Friday, May 22, 2020

The Relevance (?) of Crime Fiction Escapist Literature in Twenty-first Century USA (Redux)

Back in 2018 I wrote an essay for La Bloga entitled The Relevance (?) of Crime Fiction Escapist Literature in Twenty-first Century USA.  That was less than two years ago but a lot has changed since then, so I thought I would revisit (more or less) the topic against the current backdrop of a deadly worldwide pandemic, stay-at-home orders, anti-lockdown protests, and mask culture. 

In my original essay, I was most concerned with the relevance of “genre fiction” when the democratic form of government of the United States faced serious, consistent, and dangerous threats from the man elected to lead that government.  I struggled with the question of why write fiction when more immediate concerns presented themselves.  I wanted to understand the role of the fiction writer in a time of crisis.  You can read where I landed with the answer to my question at this link.

Today, the same dangers to democracy still thrive and have, in fact, intensified.  Trump routinely removes or isolates anyone he perceives as a threat (or a rival in popularity) such as various Inspectors General, whistleblowers, and heads of agencies.  He continues to lash out at the press, and, apparently, he has no respect for or understanding of the concept of freedom of the press.   He continues to stir up extreme elements in his support base, which has resulted in acts of violence against people of color.  At the same time, he has created other dangerous situations by ignoring facts, science, and experts when he speaks on a variety of topics for which he is unqualified. He does all this without punishment or consequences.  I could go on and on, but the point is simply that the insecurity about the future that existed in 2018 continues at a higher and more urgent pace. 

And now we have the coronavirus.  The health crisis of 2020 has impacted all of us in a variety of ways, often unique to our situations.  But I believe that my reactions as a writer to the pandemic may be shared by other writers.  I can’t say for sure because I haven’t talked with writers about the effect of the crisis on their writing.
I’m about two-thirds done with writing another novel.  The book is part of my continuing story about Gus Corral, the character who was the lead in my last three novels:  Desperado, My Bad, and The Golden Havana Night.  I started the fourth book in the series long before I’d heard the word coronavirus.  I’ve trudged along with the story, letting it grow and spread organically, by the seat of my pants, as people say.  As the pandemic rapidly expanded, I ignored the health crisis in my plotting.  Nowhere in the manuscript is there any reference to the virus, social distancing, or wearing masks.  People still shake hands, hug, eat in restaurants, drink in bars, have sex with strangers, and generally carry on as though it was 2019. 

But lately I’ve had an uneasiness about how my story is developing.  If the book is accepted by my publisher, it won’t appear until 2021, and maybe later depending on when I finish it.  By then, will the world have recovered from the pandemic?  Will we be back to “normal?”  Or, more likely, a new normal?  Perhaps COVID-19 is a great teacher and we are able students who will use the lessons of the pandemic to deal with climate change, health care for all, and economic equality.   Or will the situation be worse?  Will the disease still rage across the globe, with millions of casualties, the world economy wrecked, a dystopian existence forced on all of us? 

Against any of these outcomes, will there be an audience for a book that never mentions the most crucial health crisis in a hundred years?  Will readers react negatively to a main character who doesn’t worry about the risks in trips to the grocery store, or whether dinner will be curbside or delivery?

Maybe I should go through my manuscript and add references to the pandemic to make the book more relevant?  Will I then be accused of pandering to the pandemic?  I could decide that the book takes place pre-pandemic.  Or will that make the book irrelevant?  Do I really need all this brain damage while I’m trying to finish my book?

Too many questions.  I don’t want to deal with them.  But of course, I must.

I remember that similar concerns were voiced after the 9/11 attack.  Some writers wrote novels against the backdrop of 9/11; others ignored the attack; still others made the attack a primary feature of their work.  Some readers were grateful for stories not about 9/11 --  they appreciated a break from the reality of 9/11.  Maybe readers will want a break from the coronavirus saga.  Maybe.   
Bottom line:  I think what bothers me the most is the same concern I had when I wrote my original essay.  Is there a place for escapist fiction when the world appears to be teetering on the edge of the abyss?  Or is writing such fiction, at this time, self-indulgent?  Do I have a responsibility to write about the crisis?  Do all writers? 

You will know how I answer these questions when my book is published.  Until then, stay safe, be vigilant.



Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction. He is working on a new Gus Corral novel.


msedano said...

despite yourself you're writing something quaint for 2021 readers, "a refreshing look back to remind us of that inexorable change sucks, but blood and guts are always behind the mask." --or something like this. interesting thought, how to adapt to a future audience.

Manuel Ramos said...

What if there is no future audience? I go back to basics: essentially, I write for myself and believe readers will join in.