Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Words, words, words

(Eugène Delacroix, "Hamlet sees the ghost of his father")

I'm rereading a crime story I've written about before, notably about its probing of killers' psyches. This time I'll highlight a device by which the author heightens tension:

And now, Laertes, what's the news with you?
You told us of some suit; what is't,
Laertes?
You cannot speak of reason to the Dane,
And loose your voice: what wouldst thou beg,
Laertes,
That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?
The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
What wouldst thou have,
Laertes?
Doesn't the repetition tell you that the speaker is nervous? Another character, too, likely has something on his mind:

Hamlet: Sir, my good friend; I'll change that name with you:
And what make you from
Wittenberg, Horatio? Marcellus?

Marcellus: My good lord!

Hamlet: I am very glad to see you. Good even, sir.
But what, in faith, make you from
Wittenberg?
Both selections are from Hamlet, Act I, scene ii. I suggest again that crime fiction might usefully be invoked in discussions of Shakespeare and Shakespeare in discussions of crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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28 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Yet another reason why I love this blog -- Hamlet invoked to discuss the niceties of writing dialogue. Stupendous, sir.

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

Thank you for this. There is currently a discussion on the Crimespace page about which books might be useful for a "Mystery as Literature" college-level class. The following comment was made yesterday:

...that's merely another effort to attract students who have lost all interest in reading literature. It serves neither literature nor mystery.

This is not an attack on teachers and professors (since I was one myself). It is rather an attack on turning over subject matter to the students.

I think any genre that can inspire legitimate comparisons to HAMLET is probably worth teaching, as there's definitely something to be learned there.

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. And why not invoke Hamlet to discuss writing dialogue? Shakespeare was God on Earth, but he was also a working writer. And who better than a working writer to teach the craft of writing?

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'd look into a course with a title like that, but I'd be wary of it. People who like mystery may may not care whether what they read is respectable or not, people who read literature should be open-minded enough to recognize that some crime fiction might quality, and Literature snobs won't be convinced.

It's the "as" in the course title that make me nervous. That sounds like crime stories behing pumped up and shoe-horned and inflated and dressed up in fancy metaphors and figures. I prefer a more modest approach that would suggest simply that what we call literature and what we call mystery can share themes and concerns or devices. Or maybe a course called, simply, "Mystery," and let the students take what they want from it. Or even "Literature as Mystery."

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
Your point is well made, and well taken. I'd far prefer to see the entire genre changed into "crime fiction," which, to me, would remove some of the stereotypical assumptions about "mysteries."

Any genre/subject matter that can produce writers such as Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald (Ross or John D.), James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, and to extend our definition a little, Richard Price, definitely has some works worthy of inclusion in any literary discussion. The picking should, however, be judiciously handled.

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Crime fiction constitutes the great majority of the fiction I read, but I'm wary of the concept of "Mystery/crime fiction literature." If crime writing was confident of its standing as literature, would it really have to declare "I am literature"?

I'v read only the opening pages of one Burke novel, The Tin-Roof Blowdown, and that passage deserves discussion as an example of descriptive writing. If I recall it correctly, it might be at home in a discussion of concepts of divine terror and its place in today's world.

I'd nominate Leonardo Sciascia as an author who wrote about crime and whose work is artful, serious and probing.

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Peter, I've never read Sciascia. Which of his books do you recommend?

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Hello Peter

Just a reminder to pop over to http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/2008/12/your-best-crime-fiction-reads-in-2008.html and leave your best 10 for 2008

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd start on Sciascia with The Day of the Owl. You can read its chilling, exciting opening chapter here.

December 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kerrie: Done!

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Excellent Peter. I'll count them for oz_mystery as well

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Count 'em, tabulate 'em, do what you like with them. I may even post them here.

I posted a list for 2007, but this is the first year I made a separate list for books published in the year just ending.

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Perhaps he used these repetitive devices just to fit the iambic pentameter? JK.

Peter, your points are well-made, and well-taken, about this passage and about the literature/fiction dichotomy. I read many different genres and can't stand when someone thumbs their nose at anything that hasn't been deemed "literary," and I'm annoyed when people from the opposite camp roll their eyes at the mention of the word "literary."

Why can't fiction be both? Or, why can't fiction choose to be one or the other and not be judged on the basis of that decision alone?

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Perhaps he used these repetitive devices just to fit the iambic pentameter?"

I couldn't guess. I wouldn't bet that I could pronounce Laertes with correct emphasis.

Why can't (some) crime fiction be accepted as literature, with the understanding that fiction that works with or against a given set of genre conventions can be literature, too?

December 31, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Why can't (some) fiction be accepted as literature

You confessed you don't read Science Fiction.
Which is BAD.
Why blah blah Ursula Le Guin,Philip K.Dick,Thomas Disch,Octavia Butler,Kelly Link,Jeffrey Ford blah blah blah
BAD!

Nice to see Clash of Civilizations on your top five,Peter.

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

To everyone...
even to Brian,who watches baseball and golf,poor soul

Ciao

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

True, I made that confession, but not out of genre snobbery, I think. Science fiction has just never attracted me. I have too much imagination to need it, perhaps, or too little imagination to want to read it. Who knows?

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A happy new year to all, including those who know the pleasure of listening to a baseball game on the radio outside on a warm summer evening!

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Hi, Peter, thanks for the Sciascia tip - and a happy new year!

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hate those is-crime-fiction-literature? yapfests, but when pressed, I always cite Sciascia as one indisputably serious, "literary" author who wrote crime stories. His stories don't take the form of traditional fictional investigations, but they are proof that a crime story can examine society and psychology as seriously as any piece of "literary" fiction in prose just as scintillating.

A happy new year to you, and I may see you in Bristol this spring.

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

The conundrum is how you describe the difference between the quality writing of someone like P.D.James or R.J.Ellory, just to name a couple, and the more pedestrian crime fiction writing of lesser lights (and I dare not name any here), unless you talk in terms like literary. Every now and again it is very pleasant to come across someone who is writing at that much higher level.

December 31, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And what about a traditional mystery that adheres superbly to the demands of the genre, that puts a creative spin on its conventions, and does so in beautiful prose? “Literature”? Who knows? Who cares? Enjoy it on its own terms.

December 31, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

True, I made that confession, but not out of genre snobbery, I think. Science fiction has just never attracted me.

Yes.Because you interpret Science Fiction in a narrow way,in the same way others do with crime fiction.If Hamlet is a crime story,than surely Gulliver's Travel,Gravity's Rainbow,The Third Policeman,The Divine Comedy are science-fiction,(or,if you object to the 'science' part,speculative fiction)in that they use alternate worlds and realities to better explore our own.

January 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're probably right, though I would not dignify my impression of science fiction by saying that I "interpret" the genre. I'm simply ignorant of it.

Interesting that you should raise the term "speculative fiction." I'm always intrigued when I read about "alternate histories." Where does such work stand in relation to science fiction? Do readers of one tend to read the other?

January 01, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Speculative Fiction has been proposed as a more general term to better cover the continuum of subgenres from pure fantasy to hard science fiction (hard means based on real-world science w/out many leaps of imagination).
As a matter of fact science fiction conventions,magazines etc. already cover all these areas and not just science-fiction proper.
Writers may specialize in a subgenre or explore several.
Alternate Histories are considered a subgenre of science fiction,are generally reviewed by magazines and blogs with an interest in said genre and their writers attend sf conventions.
Preferences,of course,are personal,and every subgenre has its share of specilized followers.


v-word canta=sing

January 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Back in the days when writers were just hacks, some of the best crossed genre boundaries between crime and science fiction, or crime and Westerns: Fredric Brown, Elmore Leonard, etc. After reading some of Fredric Brown's crime novels, I tried some of his short-short stories, some of which would probably be classified as sci-fi. They were clever, nicely executed, hard-hitting stuff, but a bit old-fashioned, like an old Night Gallery or Twilight Zone episode.

Maybe a good, fat alternative history could be my gateway into sf.

There's just no satisfactory term for all these disparate kinds of writing. Gulliver's Travels would surely qualify as science fiction, but where's the science? "Speculative fiction" is an unwieldy term, unfortunately. "Crime," on the other hand, covers a wide range, and the word just rolls off the lips.

January 01, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

I loved Fredric Brown short stories.Some are little more than extended jokes,some were very deep.
Sentinel (or maybe sentry,not sure about the English title) possibly his most famous,was in one of my scuola media (11-13 y) textbooks.

Maybe a good, fat alternative history could be my gateway into sf

Adrian would probably recommend PKD's The Man in the High Castle ,and I agree.
Other Hitler-themed alternate histories:
Robert Harris-Fatherland
Len Deighton- SS-GB
Norman Spinrad -The Iron Dream
Jo Walton -The Small Change Trilogy (Farthing/Ha'penny/Half a Crown)
John William Wall-The sound of his horn

some alternate histories
by "literary" authors:

Michael Chabon-The Yiddish Policemen Union
A detective story in a jewish-settled Alaska

Philiph Roth-The Plot against America
Vladimir Nabokov-Ada
Sinclair Lewis-It can't happen here

Others of interest:

Keith Roberts-Pavane
Protestantism was destroyed in the 16th century ,in the 20th the Vatican now a major temporal as well as spiritual world-power.

Robert Sobel- For want of a nail
American revolution fails.

William Gibson/Bruce Sterling The Difference Engine

Robert Silverberg Roma Eterna

Of course a lot of alternate histories shade into science-fiction or fantasy,through the presence of time travel,advanced science,magic,supernatural creatures and places nonexistent, legendary or forgotten in the real world (like Atlantis).

January 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Yiddish Policemen Union has been on my list for some time, and I'd been intrigued by mentions of Roma Eterna. I might start there. And I'd say Alan Moore uses an alternative-history-like approach, too, at least in Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The Fredric Brown short-shorts reminded me a bit of stories I studied in high school: Short, punchy and to the point, presumable to hold the attention of restless adolescents.

Other than those short-short stories, the Fredric Brown I've read has all been crime: six of the Ed and Am Hunter novels and one short story, plus a few other novels and stories. For science/speculative fiction, I think I'd want to start with more recent stories, though.

January 01, 2009  

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