Monday, September 30, 2013

why I prefer the fiction of the past

During the 1920s and 1930s the idea started to take hold that serious art should have one of two objectives. It should either make us feel bad about ourselves and bad about our society, or it should deliver a political message. Preferably it should do both. By the end of the 30s this dogma was fairly well established. In the 60s this attitude started to infect popular culture. Serious films should be exercises in misery and/or political indoctrination. In the world of letters the idea spread into genres such as horror and crime, and even started to gain a foothold in science fiction, a genre once characterised by a generally positive attitude towards our civilisation and its future.

This approach to art and literature is bogus and adolescent even when applied to areas like “literary” fiction. There is no valid reason why paintings should not exalt beauty and truth rather than ugliness and horror. There is no valid reason why books should not celebrate our culture and focus on the positive sides of human nature rather than on the negative. Wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing are activities that teenagers find very attractive. Part of the process of growing up is growing out of such adolescent self-indulgence. Teenagers tend to assume that they know what is wrong with society and they could fix it if only they were given the power to do so. Grown-ups realise that life is more complicated and that happiness and contentment come from adapting to reality rather than complaining about it. Grown-ups realise that cynicism is a fancy word for arrested psychological development.

The misery and politics approach started to gain a significant following among crime writers in the 1960s although it had already exerted its baleful influence on the American hardboiled school of the interwar years. This was also an era in which crime writers started to dislike being described as writers of detective stories. That just didn’t sound serious-minded enough. They started to prefer to call themselves crime writers.

From its beginnings with Poe’s stories in the 1840s through to the golden age of the 20s and 30s detective fiction had been generally optimistic. There was nothing naïve or simple-minded about this. Detective stories acknowledged the existence of evil and the existence of vicious dangerous people. On the other hand detective stories operated on the assumption that crime was an evil that could be combated. Criminals posed a threat to society and to the individual. The task of the detective was to identify the criminal so that he could be brought to justice.

Very few of the detective fiction writers of the century between Poe and the Second World War were gullible enough to think that fighting crime was easy. It was an activity that demanded constant vigilance but through a combination of courage, determination and intelligence crime was a problem that could be contained to a sufficient extent to allow people to get on with their lives without having to live in constant fear.

From the 1960s onwards a change occurred. The new very serious-minded crime writers treated crime as a problem that not only could not be effectively fought, crime was also a symptom of the wickedness of society, the worthlessness of western civilisation and the depravity of human nature. Everything was hopeless and justice was an illusion. And it was all our fault for allowing injustice to flourish. The criminal was not a deviant who needed to be dealt with; he was a victim and deserved pity.

These changes were symptomatic of the rise of the culture of self-loathing and self-pity, what Australian art critic memorably described as the Culture of Complaint.

Having understood this it’s easy to see why so many modern crime writers and commentators disparage the detective stories of the past. How can writers like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie be taken seriously. Their stories are not overtly political and they are not miserable and sordid. Therefore they are not serious literature. Even worse, their stories are entertaining, a fault that automatically disqualifies them from serious consideration.

In the past few decades another factor was entered the equation. Art and literature must now conform to a very narrow, very restrictive and very oppressive range of politically correct doctrine. How can the detective writers of the past be taken seriously when they fail to address issues of gender, race, class and sexuality? Or even worse, when they include characters who on occasions utter sentiments that are outside the narrow confines of political correctness?

These faults can of course be corrected in television adaptations. The necessary quota of lesbians, persons of colour and other approved victim groups can be added and the stories and the characters can be twisted in order to make them acceptably PC.

Personally I do not care for the modern approach at all. I do not care for crime stories that wallow in the gutter and seek to demoralise the reader with graphic violence and an unrelentingly negative view of our culture. I happen to be rather fond of western civilisation. The only solution I have found, from a strictly personal viewpoint, is to avoid modern popular culture altogether. Luckily this is rather easy to do. The popular culture of the past still exists. The literature of the past is in fact very easily accessible.

These days I confine myself entirely to reading books that were published prior to 1960, and I confine myself almost entirely to movies made no later than the early 60s although I am happy to indulge myself with some of the very enjoyable genre movies made as late as the 70s. As far as television is concerned my cut-off point is, with few exceptions, the late 70s. Since I made the decision to reject the modern world of popular culture and all its works I have been a considerably happier and more contented person. We do have a choice. We can say no to the literature of self-pity and self-hatred and squalidness. I do not feel that I am missing anything at all since I made my decision. I do not find the literature of the past to be simplistic or naïve. In fact I find it to be sophisticated, well-crafted, intelligent and complex. It works for me.


  1. A welcome doctrinal statement regardless of my own disagreements. I've been on a binge of pulp-fiction reading (1920s-1950s) that may result in a new blog down the line, and I appreciate pulp's commitment to narrative when so much modern pop culture has lost the ability to come up with plots. Generally the more hard-boiled the better I like it, even when that extends to a sometimes-deplorable frankness of opinion regarding other cultures. But your caricature definitely sells modernism and social-consciousness short. The truths it sought out (actual or presumed) were sometimes sordid but the intent was rarely if ever simply to make readers "feel bad." Readers were meant to recognize the truth of their own lives -- regardless of how it made them feel -- in details that pulp (or "pop') fiction ignored or suppressed. In some pulp there is a more aggressive intent to make readers "feel good" or be good -- more obvious indoctrination -- than there is an intent in more critical fiction to make people "feel bad." But rather than go on defending modernism (or even leftism) my real point is that an appreciation of critical modernism doesn't require a dismissal of the many virtues of "vintage pop fictions," as many modernists themselves regrettably believed. In the past year I've discovered plenty of pulp writers whose work is much better than the label still implies. All these works need readers and defenders, and that makes your blog practically a public service, and an entertaining one as well.

  2. Very erudite and - I believe- true. It's a shame that genre fiction now wallows in sordidness. It's all serial killers and young children getting killed or kidnapped. I do my best to avoid it.

  3. Well spoken! My cut off date for both Literature and Film is 1979. Your blog has led me to many good finds! It is ironic that true art seems to have almost died when the so called artists began taking themselves more "seriously"....

  4. Robert E Howard is the writer who inspired me to be a dedicated pulp reader.My reading is limited to books written prior to 1970, but I do watch recent movies as well.

  5. Most crime dramas on TV these days seem to be delighted wallowings in perversion and necrophilia .The general lighting is dark with colours bleached out in daylight scenes .The necrophilia consists of life like mock up of corpses burned ,mutilated or decomposed on the autopsy slab.In many ways this is another facet of the cultural negativity that can be observed in the stacks of fake misery memoirs in modern book shops.In contrast the popular and pulp fiction of the past was usually optimistic in out look.I belong to a book group where we read a variety of fiction both genre and literary.I am always struck by how tedious negative and boring the literary fiction is.Perhaps the negativity of modern culture is one of the reasons for the rise in depression in modern society especially among young people.Many of the books reviewed on this site are little gems which will do you more good reading them than all the Booker Prize winners put together.