Thursday, February 24, 2011

To escape or not to escape

In the introduction to his excellent collection of hard-hitting crime fiction, Ultra-Boiled, Gary Lovisi wrote the following:

The world is a cruel place, but for the hard-boiled hero (and the writer and reader by extension), it's far crueler than anyone can ever imagine. And that's part of the real story most people who do not read hard-boiled fiction do not want to face. Escape is, after all, so much more pleasant. And comforting. And easy. It can be so . . . cozy. And all the answers are laid out for you at the end. What could be nicer? Well, folks, that ain't the way it is with authentic hard-boiled material. Oh, you might get a tidy answer at the end of the story, but if you do, there'll be little comfort in it, I can assure you.

Though I have nothing but respect for Lovisi and the hard-boiled/noir genres, I disagree with him on this. I like escapist fiction--Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Christopher Moore, Janet Evanovich. Books that are more like a roller coaster ride--pure entertainment. That's what got me into genre fiction in the first place. 

And I don't know if one can make such a distinction between escape and (for lack of a better term) not escape. Take Elmore Leonard. His books are immensely entertaining and a great escape from the monotony of the real world, but he definitely comes out of the dark crime fiction tradition. Or Robert B. Parker--who definitely lands somewhere in between, especially with his later books.

Though I might be misinterpreting Lovisi's point. Perhaps the reason he (and a lot of other people) are tired of escapist fiction is because there's so much of it printed. Seems like most of the big publishing houses have room for nothing else. 

The nasty stuff is relegated to the internet and the small presses, gets pushed underground. The hardboiled material (mostly) doesn't draw the attention or net the sales like Lilian Jackson Braun's next cat-solvin'-a-mystery will.

What do you all think? Are escapist books a bunch of pansy bullshit and we should stick to our noir guns?


  1. Hm. No. And Yes. Nothing wrong with whatever writing form does it for you. I mean by that, stories that leave you a bit wiser or more wide eyed or just wakes you up to the big old nasty world out there. Nothing wrong with a story that makes you whistle throughout your day, happy. Nothing wrong with a story that makes you whistle sharp like a dagger through your gums that makes you wince throughout your day. S'all good, mi amigos. 's called writing. 'n thass what we do, right?

  2. Good point, AJ. So long as it makes you feel something, then it's good writing, at least in my book.

  3. I think both have their place. I like escapist fiction. Entertainment and distraction are important and viable forms of art. But I think at it's best crime stories or whatever you want to call them, should be about something larger. What I find more disappointing than works that lack the darkness are the works that are just darkness for darkness' sake. Just because the story is wearing dirtier clothes doesn't make it more deep. Sometimes the more heinous shit out there is just as escapist as anything else.

  4. Yeah--the best crime stories hit at something bigger than mere entertainment. For me, that usually means that there are really strong characters who evolve through the story.

    I don't know if I see that much false darkness in crime fiction, but I definitely see it in literary fiction.

  5. I'd like to say something unrelated. I disagree with the opening sentence.

    "The world is a cruel place, but for the hard-boiled hero (and the writer and reader by extension), it's far crueler than anyone can ever imagine."

    The hardboiled hero is, in my opinion, usually a cynic who is NOT surprised by what he comes across, whatever that act might be. He believes he sees the world for what it is rather then what it wants to be so the perception of "cruelty" doesn't affect him as it would other characters or readers.