No fiction, no popularity?
No fiction, no popularity?
Jan Baetens (KU Leuven)
“Crime fiction” is everywhere, and that is definitely one of the reasons why one can call it “popular”. But there is more to the notion of “popular crime fiction” than meets the eye.
To start with, but this is close to a truism, we should hyphenate crime-fiction as we do with science-fiction of sci-fi, to avoid confusion with other forms of literature that also foreground crime, but that are neither “crime-fiction” (in the sense of linking crime with some kind of police investigation) nor popular (in the sense of having a broad readership that is mainly looking for entertainment). William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), for instance, has a murder at the very heart of its fiction, but I can’t imagine that someone might label it as “crime fiction”. It would also be very naïve to think that this novel is a “popular” one. Granted, it is widely read, but its readers are not those who devour crime fiction.
But the point I would like to make – or the question I would like to raise – is another one. What makes crime fiction “popular” is perhaps less what we conventionally link with the notion of popular literature, that is a mix of commercial access and lack of elitism from a stylistic point of view. Both aspects are of course vital – can one imagine that a “difficult” book that does not sell could be called “popular” – but what should most draw our attention is the implicit but powerful relationship with the notion of “fiction”. Indeed, while “serious” literature (and by using this term, even between brackets, I try to find an ideologically acceptable synonym of “high” or “elite”, the example I have in mind being that of Storyspace, the software program created in the 1980s by Michael Joyce and Jay David Bolter for creating, editing and reading “serious hyperfiction”) is currently struggling with the very idea of fiction, popular literature does not seem to have any problem using it (and we all know that the “true crime” subgenre actually follows the stylistic and thematic do’s and don’ts of fictional crime narrative).
Fiction in popular literature seems to be a license to do with what “serious” literature no longer accepts to do, namely telling exciting stories with bigger than life characters in as efficient a style as possible – and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. “Serious” literature on the contrary often rejects the very notion of fiction as incompatible with “real” writing. A paradigmatic example might be Charles Reznikoff’s “found poem” Testimony (first volume 1934), a nonfictional refashioning of accounts of actual court cases.
Contemporary writing is increasingly hostile to fiction, for reasons that are linked with the evolution of technologies of writing as well as with the growing awareness of the limits of fiction in literature in comparison with fiction in other media such as television, cinema, and games. On the one hand, writing in the digital era is no longer a matter of shaping ideas, it has become a matter of text processing, that is of the creative and original montage of already existing material. Hence the shift, now widely popularized by the twin notions of “unoriginal genius” (Marjorie Perloff, see the eponymous book published with Chicago UP in 2010) and “uncreative writing” (Kenneth Goldsmith, Columbia UP, 2011), or to forms of writing that rework already published material in new and thought-provoking ways. On the other hand, the clash between the power of fiction in print and that of fiction on screen has forced (but shouldn’t we say: helped?) writers to rethink their own practice and commit themselves to more documentary ways of writing, instead of shying away from nonfiction in the false belief that real literature can only be fiction.
Hence what I consider the real question behind the success of crime fiction today: is it possible to argue that the popularity of crime fiction in today’s society depends on its maintenance of the very category of fiction, even when it claims – nay: proves – that is completely faithful to reality, that discloses layers and meanings of reality that nonfiction is not capable of revealing, that the real literary sociologists of today are those who invent stories that are more real than life itself? Or could it be that the difficulty of finding broader audiences for “serious” crime-related writing has something to do with its own unease with the notion of fiction? The trend towards documentary, that is found footage and montage writing in contemporary “serious” literature, is very different from the mimetic dimension of popular crime fiction, which indeed often succeeds in being seen as more real than reality itself; it has also not much to do with the general category of nonfiction, which is perfectly compatible with old-fashioned ways of writing.
Or is it all a matter of style, easygoing or unruly, not of subject? And what to think of crime fiction on television, which heavily relies upon the notion of fiction (not a very audacious one, by the way, since it is just another way of old school realism) but which at the same time is open to formal experiments?