Dispatches from the frontline of Crime Fiction’s Extremistan: Part 2
What is the limit of our knowledge about the library of crime fiction novels written, published and read each year inside Extremistan? There are no shortage of people claiming knowledge about a library that may not be Borges’ infinite library, but a library with shelves filled with books that are inaccessible to most readers.
The point is we are having a debate where there is a vast body of work that is unavailable for analysis. When what is essential to an argument is largely unknown or missing, it is a caution that we must exercise humility in making grand statements about the direction or trend of crime fiction. I can draw inference from what I know about Southeast Asia but event those are flawed, as I can’t read the work in the original language.
Whenever the debate of crime fiction occurs, the question of who are the best crime fiction authors arises. And usual names appear. Here’s Gunter Blank’s list:
James Ellroy: LA Confidential, Dashiel Hammett: Glass Key, Jim Thompson: Pop 1280, Raymond Chandler: The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely, George V Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Richard Stark: The Hunter (Point Blank), Charles Willeford: Miami Blues, Elmore, Leonard: Freaky Deaky, Marcel Montecino: The Crosskiller, Edward Bunker: No Beast so Fierce, Chester Himes: Blind Man With a Pistol, Ted Lewis: GBH”
As list go, I’d agree with many of these selections. I know this neighborhood and have lived in it, been a part of it as a writer and reader. But I’m also aware that by the very act of preparing such a list I am placing my own cultural and availability bias on display. Would someone from Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia believe this list is relevant to his or her experience? Such lists appear to be delivered from a Western cloister, insular, confined, and narrowly clustered. There is a much larger world excluded and that should be the one we ought to be seeking to understand. They are the missing names from the headliner list.
Who has gone missing? The answer is a lot of crime, detective, and mystery authors are hidden under the veil of inaccessible languages.
Here’s a list of African crime fiction writers who are likely not familiar to even the most well-read English, German or Swedish language crime fiction reader. In Latin America, translations from Spanish are hit and miss. For every Roberto Bolaño there are many Ramon Diaz Eterovic and Santiago Gamboa whose novels haven’t been translated into English.
The Japanese had the first crime books (though they were non-fiction accounts of court proceedings) before authors in England and the USA came along. Saikaku Ihara’s 1689 title Trials Under the Shade of a Cherry Tree pre-dates Edgar Allan Poe 1841 Murders in the Rue Morgue and Wilkie Collins’s 1868 Moonstone. The Mystery Writers Club of Japan has 600 members, and I’d bet a first edition of the bible that only a fraction of them have been translated into English. Every year in Bangkok the Southeast Asia Writers Award since 1979 has announced the winning author from each country of the ten countries in Southeast Asia. Scroll down the long list of authors and ask yourself how many of the names you recognize.
Richard Nash’s What Is the Business of Literature is worth reading. A point that emerges from Nash’s article is that we fall into the trap of equating the value of literature with the commercial success of a book. If the crime fiction novel is a best seller, and you are a reader of crime fiction, the chances are you are aware of the book. You’ve heard about it from friends in the analogue or digital communities where you spend time.
The publishing industry in North America and Europe has had a freedom to publish quite unlike most other places. Hundreds of thousands of English language books enter the marketplace every year.
Books are part of the entertainment-corporate-profit centered industry in these places. They cater to the taste of consumers who have many other entertainment choices. There is little risk of imprisonment, exile, or torture from the authorities from authors who challenge beliefs inside the Western publishing industry. The risk is the book will be failure and the author’s next book won’t be published. In neighborhoods in the unmapped neighborhoods, a different fate other than commercial failure needs to be understood. Authors who are successful in revealing a truth about a country’s institutions or challenges an established dogma risks a prison term. It doesn’t stop at prison. Authors in the unmapped neighborhoods face extrajudicial remedies as kidnapping, disappearance, torture or death. In English speaking neighborhoods, a nasty review may be felt like a bullet to the chest. But in non-English unmapped neighborhoods writers know that the critics use real bullets.
One of the major differences between the Western publishing industry and other places is the sheer number of books pumped into the system. Nash quotes Clay Shirky who writes that “abundance breaks more thanks than scarcity.”
My first novel His Lordship’s Arsenal was published in New York in September 1985. That year the number of USA titles published by traditional print publishers numbered 80,000. By 2010 the number of published titles had mushroomed to 328,259 titles in one year. In this world of abundance, the moderately gifted author writes a book with little prospect of financial reward. Writing inside such a publishing system, where commercial success means value, these writers are discarded not so much as worthless but as offering an economic justification to read them and take them seriously.
Authors are writing and trying to survive inside a business empire where profit not only matters; it is basically all that matters. Competition in the publishing industry, like other areas of the entertainment industry, is often presented as another business story with the emphasis on the size of an advance, the best seller ranking, the volume of sales, and movie deals. Reviews have withered in most places in the print media. Discussions revolve around money, which has become the primary benchmark, the ruler that measures success. Thumbs up or thumbs down is an accounting decision. No one is put against a wall and shot.
Books written for money in a society where money is the measurement of value has created an impoverished class of authors who like idealistic slaves believe that a lotto-like win will allow them to escape their fate and joint the ranks for Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. Much of our English language crime fiction library is money driven.
Outside of the world of money, there is another Extremistan. It isn’t created from account ledgers. In this Extremistan, the crime fiction author chronicles the systemic changes in class, politics, and social relationship through the lens of criminal law enforcement. To stay alive and out of prison is a measure of success. To have a voice and influence in the debate of how to modernize and allow a society to change without falling apart is a measure of success. The fiction writer as part of the political process, using the vehicle of crime fiction to deliver a challenge to authority invites a level of danger and uncertainty. It is, in other words, not about the money.
Thomas Wörtche is one of the very rare editors (and I can’t think of another one) who had the vision of searching for and publishing such writers. His imprint called Metro, Unionsverlag was the publishing house, was known throughout Europe. I admired his determination to dig deep and find authors either ignored or little known by the mainstream publishing industry in the West. Metro published writers as: Jean-Claude Izzo, Nury Vittachi, Garry Disher, Leonardo Padura, Celil Oker, Pablo De Santis, Bill Moody, Jorge Franco, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, José Luis Correa. (Disclosure: I was also an author on Thomas Wörtche list.) Metro was a window into Extremistan.
Since leaving Unionsverlag, there has been no editor like Thomas with the experience and knowledge of crime fiction to explore Extremistan for the new generation of writers who remain largely lost to international readers. That is regrettable. The crime space inside Extremistan has receded from international readers and has become as inaccessible as the dark side of the moon. We know that it is there every night but what it looks like and what goes on out of sight is left to our imagination. The purest form of noir is absolute silence.
Writers like Ali Bader, who live in regions such as Iraq where the blast from the violence like jackhammers pound their days and nights, are cut off from the rest of us. Yanick Lahens who writes of Haiti. These are two of many voices who require a cultural detective to find. For each one Ali Bader and Yanick Lahens, how many are lost to us? We are less rich in the depth of our understanding without their clarifying commentary from their crime space frontlines.
To paraphrase William Gibson, “The vast majority of writers live inside unmapped neighborhoods of Extremistan, where the measure of their value is unevenly understood.”