Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Golden Age of Writing

by Timothy Hallinan

I once knew a woman who translated hieroglyphics, and one of the texts she translated into English was one of the oldest poems known to man, dating from about 3000 BC. It was about how things were better before. It was a lament for having missed the Golden Age. It seems to be human nature to think in terms of lost golden ages. The operative word is “lost.” It’s not even fashionable to think that we’re living in a golden age.

I think we are. I think this is a golden age for mysteries and thrillers. Sure, some of the great ones are gone. Christie, Hammett, Chandler, Sayers, Tey, Highsmith,  McDonald, Stout, Parker and many others. But we have an enormous number of exceptional writers working now, and more titles to choose from than any other time in history. I’d put the best writers working today up against the best writers since Poe kicked things off. Who’s better than James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Louise Penny, Laura Lippman, S.J. Ronan, Lee Child, John LeCarre, Donna Leon? I could go on for pages—all of them writing right now.

I think this Golden Age has come about for three reasons. First, the ubiquity of relatively inexpensive books; until just a few years ago, despite all their moans and groans, the world’s publishers put out, in editions of varying costs, more books than in any time in history. And with all those books published, good writing usually found a champion.

Second, the durability of the genre. The mystery or thriller is one of the oldest genres, (What is “Oedipus Rex” if not a mystery?”) and one of the most universal. Mysteries and thrillers help readers work through some of the most difficult aspects of human existence. They present a world in which order, even though it’s been temporarily broken down, can be restored. They ignored the fashion of nihilism of despair that mars so much of supposedly “literary” fiction.

Third, women have come full circle. Once the royalty of the genre, they faded during the heyday of the pulps, the hardboiled noir and the five-testicle PI fiction of the ‘40s through the ‘60s. And then, starting in the ‘70s, the entire genre tilted, women reemerged with a vengeance, no longer confined to the classic and/or cozy end of the spectrum but ranging straight across from one extreme to another. 

And in one of the most remarkable shifts in modern marketing history, women became the driving force in mystery writing. So now we have women writing all kinds of books and also some of the best male writers who have ever worked in the genre. Jackpot. We’ve even seen the loosening (pretty much an abandonment) on what people write about, which has produced some terrible books but also some really serious explorations of the darkest corners of human behavior.

And now we’re seeing things open up even more widely. The ebook has broken New York’s stranglehold on what we can read—and what we can write, too. Once again, we’re seeing books that should have remained in people’s desk drawers, but we’re also seeing some tremendous stuff. It’s certainly opened things up for me. Like most writers, I’ve been restricted in what I could write because publishers would only buy a certain kind of book from me. But now I can write anything I want and put it out there to sink or swim.

I believe it’s a uniquely human experience to be frightened and amused at the same time. And I love writing books that attempt to put the reader in that position. 

But do I think Little Elvises and Crushed are Golden Age material? I doubt it—I can’t take myself that seriously. But they’re the product of a writer doing what he wants instead of what a corporation wants him to do, and in the long run that has to be good for everyone. When people look back on this particular Golden Age, I think they’ll say the emergence of the ebook both broadened and prolonged it.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writerswhere you can read Tim’s complete interview.)

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