don’t find this story to be of the smarty-pants variety, but even I knew this one had a weird structure as I was going through it but I didn’t let myself worry about it too much. I just knew both of these voices were speaking to me (and I hate putting that out there because it makes the writing process sound so new age-ish, but there is some truth to this concept) and I followed them through. As the story went on and I got near the end, I realized that both stories, both threads, had to have equal time on the page in order for the story as a whole to have maximum impact. So as I started revising, I actually cut and pasted all the second-person threads into a new document and made sure that both stories read like fully-formed, complete stories. Then it was just a matter of weaving the threads together at the right moments so that the reader would be doubly haunted by both the second-person story and the first-person narrative and how both of those ended.

I’d never written a story, structurally, like this before—and haven’t since—and one of things that I do pat myself on the back about in regard to this story is that the structure seems really unique to me. But I’m sure I ripped it off from somebody unconsciously because that’s what we do as writers. We steal. This is also the first story I ever had published and that was pretty damn cool.

SR: Your story “Insulation” in Blackbird is one of those rare short stories with a happy ending. The main character, Lynn, seems to get what she wants, and the marriage that seems on the verge of breaking up appears to actually be strengthened at the end. When you began writing the story, is this the ending you envisioned? Do you feel that there is a risk involved in writing so-called happy endings?

MC: Here’s an instance of when you give a story to the world, it is no longer yours to decide what it is to the reader or what it could be. I don’t know that I ever saw this couple on the verge of breaking up. I saw them as struggling, yes, but I never believed Lynn would leave him. In my mind, from the beginning, she was upset and frustrated and wanted her husband to stand up and take care of her but she loved him and wasn’t going to leave him. She loved him too much to do that. She wanted to push him to be more, to reach his potential and she takes that on as her task, as her role in this marriage. I wanted them to come to an understanding, for him to see her strength and resilience and for him to acknowledge that. Once Allen picked Lynn up from her job I knew they would go home and that the change, if we subscribe to the idea that all stories are about change, would have to come from him—and it does because he sees what the reader sees in her—and that’s what I had happen. But this is Lynn’s story, so we had to end with her and I lifted the image of her in the tub from a really bad poem I wrote (I still thought I could write poetry at the time), imagining a woman coming home at the end of a long day.

I don’t know if there is a risk involved with happy endings. I know my students often ask why all the stories I assign to read are sad, but I don’t think of an ending that doesn’t end with everyone getting what they want as sad. Not always. All I want is for a character to have some realization or knowledge he or she didn’t have when the story began. I often tell my students that the writer’s job is to make her characters hit that higher plane of knowledge then pull the ripcord on the story. Get out. You’ve done your work. Lynn realizes that Allen does love her. That he isn’t immune to her struggles and how she works herself like a mule for the both of them. When she sees that she is able to face her life in ways she couldn’t before and that’s more important than Allen’s change in behavior. And when that happened in the story, that’s how I knew it was complete.

As a side note, when I first workshopped this piece, it got really beat up by several women in the class who didn’t understand why Lynn remained with Allen to which the workshop leader (my mentor Richard Bausch) said, “Did you ever think she loves him?” I mention this because we are subject to overthinking this pursuit from time to time, to letting our own personal feelings about the way the world should be rather than it is invade our work and reading. But stories, at their heart, are about “news of the spirit” as the late George Garrett said, and what we do as writers is to imagine ourselves into that spirit without any judgments.

SR: Many of your stories take place in Fordyce, Kentucky. How does a sense of place impact the stories you choose to tell?

MC: Well, for me, it impacts everything. Fordyce is stand-in for my own hometown right down to topography and landmarks, but it has that fictional name so that I can blend different elements into the town from surrounding areas from time to time and because I didn’t want to be too constrained by the “facts” of Corbin, Kentucky, where I was raised. But place is something I’ve always been drawn to. Because my mother is Korean (my father grew up out in the country near Corbin) I think I always felt out of place there. I looked different from all my classmates. Corbin has a history of racism that’s pretty well-known throughout the state and I can only remember going to school with two other people of color growing up. So things weren’t always necessarily easy for my mother or my brother and me. I think that sense of identity that I received from that place has had a large effect on my work, especially in the two novels I’ve written. I never looked at things with strictly an insider’s viewpoint, though I like to think I have that viewpoint as well. I saw lots of good people in Corbin who were hardworking, blue-collar types and I admired their grit and what I saw as even-mindedness. Practical might be a good way to put it. And at the same time, a lot of my friends’ parents were bankers, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists. That’s one of the hidden truths about Appalachia, that not everyone is poor and backward. We’re not all the sons and daughters of miners and laborers.

I think that kind of place is ripe for storytelling because it’s relative smallness allows for the pecking order and machinations of the town to be clearly visible if you’re paying attention. Corbin isn’t so small that you know everyone but it is small enough that you probably know someone who knows the person you don’t. Because of that you’re never out of the reach of a story to be heard about So-and-so and what he’s doing. When I started writing as an undergraduate I was very conscious about honoring this place where I’d grown up and telling the stories that I thought were worth telling that I never saw in Esquire or The New Yorker. There’s a reason in the two stories you’ve mentioned that the characters are college educated. I was tired (and still am) of reading only about backward hillbillies in rural areas. My father was a man who worked his way through a good school and chose to come back to that part of the world. And at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I see how the dual nature of ethnicity has played a large role in how I write my stories. My characters always seem in between worlds, pulled in different directions by different desires. So to answer your question briefly (and to stop going on), I think I’m trying to figure out in a lot of ways of how place shapes us. How does the place where we mature get into our bloodstream? I don’t think we ever escape our childhoods and a lot of what I see myself doing is exploring Fordyce as Corbin and asking the question, What has this place done to this character for good or ill?

SR: You published an “iStory” in Narrative – a new type of micro-fiction created by the magazine to coincide with their new digital App. These stories are all under 150 words. Do you find it more or less difficult to write micro-fiction like your story “One Such as This” than your longer pieces? Did writing with the digital App in mind change anything about the writing process?

MC: Well, first off I just want to say that Narrative has been a great venue to me. Very supportive of my work and I think the world of what Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian are trying to do with literature in this electronic age. I think they’ve been very visionary and the idea of an iStory seemed gimmicky to me at first because I just didn’t think you could tell a story in such a small amount of space. That was/is the challenging part. It’s like “Name that Tune.” How many notes does it take to tell your story? Less notes, to me, is often better. So that’s what I tried to do and that was the challenge of it. A lot of times I have a great image but not a great story to tell. And because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not a very good poet, I wanted to use this image I had of an alley in back of my favorite movie theater in Cleveland where I used to live. I just liked the idea of two people in this very dark alley making out and then moving them through the night and into the morning. So, in one sense, the piece was easier because there was less I had to do, but harder because the word limit magnifies your choice of diction, your details, and your sense of emotion in the piece.

I don’t often write micro-fiction because I’m interested in really playing the characters’ lives out as much as I can. As far as I want to go. For instance, neither character gets a name in that iStory, which gives me more observational distance and less attachment to seeing their lives come together or undone as you might in a longer piece. And the iStory seems to me to be less about narrative arc than a singular moment that lingers in the reader’s mind and imagination after what they’re done being a witness to the story.

SR: What are you working on at the moment?

MC: Well, I have an agreement with Narrative to release my first novel After the Sun Fell as part of their new Library Series. I’m really excited about that because everything they do is so good and I’m flattered that Tom Jenks wanted to first look at the novel then said he wanted to work with me on it. That book is based in small part on my mother’s move to southeastern Kentucky from Masan, South Korea after she married my father. An excerpt of it is up on Narrative as a contained story entitled, “Washed Away.” As long as Tom and I can find some time to work on this soon, I think that book will be released in 2012, but that’ll, ultimately, be up to Tom and I’ve learned to listen to him as much as possible.

And my agent is currently shopping my second novel around. It’s about a family that’s moved out of Fordyce to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 right before the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which indirectly led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book is narrated by Ben Hamlin who was 12 when his father moved the family to Memphis. A grown man now, Ben is looking back on that year when his family—and their hopes—began to unravel as their own personal tragedies get entangled with the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest tragedy.

My next novel is entirely in my head (though I think the opening scene is written) so I don’t want to say too much about it. But it will be, I hope, both an homage to and a retelling of All the King’s Men with the central figure being more of an LBJ type politician. This is mostly because I love All the King’s Men—I don’t think there’s a bad sentence in the book—and because I think LBJ was a fascinating politician and I think we live in a very politically fractious time, almost as fractious as the ’60s but we’re not quite there yet.