Thursday, July 19, 2012

A gaze into the heart of darkness

Thanks to a recent autoimmune *flare* (pain and fatigue and what we in the business call "brain fog") I have not felt up to the likes of Proust, and I have done some escapist reading. For escapist reading substitute *genre fiction*, and in my case recently, I read several examples of the genre *homegrown NZ crime fiction*.

I do always feel a bit guilty when I stray away from literary fiction, which to my mind is the satisfying quality end of any continuum that starts at the other extreme with a derivative sausage machine piece of formulaic genre schlock intended only to amuse an airhead clutching a twenty dollar note.

I have heard one apologist for fantasy fiction (a genre I personally cannot stand) cry out repeatedly "Literary fiction is just a genre too!"

But I do not agree. Literary fiction (the best of it) stands above and apart and as a model and a standard to aspire to. It is an art form. But as I'm still not entirely well enough yet to find the words to tell you why I think this, and what especially sets it apart in my opinion, let's not argue the case right now.

However let me not disparage genre fiction - I'd be a hypocrite if I did. I have my favourite type of easy read. And anyway a fluently-written and relevant genre novel can compare well with a smug self-indulgent over-polished and drably derivative 'literary' attempt to be clever such as the writing schools tend to churn out - an exercise in having nothing much to say and saying it in a flip bored tone, no thanks!

As well as the question of quality there is of course the matter of personal taste. My tastes have changed a little over the years when I am looking for something relatively unchallenging to relax in the bath with or to keep the sun off my face when I'm lying on the beach, or to stick my nose into when I'm curled up on the sofa in front of the fire while it's snowing outside. When I was young it was either science fiction or high literature. I have never liked fantasy (not even the deified Lord of the Rings, I thought it was too badly written to enjoy reading) and I have never read a romance novel, because if I have ever attempted to I have ended up feeling slightly ill because of the fakeness of it all. And two or three examples of crossover literary historical fiction that I have read, have gotten perilously close to setting off my gag reflex on that score also.

To each their own. I went through a stage of reading a racy vampire hunter series; I must have fit the demographic. But that's over now. I now like Kiwi crime fiction, and there's nothing low rent about these books at all. The current crop I have just read were so dark, each in their own way, that I wonder if "escapist" really fits the bill. And again I am persuaded that a well-written book, especially one that catches a time and a place and that has coherence and authenticity, that's not a time waster, that's something you might learn from, that you might want to think about. As well as "enjoy" if that's really the word for being gripped by the cold fear of the dark side of human nature, and creeped out by unimaginable crimes. And challenged.

These are the three excellent books I can recommend heartily for a "good read" and for more than that too. These are not "just" genre novels. In each case I quote an excerpt from a review of the book that tends to back up this opinion.

The Faceless, Vanda Symon

"The Faceless takes readers to some pretty uncomfortable places, both in terms of story and character, and deals with some very interesting, even fairly confronting, issues: homelessness, domestic drudgery, shrivelled dreams, family violence, loyalty, grief and loss, and how we can move through life not really ‘seeing’ so many of the people that surround us." ~ Craig Sisterson

Traces of Red, Paddy Richardson

"This novel will have you questioning nice and normal; but the story’s veracity - and complexity – comes from forcing you to also reconsider “not-nice” and ”abnormal”." `~ Sue Wootton

Collecting Cooper, Paul Cleave

“A pulse-pounding serial killer thriller.... The city of Christchurch becomes a modern equivalent of James Ellroy's Los Angeles of the 1950s, a discordant symphony of violence and human weakness. Cleave tosses in a number of twists that few readers will anticipate, but the book's real power lies in the complexity of its characters, particularly the emotionally tortured Tate.” ~ Publishers Weekly

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