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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I agree with John. Perhaps the example of the stolen car vs. the lovemaking of two human beings was not the best example, but he is absolutely right that the impact of an event on the human condition is far more memorable (and important) than a random crime.
The reason crime fiction so often fails to survive is that the cleverness of the plot or the twist or the premise is the only thing the book has going for it. People can talk about that at social gatherings. That sells books. But we read books alone. Often we are engaged by characters in the books in such a way that our lives are enriched. That is something we rarely talk about, perhaps because we assume that others wouldn't get it and maybe laugh at us.
I'm glad John is here.
Wow, thanks! That means a lot.
In some ways this is the biggest difference between American and UK crime fiction. As usual, here in Canada we're stuck in the middle (often spinning our wheels, unable to choose which way to go).

There used to be a show on Canadian TV called Da Vinci's Inquest. I was at a meeting when the guy who created the show said he wasn't all that interested in murderers or drug dealers or prostitutes or child abusers -- he was really interested in the circumstances that lead to child abuse and drug use and prostitution and murder. That's not to say that the show lacked characters, just that it also had context.

Certainly a good crime novel doesn't have to comment on crime as a social condition, but maybe a great one does. There are plenty of bad 'literary' books (here we call them CanLit and give them awards) and even some good ones that will never stand this test of time (which really is far more complicated than just the quality of the book, being a part of the multi-national publishing industry - we may think we know why a book stays on the backlist, but we really don't have enough evidence to do more than guess. It may be simplified as 'sales' but a lot goes into sales).

And come on, you know exactly why the bigger and more tattooed the leather daddy is, the smaller and more foofily beribboned his dog tends to be.
I think that dog belongs to leather daddy's better half. He probably carries her purse for her, too.
Oh I do believe the crime novel can resonate. I just believe that generally, it doesn't. I explained my reasoning for thinking so above. I'm saying that a good novel (crime or otherwise) is about people not "social conditions". Don't tell me what cancer is and how it devastates thousands of families a year. Instead, show me someone who has cancer, or someone who has been affected by someone who had cancer. Build your characters out of flesh and blood instead of cardboard, and let them breathe life instead of cliche TV Drama dialogue.

Feel free to rebut anything I've said with actual examples and please don't take any of this personal. We're just sharing opinions.
I guess I really talked about this above (or below, or wherever this post ends up) but *generally* most books don't resonate. I doubt the rate of resonation (I'm smiling while I write that, by the way) is any different between genres, and 'literary' is just another genre.
Yeah, I agree with that. Most books don't have a lasting impression. But make a list of all the books which do resonate and guess which genre most of them will fall under. Your own examples above show that. And you're also right above about how you can broaden the definitions to include everything, but I think that's more of an excuse to end the discussion. We all know what we mean by literary vs. genre don't we?

By "genre" fiction, I mean the hardcover on the bookstore shelf with the huge text (author name oftentimes larger than the book title) and the overworked background cover art, all begging the browser to take notice of it. The "literary" book is the one with the painting of plum blossoms fading into the face of a woman looking serenely off into the distance, with text in lowercase and with large kerning (is that the right word? I mean the space in between the letters), the book that sits there on the shelf until you happen to notice it.

As for content, if the book is about the war on terrorism, the "genre" book will be about some low to mid-level operative or something similar to that going against increasing odds and battling through deception, intrigue, and whatever roller coaster-like words the back cover usually regurgitates, and in the end the evil terrorist is vanquished and America is saved.

The "literary" book will be about the terrorist, as a child at first, witnessing the bombing of his village by American U.N. forces. His parents or someone else close to him might be killed or something like that, and the boy grows up to hate the West and is recruited into an extremist organization, and you go along with the terrorist, you even root for him, because you've seen what he's been through and you feel where he's coming from.

Yes, these are broad, generalized definitions, but we recognize them, yes? So there shouldn't be any fear of not knowing how to categorize Tolstoy and Shakespeare. And from the two examples I gave, which one more closely represents reality?
I have no idea which one more closely represents reality because in my own life I've had no contact with either of your examples. Of course, if I had to guess...

I did just finish reading the book, "Faking It," about the search for authenticity in pop music and it may have made me even more cynical than I was before.

And you know, I think both your examples are about how Americans prefer to see the world, whether it's really like that or not. Different Americans, of course, but still a world view that fits with the way they already see it and not about to challenge at all. Now, if the terrorist had no personal experience with violence and if his views had mostly been informed by intellectual arguments and not emotions from his childhood, or if joining the terrorist group had more to do with his personal advancement in some aspect of his society - or scoring chicks - and he really didn't care about America one way or the other, what section would we put that book in?
I would put it in literary fiction either way, because all of your alternative examples still deal with a man. Whatever his motivations are, we are seeing the feelings/actions/thoughts of a "real" man. As opposed to a Hollywood Blockbuster Last Action Hero type of guy who acts and thinks in cliches, recovers from injuries quicker than people really do, etc.

Your first sentence is interesting. In most of what we write we're guessing at reality, unless we're writing something autobiographical in some way. But you can be sure of a realistic approach, to have your characters act in a way that feels real and plausible to you. And all this is a big generalization, which is unavoidable unless we plan to talk about every book, which of course we can't.

Also, regarding your first sentence, I wonder how many crime fiction writers have personal experience in their subjects. Most people haven't witnessed violent crimes or taken part in them. Yet many people write about them. Certainly there are some writers out there who have had these kinds of experiences, but what percentage is that? I can't give a definitive answer to that one; I can only guess.

But let's say, for the purpose of discussion, that the majority of crime writers do not have any personal experience with crime (other than petty stuff, like speeding tickets and that sort of thing). Then how can a crime writer claim that the crime fiction genre is the best representation of reality? How would he/she know?

Maybe that question is moot anyway, since personal experience is not universal and even an autobiography only tells one person's possibly distorted view of one person's reality. But to answer your initial question, no, I don't think a crime or a scam is necessary to represent today's reality, at least not for me, because I and many many more people's reality does not involve crime. For me and others like me, crime is a distant thing, something that happens on the news to other people. If a book should represent my reality, it would probably be about a person getting up and going to work in the morning and returning home 8-9 hours later. Repeat.
Yeah, that's all true. The majority of writers don't have personal experience with the eventsthey write about, but they may have a connection to the emotions of what they write about - in every genre, even literary.

By the way, I really recommend the book, "Faking It." it's about music but it presents some challenging ideas about the search for authenticity in art. The authors make some good arguments that we often accept some art as genuine and authentic when it really isn't. I would say in novels, we often give 'literary' books an easier ride in the genuine/authentic test, especially if they are set in foreign lands that we don't really know that much about, but have no problem projecting our views on.

And as for how many of us are affected by crimes and scams, that would really depend on how we define crime. To use your terrorist example, some in the world believe that all of us in North America benefit from the actions of our criminal leaders and we're just as culpable. Of course, no one would expect too many crime novels to reflect that, but the recent Ian Rankin novels, for example, do a good job of asking the questions.

I didn't really want this to get into another pointless genre vs. literary discussion. For myself, I've finally come up with a definition that works: literary novels are those by writers whose day jobs are almost exclusively in academia and genre novels are those by authors whose day jobs are in a wide variety of fields.
At the risk of having this also pop up somewhere later where it makes absolutely no sense:

Re: personal experience and its importance in crime novels

Never underestimate imagination. In fact, I take an author's vivid imagination over his technical knowhow any day.
Example: R.D.Wingfield's Frost novel where the protagonist struggles with his wife's final days. He had been about to divorce her when she was diagnosed with cancer and, instead of walking away, he took on her care. And yes, this is a crime novel.

A slightly different take: Hillerman's Navajo policeman lost his wife to cancer and wakes up every morning reaching across the empty bed for her.

The crime novel is incredibly enriched by such glimpses of the human condition.


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