Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Killer prose

I occasionally review crime fiction (a.k.a. mysteries) for January Magazine and in connection with that follow one of the major online lists, RARA-AVIS. The Rara Avians, as they call themselves, focus on the hardboiled subgenre of mystery fiction. This is a subgenre that thrived from the 1930s through the 1970s (think Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Crumley). You can trace its roots back to certain of the classic (turn of the century) crime fiction writers and many would argue that it's alive and well today in the works of Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and others. Anyway...last week one of the Rara Avians observed that he'd gone back to read a hardboiled classic by Hammett and had been decidedly turned off by the dated jargon:

"Last week I read "Red Harvest" - for the first time, believe it or not - and although I enjoyed and admired it enormously, there were times when the "piled-up slang" (good expression, that) became just too much and stopped me in my tracks, like roller skating along a smooth pavement and then coming to a loose gravel drive. When every other word was a (frankly) phoney-sounding slang term, I didn't know whether to laugh or snarl; especially since, all these years after the writing, the meanings and contexts are no longer always obvious - shit, sometimes the *object* the term applied to no longer exists!"

The following day Kevin Burton Smith, producer of the excellent Thrilling Detective site provided a thoughtful response:

"But Hammett didn't write RED HARVEST for you -- he wrote it for your grandfather, who probably got a real kick out of it. I think we should write for the times we live in, and let posterity hang. If it happens it happens, but most writers want to be read in their own lifetimes, not some hazy spot in the future. I know I do.

"Of course, like anything a writer uses in forging his own style (violence, sex, pop culture references, political opinions, brand names, technical data, whatever), slang can be over-used, but in the right hands any of these can add considerable weight and texture to a book.

"And anyway, what's "slang," and what's just common usage? Will some guy in 2095 wonder why you used such archaic slang in your post? Can you imagine?

" 'Dear Moderator,
Last week I accessed the famous RED HARVEST post by the legendary M-- C-----, and although I enjoyed and admired much of it enormously, there were times when the slang became just too much and stopped me in my URL. What in Microsoft's name is "roller skating"? And other times I was rather troubled by the inherent sexism of the time -- "a loose gravel drive" is a particularly offensive and nasty phrase, no matter how well-regarded the writer is. Were they always so sexist back then? I don't see the benefit in keeping these old archives around if nobody can understand them, or worse, use such occasionally nasty language. What's the point? Someone should definitely Bush these old files, so modern audiences can access their data fully.'"

Bravo, Kevin!

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