Tuesday, September 14, 2010

International noir on a rainy day

Sunday's International Noir panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival was cut short by rain (We had to move indoors at the last minute and trudge over to St. Francis College.)

But participants did have some worthwhile things to say, particularly about their early inspirations. "I was huge fan of Batman," Pete Hamill said. "It has shadows."

And Paco Ignacio Taibo II said he was inspired early by Carl von Clausewitz. "`War is the continuation of politics by other means,'" Taibo said. "The phrase stayed inside me."

Caryl Férey repeated a sentiment I had heard from other crime writers that nonetheless ought to be bracing to all fans of the genre: "You can talk about anything in that kind of novel: politics, ethnic issues."

For Férey, the sentiment went hand in hand with a lively interest in the wider world and what one can say about that world in a crime novel. "I don't care about me," he said. "I care about others."

Taibo said the crime novel had usurped a place once occupied by another medium as a source of truth: "Journalism is becoming noise, noise, noise." And it did my heart good to hear him say what he thinks drives a story:

"Everyone says the plot is the instrument. No. The language is the instrument." Now, there's a crime writer worth investigating.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Adrian said...

"Everyone says the plot is the instrument. No. The language is the instrument."

There are only so many stories. It's the telling them that is everything.

September 15, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

I have been a fan of PIT (Paco Ignacio Taibo) for decades. He has a habit of making me think to the point when I have to stop reading so my overwhelmed brain can catch up. "The Uncomfortable Dead" (co-written with Subcomandante Marcos) was the best crime fiction novel I read to come out last year. One of the benefits of the internet is authors such as PIT are easier to find.

September 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, it was especially striking to hear such a thought from a writer such as Taibo, who is so explicity political in his concerns. The man is no boring doctrinaire leftist, that's for sure.

September 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I'd like to have an office and office mates like http://www.thrillingdetective.com/shayne_hector.html's.

September 15, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Everyone says the plot is the instrument. No. The language is the instrument

I disagree with that. The real instrument is the writer. Is the writer intelligent? Is the writer observant? Does the writer have a broad experience of life? Can the writer understand other people without being prejudiced or judgemental?

But language? Any fool can be eloquent or write a pleasing sentence or make good use of a thesaurus.

Language is just packaging. If a writer with something worth saying is able to wield language in an interesting way, that's just the cream on top.

I don't care about me," he said. "I care about others

I like Férey's comment. Of course, I can't judge how genuine it is. But in a world where 'artistic' introspection has become vastly overrated, I think we could do with a few more 'artists' with an outlook like his.

September 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I defend Taibo. I've read enough of his work to know that you and he agree 100 percent. He is the most intelligent, analytical and obervant of writers. He means that the writer needs to find the language appropriate to express that intelligence.

I like Férey's comment, too. It's almost as if he's an old-fashioned social artist, but with a sharper edge, willing to probe far deeper than, say, the old Stanley Kramer-type message movies.

September 15, 2010  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Solo

I dont care if a writer is prejudiced or a bad person or isnt very observant or is a misanthrope if he or she writes like an angel. Philip Larkin for example was all of those things but produced the most sublime poetry of the latter part of the twentieth century.

Sadly, I think most people agree with you, hence Dan Brown, James Patterson etc. etc. Both intelligent men but they cant write for shit.

September 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, my reply was intended to read thus:

I'd like to have an office and office mates like Hector Belascoarán Shayne's.

September 16, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

I dont care if a writer is prejudiced or a bad person or isnt very observant or is a misanthrope if he or she writes like an angel. Philip Larkin for example...

Philip Larkin, pfui! Adrian, Adolf Hitler could pass for a bad person, clearly prejudiced and a misanthrope, at least when it came to Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. But would you really be a proponent of Mein Kampf if it turned out Hitler had a fancy prose style? I don't think so, Adrian.

I said I like a writer to have intelligence and acute observational skills. I haven't read Patterson or Brown but nothing I've read about them suggested they suffered from an over-abundance of those two particular talents.

Perhaps this boils down to the age old argument about form and content. Certainly, the vast majority of critical opinion would be on your side if you are indeed suggesting that the content can't be seperated from the form. Is form content, is style substance, is the medium the message? Most critics seem to think so. But I refuse to buy that.

You mention Larkin. I'm generally allergic to poetry. The only lines of Larkin that I can quote are:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

As someone with what is probably an over-developed sense of logic I find these lines rather silly. The end of the Chatterley ban came in November 1960 and the Beatles first LP came out in March 1963 so if sexual intercourse actually began between these two events then that would place it around January 1962. Not 1963! But given that I was born in 1961 I believe I have reasonable grounds for suspecting that sexual intercourse may have begun even earlier.

That final comment can of course be considered as whimsy, so please don't remind me about poetic license.

September 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read Patterson or Brown, either, but I would not at all discount the possibility that both are intelligent. I expect that they are, in fact. Pandering to stupidity -- and doing it well -- is not the same as being stupid. Patterson and Brown are probably like late-night talk-show hosts in this respect.

I'm wary of duscussions like this unless they include examples. Find me a good writer who has crappy prose style, for instance.

But it's hard to argue with the proposition that "the language is the instrument." What else would the instrument be? (Though if Taibo meant musical instrument, perhaps the language is the instrument, and the story is the music.) The writer is not the instrument, the writer is the musician.

September 16, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Solo

I really think you'd like Dan Brown. I listened to The Lost Symbol as an audiobook and Brown is clearly very intelligent, has lots of keen observations about the world and provides us with a highly original plot. I'm afraid I hated the book because of its clunky, cliched prose and tortured sentence construction but I suspect this wont be a problem for you.

September 16, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, there's no doubt language is important. We praise a writer for an aptly chosen word, a well-turned phrase, a sentence with a pleasing cadence or for prose with a strong, varied rhythm.

But there are other things we like in a writer that have little to do with language. We may praise writers for their breadth of knowledge or for giving us the benefit of some specialized knowledge. Or we may praise them for their observational skills. Simply, for their ability to notice things.

But when we praise a writer for a startling image, a telling detail, a stirring plot or a subtly created character what we are praising is the writers's imagination. It is almost a cliche to praise writers for their insight into the human condition. But, again, when we do that, it is really their imagination that we are praising.

It is not language that is the gulf between say, James Patterson and Anton Chekhov. It is imagination.

If we were to hobble Chekhov with Patterson's prose style, we would lose a little of what's good in Chekhov. If we were to hobble Chekhov with Patterson's imagination, we would lose almost everything.

Language is the tool that allows writers to convey their imagination to the reader. For all the pleasure we take in language, that pleasure can only be secondary to the pleasure we take in the writer's imagination.

For all that, I probably went off half-cocked in disagreeing with Taibo's comment that 'the language is the instrument.' To understand that comment one would need to know what he means by 'the instrument.' And, in truth, I didn't have enough context to make any claim to understanding it.

Perhaps the reason for my going off half-cocked is that so much 'literature' in the 20th century and so much of the criticism of literature coming from those who eke out a meagre existence in the English Departments of our universities focuses almost entirely on the formal properties of writing i.e. language, almost to the complete exclusion of anything else.

Sorry for rabbiting on at such length, Peter. I shall compensate by keeping my trap shut for a while.

Oh, and do enjoy your trip to Bouchercon. I'm sure you won't put any flour in your hair but if somebody does offer you flour, just don't put any of it up your nose!

September 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One might equally argue that we are praising the language through which the writer gives expression to that imagination. I won't argue it at any length, though, because I'm not a philosopher and because I'm sure it's so easy to separate form and content.

I probably went off half-cocked in disagreeing with Taibo's comment that 'the language is the instrument.' To understand that comment one would need to know what he means by 'the instrument.' And, in truth, I didn't have enough context to make any claim to understanding it.

You'd also have to know that Taibo is the most socially conscious of the writers, the farthest author imaginable from a tenured post in a literature department.

September 19, 2010  

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