I hope my newness on this site does not betray too much naivete, but I was wondering why crime/pulp/detective/noir novels are read.  I haven't actually read too many until lately, but my husband has been reading them and re-reading them since he was a pre-adolescent (1960).  I recently wearied of only dusting and organizing them and decided to try to understand them. 


We have worn stacks of John MacDonald and Ross MacDonald paperbacks--Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Ian Fleming, W.E.B. Griffin, everything Michael Crichton every wrote, everything Tony Hillerman ever wrote, James Thompson's books, a few James Ellroy, everything John Le Carre ever published, and many, many more whose names escape me at the moment.  We have several copies of The Maltese Falcon--the yellowed paperback I have been carrying around lately was published in 1972. Yet, if asked, my husband would answer that his favorite author would be either H. L. Mencken or Tom Wolfe.  We don't seem to have any of the obscure earlier 20th century paperbacks frequently reviewed through this blog, but I just know those must be the ones his sisters told me he would as a young boy read in a day.


I am just wondering what you get from reading these books, especially the aforementioned obscure novels.  They are all fast reads--no breathtaking and beautifully crafted descriptions of scene and environment like Tolstoy gave us.  They are all written in short cropped sentences--no amazing page long sentences to lose yourself in like Faulkner.  The same salacious, needy, lazy, compromised, amoral, uneducated, greedy, and evil characters appear in all of the novels.  And the novels are simply morality plays told with irony.  No matter how and when the plot twists, in the end the good guys win.  Quite frankly, they could be considered comic books for grown-ups.


Is reading one of these books a learned way of escaping for awhile?  Is the predictability comforting? Do you enjoy seeing how the author is going to tell the same story differently and describe the same characters provocatively?  Do they tittleate?  Do they revive a memory?  Do they kill some time?  Does reading them make other people leave you alone?


It is easy to understand why anyone writes.  For many, it is just a natural craving, a way to express oneself, the hope of notoriety, additional income, a challenge, an outlet, fun.  But, you seem to be writing these novels for one another.  So I ask:  why do you read these books in the first place?  What do they do for you?  How do you feel when they end? What makes you pick-up another?  What am I missing in this assessment? What is their value as literature?





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But the common denominator for all readers is that the books they read are an escape for them from the boring and unsatisfactory lives they lead.

Our lives of quiet desperation, IJ? I don't see it this way at all, but then I'm seldom bored except when grading freshman essays, and my life is generally satisfactory where it counts, thank you very much. I think people read for all kinds of reasons--for entertainment, for inspiration, as a kind of meditation. Again, it seems wrong to generalize.
You seem to want to generalize. I prefer Fitzgerald to Hemingway, and Proust--whose pacing is glacial on Xanax--to Fitzgerald. If this forum is any indication, I doubt all crime writers agree on anything.

I read as a writer, so what I like often doesn't necessarily mesh with the expectations of the broader reading public. My favorite recent crime series are the great Amsterdam cop books by Janwillem van de Wetering. They're very funny. Your husband would probably like them.

I'm not sure why people like my books. I write books that I want to read, so they're full of description, gratuitous sex and political jokes--all the stuff we're apparently not supposed to do. Probably explains why my sales numbers look the way they do, but ultimately we write what we can write.
"... ultimately we write what we can write."

This is true. I went through a period where I was very grumpy because everything I wrote was in the same style and about the same kinds of people - and not the kind of people that "literature" is about any more. But it's what I can write, these are the people I've spent my life with whose voices I can best get onto the page. Now I don't fight it anymore (as much, ha ha ;).

One of te things about literature I've started to wonder about a lot lately is the fact that never once in my English Lit degree did we ever talk about the business of publishing and how that affected what books were available for us to study.
Not many English Lit. professors get published, at least not in a paying market.
You might be surprised, IJ. My agent apparently has several clients who are academics writing genre under noms-de-plume.
One of the big discussion we have in Canada is that almost all of "CanLit" is produced by academics.

But that wasn't what I was trying to say. We look at books from previous generations as though they fell from the sky. The business that kept some in print and not others almost never gets mentioned. We don't even talk much about how so much literature needed a "champion" to get it recognized.

I've read a lot of books in my life that I wouldn't have picked up if they hadn't been "certified" and most of the time I've realized that, yeah, they are good books.

So, now we're seeing that with soe crime fiction. Martin Amis has become a champion of Elmore Leonard. A few critics are taking a much closer look at James Ellroy's novels. You never know, they may get into the cannon.
Or even the canon. Although the cannon, with its recoil and cordite fog, seems more suitable for crime fiction, somehow.
For some reason I always think of it as a weapon... ;)
I think they were learning about publishing and the practical applications of writing over in the Journalism Department.

I learned from my daughter (The High School English Teacher) today (in the car during our 400 mile turn-around trip to have lunch with my Mother) that the more zealous style of writing you all now prefer is imperative to capture the interest of "mid-level" readers in the public school system. (Just toned down, considerably) I was discussing my proposal for a crime/detective series for pre-adolescent boys. She explained that today, a great number of "mid-level" readers include high school students; and, she said the books I described for "boys" (using literally) would need to be much edgier than what I was proposing in order to grab their interest--mystery is always good for encouraging reading, murder is okay, and alluding to sexuality is necessary--it just cannot be blatant or all kinds of problems will arise in a public school.

I guess the days of sneaking Candy and the Kinsey Report off the bookshelves in my babysitting patrons' homes, once their kids were in bed, are long gone. They now provide the fun stuff you all read and write about (well, not quite) at school, as a ploy in the increasingly desperate struggle to produce an educated, well-read citizenry.
I think you are right. But, he wrote about a brief and unusual era in our country's history and the lives of a social class most of the population of the day could but imagine and the destruction to their lives their doubts at having reached such heights brought upon them. (And then there was that crazy wife.)
How is love and death ever trivial, Dan?
Reading my Google alerts this morning, I see my written words may have achieved immortality. I am now known throughout the world as "the jerk who rewrote Tolstoy."

Thanks for sucking me in, Joyce.

Loomis, this is all your fault.


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