Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On the relationship between detective fiction and literary fiction

For two semesters in a row I taught a class on composition in the humanities and social sciences that used detective fiction as a way of exploring how we know what we know -- or what we think we know. The class was my attempt at introducing freshmen and sophomores to relatively sophisticated concepts of epistemology by way of entertaining fictions and a bit of television. Both times, the syllabus said that we would read Flannery O'Connor. I never had the balls to specify in advance which story: it was going to be "The Artificial Nigger," a longtime favorite of mine (and, to my thinking, probably one of her top three stories, though it should have ended several paragraphs sooner). 

Inevitably I found that my students were not mature enough to deal with matters of race as difficult as those raised by the story, especially in the terms the story employed -- they could barely make sense of the Sherlock Holmes mystery "The Adventure of the Yellow Face," which is both less and more racist (more in intent, less in its apparent surface) and in any case far simpler. So both times I dropped the story. But what I wanted to do, and this may have been a project beyond the scope of that classroom anyway, was to make a link between detective fiction and literary fiction. I wanted to talk about the principle they have in common.

Literary fiction has often been a way of communicating between classes, races, and sexes. Often this has served oppressive ends (the main literary communication between sexes before women were allowed full participation in fiction seems to have been paternalistic moral instruction, and more generally the re-inscription of official hierarchies) but it can also be a way to advance our empathetic connections across apparent boundaries. Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the greatest successes and failures in English literary history, was meant to rewrite race relations by revealing something about the secret lives of black Americans. As I've said, it was both a great success and a great failure: inaccurate, but effective as political and cultural intervention.

Literary fiction is generally, I think, at least a little recuperative even when it attempts to revise hierarchies; there is an expectation in the genre that even the most unappealing villains will be afforded some amount of sympathy and understanding by the story's end. But it also attempts the more profound goal of reassuring us that we are all human beings. It often does this by revealing the internal lives of various classes, sexes, professions, etc. -- it helps us understand what it is to be a woman, to be a man, to be rich, to be poor. Or at least what it could be.

Detective fiction often has overlapping goals, but with a different emphasis. In detective fiction, the goal is more explicitly than ever to understand a different sort of person -- a criminal. This often, even usually, involves detectives crossing boundaries of race, class, gender, nationality, and etc. in order to find out whodunnit and, more importantly, why. However, this crossing of boundaries is only occasionally designed to foster real empathy. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the program is fundamentally one of re-inscribing hierarchies: the criminal's defective character is often linked to his defective race or class, and by totally understanding and defeating the criminal, Holmes masters his subordinates. 

Better detective fiction usually complicates this equation. Modern tastes run toward more emotionally troubled detectives who share a little or often a lot more with their criminal prey, to the point where Holmes himself is usually rewritten as a total fuck-up. Detective shows focusing on official law enforcement often focus on the grey areas where criminals and white hats blend (i.e., The Wire) and there is more concern over the possibility of a detective's failure (i.e., the constant worrying of the titular character's colleagues in House). We are more capable of admitting, at least in fiction, that authority often screws up, that it misunderstands its subjects, that the evidence doesn't always point in the right direction. We allow for a little more uncertainty.

It's no coincidence that detective fiction and television with these traits tend to seem more literary. Detective fiction and literary fiction are frequently negotiating spectra of uncertainty and empathy, circling a sort of sweet spot where the two meet. The more uncertain we are, the less capable we are of making the basic judgments about others necessary to empathy. However, too much certainty also moves us away from real empathy: the more rigid we are in our beliefs and perceptions, the more we inevitably force others into hierarchies for our convenience, management, and subjugation. 

Flannery O'Connor inhabits an interesting place from this perspective. At her best, she refuses to speculate on the internal lives of others (she is not very good, when she tries it, at such speculation). Instead, she evokes the mystery of others. In "The Artificial Nigger," a man and a boy journey through a city, encountering difference and its strange beautiful mystery. And yet at the end it suggests -- though to paraphrase great fiction is to rob it -- that even this mystery may be another way of managing the hierarchy, that white people in this city need black people to contemplate, to want, to fear, to not know. 

It is widely understood, thanks in large part to O'Connor's own speeches and essays, that mystery is very much at the heart of great literary fiction. And yet literary writers and readers rarely acknowledge the relationship of their preferred genre to that of, well, mystery -- to detective fiction. In both cases, we are often fundamentally concerned with the problems of how we can know each other.

For my part, I am skeptical of most answers both genres have produced. But I do love watching them try. And I will say this for detective fiction; because it is more explicit in its interest in knowledge, it can often be more explicit about the problems of knowledge, and this is (to me) far preferable to the falsely smooth surface literary fiction often offers. My favorite literary fiction is profoundly skeptical of itself and its own knowledge. When detective fiction makes things too easy -- as in Sherlock Holmes -- it is at least honest about itself, it at least admits that it is pure entertainment, even a sort of pornography, the facile story of an effortless penetration. Literary fiction will very rarely do us the favor of admitting when it's full of shit.

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