Posts Tagged ‘Ross Macdonald’


Politics & Literature

October 31, 2008

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, posted today its latest “NBCC Reads” list — the result of polling members on the question: “Which work of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry best captures the realities of American political culture?” Topping the list (deservedly so, of course) is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men — still packing a punch 60 years after its publication.

I myself submitted a small reply that didn’t make the main list — and wasn’t expected to, I’ll admit, since it didn’t really aim to answer the question exactly, but instead offered an interesting anecdote from earlier this year. (I’ve just been told that my response will be included as a freestanding “long tail” entry in subsequent posts at Critical Mass.)

Earlier this spring, I was teaching a course in American detective fiction at George Mason University, and one of the books on our syllabus was Margaret Maron’s 1992 novel Bootlegger’s Daughter, a book I’d chosen in part because of the way it sought to explore contemporary (by which I mean 1992 contemporary) social issues and in part because it had ultimately swept several mystery awards: the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, and the Macavity (still the only novel to make such a sweep, I believe). 

We reached our reading of Bootlegger’s Daughter in the midst of some of the hottest, tensest moments of the Democratic primary. Clinton and Obama were battling it out in a contest in which race and gender were often in the forefront of the conversation, either implicitly or sometimes explicitly. Meanwhile, in the book, main character Deborah Knott (a white woman) was in a high-stakes run-off with Luther Parker (a black man) for a judgeship in Colleton County, N.C. — and one of our most interesting in-class discussions explored how the issues facing that fictional political race resonated, with increasingly eerie similarities, with what was playing out each day on the news with regards to the Clinton-Obama face-off.

At one point, someone distributes fake letters from each candidate, impugning the other in the harshest terms. The message copied onto Knott’s letterhead “wasn’t quite as blatant as He’s a nigger, I’m white, vote for me, but it was the next thing to it.” Here’s a later scene in which Knott reads the next fake bit of propaganda, this one supposedly sent out by Parker’s camp:

If one could believe everything in this open letter, Luther Parker was an upright, foursquare Christian family man who sang with the angels when he wasn’t defending Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Ms. Deborah Knott, on the other hand, was an unmarried (a) castrating bitch, (b) promiscuous whore, or (c) closet lesbian (pick one), the daughter of the biggest bootlegger in Colleton County history, and a defender of foreign drug dealers from whom she was probably getting a cut of the profits. “If Ms. Knott is elected to the bench, it will be speedy trials and speedier acquittals for drunks, junkies, and perverts of all kinds.”

Does this mean that Bootlegger’s Daughter “captures the realities of American political culture”? Well, no…. and it also doesn’t imply, by any means, that Maron was prescient of what was going to be happening more than a decade and a half after the novel came out. But it does say something, I think, about how society’s treatment of questions of race and gender haven’t entirely changed much in those 16 years, and proves that Maron’s big breakthrough book is as relevant and interesting as ever these days. 

Other books I’ve been reading, rereading, using or perusing this week:

  • The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald (took me a while to finish it)
  • Feed the Hungry: A Memoir with Recipes by Nani Power
  • The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy

— Art Taylor

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Writers Looking Back, Looking Forward

October 20, 2008

I’ve been reading and re-reading lately some old Ross Macdonald novels. One of my two copies of 1958’s The Doomsters is gathered in the “omnibus” collection Archer in Jeopardy, along with two other books: The Zebra-Striped Hearse and The Instant Enemy. In addition to enjoying indulging in these novels, I found myself very much admiring Macdonald’s Foreword to the collection — written 21 years after The Doomsters was first published — because of how it speaks to my own still-growing awareness of ways in which I craft my own fiction (and perhaps the ways that many other fiction writers are working as well).

“Most fiction is shaped by geography and permeated by autobiography, even when it is trying not to be,” Macdonald begins, and then tells the story of his own parents’ divorce and of the time he spent with various relatives and of his fiction’s indebtedness to the people who helps to raise him. He writes:

The dead require us to remember and write about them, but I think not to expose them too completely. Though their looming images stay in our minds and become virtually a part of us, they keep their own secrets. Their privacy is necessary to their continuing reality, and to ours. We reinvent them and ourselves out of memory and dreams. And we learn as we grow older to be grateful to the dead. They have cast their flickering shadows across ours, and quicken our reality and their own…. 

I love them better now than I did then, and through my stories I understand them better. Sometimes I feel that the stories were written by them to me, asking me to communicate their sorrows and explain their dreams. 

Having already decided to put this passage in this blog today, I was pleased this morning to see Bob Thompson’s latest article in the Washington Post: “At ‘Home’ With the Past,” a profile of Marilynne Robinson, author of the novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home. Thompson’s articles are my favorite features in the Post, and this one offers insight into how Robinson draws on the past — both old texts, old history and her own old memories — to shape her fiction. 

—Art Taylor

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Some Links, Some Lists

October 17, 2008

Today’s L.A. Times features Sarah Weinman’s review of Leonard Cassuto’s Hard-Boiled Sentimentality (a review linked directly here and through her own website here). It’s really a top-notch piece of criticism — one which not only seems to underscore what’s interesting and important about the book (which I’ve not yet read), but also adds to the conversation started by this study, offering both additional perspectives and additional reading. Beyond putting Cassuto’s book on my to-buy list, I’ve been reminded again to track down a couple of Dorothy Hughes’ titles too: In a Lonely Place, mentioned in the L.A. Times review, and The Expendable Man, recommended by Weinman elsewhere.

The review had me thinking about which critical works I’ve turned to either regularly or recently for my own understanding of the genre. A quick list is below, some of them more outdated than others (but still useful for glimpses at the historical development of the genre):

  • The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays by Howard Haycraft (a much-tattered copy)
  • The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory, edited by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe (I come back time and again, for better or worse, to Geoffrey Hartman’s essay, “Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story”)
  • Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robin Winks
  • Out of the Woodpile: Black Characters in Crime and Detective Fiction by Frankie Bailey
  • Isn’t Justice Always Unfair? The Detective in Southern Literature by J.K. Van Dover and John F. Jebb 

Those last two titles reflect in part the second of my major interests: Southern literature (and I recognize how these two mostly disparate interests, and my personal connections to North Carolina literature, sometimes give a schizophrenic feel to this blog). So here are two big books — which invariably point me to other, more specific resources — and one more focussed, more personal favorite among the references I use in this direction:

  • The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris
  • The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, People, Places, Movements and Motifs, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan
  • History and Memory in the Two Souths: Recent Southern and Spanish American Fiction by Deborah N. Cohn

(I won’t let that last title lead me to talking about my love of Latin American fiction.)

But one more list, since I’ve seen other blogs do it. Here’s a quick run-down of books I’ve been reading, rereading, using or perusing at some length over the last week:

  • Indignation by Philip Roth (I finally found the time to read it, and it’s great!)
  • The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald
  • A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning & Life by Nancy Peacock (mentioned earlier this week); and
  • Stirring the Pot: The Kitchen and Domesticity in the Fiction of Southern Women by Laura Sloan Patterson 

— Art Taylor

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The Anxiety of (Assigning) Influence

October 7, 2008

I’m rereading John Hart’s books now for an essay I’m writing for the North Carolina Literary Review, and I’ve also been reading and rereading some old Ross Macdonald novels this year, those just for fun. As I was writing the essay on Hart, I began building what I thought were some original and interesting connections between the two — building off the idea about how a genre develops, how new authors reflect on and incorporate what’s come before, how literature is a tradition with the past influencing the present and the future…. 

So far I’ve come up with several things wrong with this — including, on the one hand, the fact that other people already made that connection with Ross Macdonald (critic Sarah Weinman mentioned it casually and effortlessly in an email exchange, as if it were old news), and on the other, John Hart’s own statement in an online interview that he hasn’t read anything by Macdonald, so really how much influence could there be? 

In the fiction workshops that I teach at Mason, I once had my students do an exercise as part of the revision process. Basically, building off of a couple of ideas I mention above, I ask each of the students to choose a favorite author — one whose works are of the kind and quality that the student him- or herself would like to write — and then try to articulate what’s compelling or interesting about that author: style, content, theme… the way the author describes a character’s face, the way the author handles dialogue, the way the author crafts a sentence… whatever has drawn the student to this writer in the first place. After that, they are each asked to choose a passage from their respective author’s works and analyze it more closely for nuances of style and technique — something that the student might take from this chosen writer and incorporate into his or her own writing —  and then to turn to their own writings and actually incorporate it: try to describe the face of their own characters with the same accuracy or get the same snap in their own dialogue or push an exploration of an idea in that favorite writer’s work in a new direction in their own. (I model the whole thing by showing what I did with the opening passages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral.)

By and large, the students hate this. It saps the joy out of reading! they tell me — and worse, saps the joy out of their own writing, which they see as driven more by unfettered creativity and an imagination let loose to play than by the idea of self-conscious craftsmanship, of reading as an integral and necessary part of our writing lives. 

While I don’t think I’m entirely wrong, I haven’t done the exercise since… and I’m really beginning to wonder about how to frame the whole Macdonald-Hart comparison I’m working on.
—Art Taylor

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