The envelope can only be pushed so far
Once the Harrogate dust had settled, one thing that kept getting referenced over and over was the “Unique Voices” panel, and specifically John Connolly’s comments on such. He’s addressed what happened on his own blog and clarified some of the frustrations he feels with the crime genre – namely, that experimentation is limited at best and there’s a “sneaking conservatism at work”:
I suppose I feel that, as crime fiction has become more and more a part
of the literary mainstream, its popularity has not been matched by a
great deal of experimentation. There is, I think, a reluctance to take
chances, whether that takes the form of fusing genres to create new
hybrids, or experimenting with form or language, or anything that
deviates from the rather traditional narrative structures that seem to
be the norm in the genre.
I’m not sure who, if anyone, is to
blame for this state of affairs, assuming anyone agrees with me. The
writers, perhaps, for not pushing themselves? The readers, for favoring
sometimes bland mainstream work over more experimental work at the
margins, for wanting to be entertained instead of challenged? The
publishers, for seeking variations on familiar themes, for favoring the
series over the stand-alone, for, to put it simply, giving readers what
There are, I think, a number of issues at work. One, of course, is market expectations, and that anything vaguely subversive, vaguely different from whatever “norm” happens to be in vogue is automatically going to be relegated to the margins because by definition, mass appeal simply isn’t possible. That’s not necessarily bad, because changing one thing is plenty difficult enough for most writers, and to do that well is usually enough to set his or her book apart from everyone else’s.
But the flip side of experimentation is that in order to break rules, the writer has to be keenly aware of what those rules actually are – and by rules, I don’t just mean narrative structure and form, I also mean pure storytelling that gets you in an emotionally honest way.
And if there is a problem with fiction – not just of the crime variety,
but literary, too – as it stands now, it’s that there isn’t enough
emotional honesty. There isn’t enough of a sense that the writer truly
understands the way the world works and conveys such in a mind-altering
manner. It’s why someone like Daniel Woodrell accomplishes more with
less than 200 pages than does a more well-known writer with two or
three times that much. It’s why so many short story collections of late
fall down for me because they are empty vessels, with so little to say.
It’s why books that trumpet some astounding structural feat ultimately
don’t work because if you take away the structural treatment, you’re
left with a wisp of a story, cardboard characters and a plot full of
It’s why, after reading a highly regarded new literary release that failed on almost every level for me for the exact above reasons, I needed to escape with a Charles Willeford novel – because there was a man whose ability to experiment was rooted in absolute command of his ability and talents and a genunine curiosity about the world as it really worked, not as others wanted it to be.
Ironically, perhaps, most of Connolly’s panel-mates in Harrogate handle emotional honesty very well and in a very forthright manner. Charlie Williams’ Mangel trilogy may be best known
for the voice, but what a voice – and Royston Blake has enough demons
to fill three books and then some. Stella Duffy’s detective series is
good, but her attempts at social satire are witty, wicked and
oftentimes brilliant. STATE OF HAPPINESS examines a woman’s battle with
disease in unflinching, understated terms, and PARALLEL LIES skewers
celebrity better than the vast majority of gossip lit books.
It’s probably a big non-issue in the end, but the combination of business sense and truth-seeking will always be a difficult one, as applied to any sort of storytelling.