This is from a review that Margaret Atwood wrote of Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues a few years ago:

As to what Leonard is up to beyond the texture of his prose, it’s what he’s been up to for some time. A good deal of any Leonard novel—or those of, say, the last twenty years—consists of deadpan social observation. John le Carré has maintained that, for the late twentieth century at least, the spy novel is the central fictional form, because it alone tackles the implementation of the hidden agendas that—we suspect, and as the evening news tends to confirm—surround us on all sides. Similarly, Elmore Leonard might argue—if he were given to argument, which he is not—that a novel without some sort of crime or scam in it can hardly claim to be an accurate representation of today’s reality. He might add that this is especially true when that reality is situated in America, home of Enron and of the world’s largest privately held arsenal, where casual murders are so common that most aren’t reported, and where the CIA encourages the growing and trading of narcotics to finance its foreign adventures.

So, what do people here think? Does a novel need a crime or scam of some sort to be an accurate representation of today's reality? Is that why crime novels are so popular?

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The reality of today's society is that violence, scams, ID theft, plain old cons (especially on the internet) are pretty rampant. I believe, as long as people murder each other, that the Crime Novel will never disappear. So far the internet has been the cause of suicides among the more unstable and it will probably be included more in future Crime novels, expecially when it drives people to murder.
It is true that crime novels represent today's reality pretty well. I actually accept everything that's going on in the world today with sorrow but also with the feeling that I've already read about it. Or that I've read something far worse....
But it's not only crime novels that can show todays society. There are many parodies out there that can show you the same. Today's reality is not just crime, it's the evergrowing stupidity and alienation too. Douglas Aadams' "Hitchhiker's guide through the galaxy" is great for showing you that and it doesn't contain any scam. Actually you're having a great laugh about the world described in the book while at the same time you're aware that's the world you live in.
The Bible, Homer, Caesar's Diaries, Shakespeare--aren't they all mostly about crime, including a lot of murder? I don't think America invented criminals, nor poverty, ignorance, and greed.
That would have been my point. Neither the 20th nor the 21st century have a corner on violence or evil. In fact, I sometimes think it's a great mistake that people get caught up in thinking that only their own time is of significance.

And fiction is, on the whole, better for a little drama.
Relatively speaking, today's reality on our continent is safer and more peaceful than ever before. Most of us (thank god!) will never have to experience a violent crime first-hand.

But people like bad news, don't they? They tune in to CNN 24/7. They slow down and rubberneck when there's an accident on the highway. They make people like Jerry fucking Springer gazillionaires.

And, they crave stories where characters are in trouble, where good meets evil head-on and good often prevails.

Crime fiction speaks to that better than any other genre, IMHO.
About the only difference I can see about historical crime and modern crime is the speed with which the general public is made aware of the crime.
It is also hard (for me at least) to lump the Bible, Homer, Ceasar's diaries and Shakespeare all in the crime fiction category. And for every writer, their own time is of great signifiance...unless, of course, they're into historical fiction which is a genre I don't care to tackle.
First of all, Atwood does not indulge, and certainly not in understatement. And she is concise: she doesn't dick around much with bush beating. McFetridge has not shared with us where this quote came from, but I'm guessing it was The National Post, The Globe or some other large Canadian newspaper. (Stop laughing. "Large" and "Canadian" are not oxymorons.) And if Atwood is indulging in anything here, it's a little US bashing. (A popular pastime for Canadians, because we sleep with the elephant. Sometimes it makes us itchy.)

Here's the other thing I get from this post: that a good crime novel comments not just on a crime, but on a social condition. It's what makes the form interesting, gives it texture, sets it apart.

That said: no, John. I don't believe crime is required to make a book realistic. However, conflict is needed in order to give a book texture, make it interesting, lift it out of mere social observation. And crime is an easy place to get all that stuff. Because, you know, a dude and a chick in a bed isn't a story. A dude and a chick in a bed while their Camaro gets stolen? Now we're cookin' with gas.
Actually it was in the New York Times. When you're as big a name as Peggy is, you can do your US bashing right in the US.

Now, I agree, what makes a good crime novel good is more than just a crime. But still, why is it that novels about crimes are so popular?

On another discussion group a guy (who doesn't use his name, just djones), wrote:

Let’s say that storytelling is often about dysfunctional behavior & human beings like watching it without getting involved - fiction as a play- & learning-activity.

So in the Middle ages it was about sinning, getting in trouble with God. Then, in the 19th century, when the novel became the middle class’s preferred form of storytelling, it was about the kind of subtle gradations of (middle class) polite behavior you see in Trollope & James.

Then in the 20th century, when people start to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t break the law, storytelling starts being about breaking the law.

Crime is a public matter; it isn’t about your conscience, your state of grace. It isn’t about subtle manoevering in polite society, trying to increase your standing; either you’re a criminal or you’re not.


If he's right, then I think we may be entering a new phase where it isn't nearly so clear if you're a criminal or not. Let's face it, a lot of things that used to get you thrown in jail (organizing poker games and selling booze for example) now get you a job. If you start to feel that way about it, then running prostitutes or importing cocaine might someday be legal and you won't be a criminal.

I don't know if this affects crime novels, other than I like the ones that aren't just about some detective solving a clever murder and I'm seeing more and more that I like.

On yet another discussion, someone made the point that if you get too didactic about social issues you lose a lot of your potential audience. I wonder. It may be turning now, to a point where if you aren't at least a little didactic, you'll some potential audience.

Maybe that's another discussion topic.
You're right, John: the question of why crime novels are so popular really is a whole different discussion. I'm a huge, huge, *huge* Atwood fan, yet I feel in the review you quoted, she doesn't even come close to the answer.

One argument that resonates with me is that, in an era devoid of real justice and, arguably, actual sanity and rational order, the crime novel can provide a sense that there might be some corner of the universe where up is up and down is down and everything will come out all right in the end.
I guess my problem is I read Alice Munro first, so when I read Atwood I just couldn't get into it.

But I think the real problem here is this idea of everything coming out all right in the end. This is what makes it genre and not literature. I say that because, as you said, in an era devoid of real justice -- well then, this wish-fulfillment of the ending coming out right pretty much takes away any of the resonance of the comments on the social condition. I'm not saying things can't come out "right" I'm just saying when we know going in that they will, then too much has already been sacrificed.

Actually though, I hate these phony literary vs genre discussions. Make the defitinitions broad enough (let's see, we have the bible, Homer, Caesar's Diaries, Shakespeare - we might as well put in all the Russians, Dickens, Hemingway, hell even Atwood had crime), pretty soon we'll be hard pressed to find a book that's not crime fiction.
Actually, I think a dude and a chick in a bed makes a much better story than a dude and a chick in a bed while their Camaro gets stolen. If you think the former isn't a story, than I recommend THE GATE by Natsume Soseki, SNOW COUNTRY by Yasunari Kawabata, and THOUSAND CRANES by Yasunari Kawabata. I dare say those three novels alone say more about the human condition than all the genre fiction in the world combined.

Let's say the latter scenario actually happened. While in bed, your car is stolen. That is something that you are going to tell your coworkers about when you should be working. You'll tell them how your car was stolen and how you did or didn't get it back (oh and real life usually doesn't involve you chasing the thief down to retrieve your stolen car. Usually it means reporting it to the police and them finding it abandoned somewhere sometime in the future). And then you forget about that story until it comes up in conversation again.

Whereas with you in bed with someone, maybe someone you love, maybe not so much, there are a lot of personal, intimate things which could take place, say a breakup, a night of passion, whatever, but it will probably be something that affects you internally, something you're going to be less likely to tell your coworkers about, but something that will stay with you for much longer. This occasion has more resonance, like a good story. The stories that have resonance are usually ones where the characters are the main focus, not some external event.

Because people don't really care about events unless they bring with them some internal emotional baggage. So for someone who went through 9/11 maybe a family member of someone who was killed, or someone who witnessed it firsthand--for someone like that, 9/11 is a real thing which will be with them forever. But for someone like me, who learned about it on TV, and didn't know anyone who died in the attack, and someone who now doesn't think about it unless the media is reminding me about it for some reason--for someone like that, 9/11 is an event that was important, but it was something that was really important to someone else. It doesn't affect my day to day life at all.

Ever notice how a publisher's backlist has all though classics in it? And how genre fiction is here one day and gone the next. What was the lasting impression of The DaVinci Code? Will it be read in 50 years? What about W. Somerset Maughum's Of Human Bondage? It was published in 1915 and is still a consistent seller; it's never been out of print. Why is that? Maybe because Philip Carey resonates with the reader, because we see a piece of ourselves in Philip Carey, while The DaVinci Code was a neat idea, but...

Therefore, I say for a story that really represents people (and that's what society is composed of, actual individuals living individual lives), the story must have resonance; it must stay with us and mean something to us. And usually (because there are always exceptions) that means a story about characters rather than an event or situation. And if you want to carry the comparison out further (which means broader, more general, less accurate perhaps), then I think it means literary fiction over genre fiction, in general. After all, a car getting stolen doesn't mean anything if the car doesn't belong to anyone.
John Dishon wrote: "I dare say those three novels alone say more about the human condition than all the genre fiction in the world combined."

What are you even doing here? I mean, seriously. If you don't see that the genre novel can elevate -- not that it always does, but that it *can* -- that it can speak to people on many levels. That the genre novel *can* resonate. In fact, it should. And that, as I said in my previous post (maybe you skipped that part?), that the crime novel shouldn't just be about crime. Rather, and here I'll quote myself so you can see the part you missed, "a good crime novel comments not just on a crime, but on a social condition."

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