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« Architects and Glass | Main | Book Sales/Audiobook Sales »

April 08, 2004

Elizabeth George

Dear Friedrich --

Have you ever run across the crime novelist Elizabeth George? To my shame, I've only read one of her novels, this one here. But I thought it was terrific, and I'll be reading more of them. I suppose the dismissive view of her work might be that it's nothing but PBS "Mystery!" fodder. And that's not inaccurate; in fact, some of her books have been made into "Mystery!"-ish TV series. But at the same time such a judgment misses the point of what's to be valued, admired and enjoyed in her books.

Like PD James and Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George uses the crime-novel form to explore the traditional material of fiction -- psychology and character, sociology and politics. Readers looking for full-bodied novel-reading experiences from contemporary fiction would be well-advised, IMHO, to avoid most lit-fiction (especially the buzzed-about stuff) and pick up a crime novel by James, Rendell or George instead. All three are expert storytelling craftspeople; all three are also shrewd, observant and insightful, and have a lot on their minds.

Of the three, Rendell is the strangest, the most malicious and the most perverse. Many of her books (especially her non-series books) are wonderfully freaky reading experiences, and of the three she's my personal fave. James and George satisfy in more traditional ways. Their books are as much like old carved-from-oak, made-for-the-generations 19th-century novels as you can find (or at least as I've found) these days.

Attention, attention, attention: all of these writers are working in what today passes for non-"literary" modes. The central thing they're selling, so to speak, is story, sociology, and character; don't bother with them if what you're in the market for is pinwheeling, attitudinizing literary hijinks. All three are terrific writers in the (sigh) hyper-limited sense of being able to use words and sentences fluently, and of structuring a reading experience effectively. But they're a lot more interested in the human content of their subjects than they are in linguistic, let alone writing-school, games. This is non-egocentric writing, the equivalent in fiction of what Christopher Alexander, Leon Krier, and the New Urbanists fight for in architecture -- art that isn't about the the caperings of an artist-genius, but that puts technique at the service of subject matter, and that serves traditional human interests and needs. Needless to say, I think that's great, and I think the self-conscious "literary" world should bow down before these prolific and brilliant giants. But I vowed early this morning to not let myself get too worked up about these things today.

As a person, George is an interesting figure too, famous mainly because, although she's an American (born in the midwest; lived for ages in California; recently moved to Washington state), she writes novels set convincingly in Britain, and featuring British characters. When asked why she does this, she tends to say, Why not? And then that she does it because she likes England. (Good answer!) She has done a lot of teaching, and recently published a how-to-write-fiction book, which is buyable here. I wonder what it's like. In interviews, she speaks sensibly about how only craft (and not "art") can be taught, so her approach sounds modest, and it might well be interesting and helpful. Oh, what the hell: I just hit the Amazon one-click button -- kaboom! I'll let you know more about the book in a few days.

Here's a quote I enjoyed from an interview with Elizabeth George:

Novels were designed to entertain, and those of us who wish to keep the art form alive need to keep this in mind. To aim for lofty literature instead of aiming for a good story with real characters who grow and develop and a setting thatís brought to life is ... like putting the varnish on the canvas first. I attempt to write a good novel. Whether it is literature or not is something that will be decided by the ages, not by me and not by a pack of critics around the globe.

Now that's a view of fiction writing I can get behind. You?



posted by Michael at April 8, 2004



I bought one of your last picks "Baby Would I Lie" and found it pretty funny and quick. (Sidenote: couldn't resell it however, 2 different Cambridge, MA used bookstores passed on it (a clean copy). I think they see the guitar on the front and think low brow red neck lit.)

What always clinches the deal is Amazon used books. I've never heard anyone push this, but used Amazon stuff is the best deal on the planet. I just bought 4 VHS tapes for less than it would've cost to rent them (then, if they're good I give them to friends, if they're bad I just throw them away -- no late fees and even cheaper than Netflix).

So, for 40 cents + $3.50 shipping, I'll give your mystery diva a try. Besides, I have a mystery loving Portuguese father in law flying from Lisbon next week. I'll have him screen it for me (as if I needed another screener).

One last used Amazon story: I found an old college syllabus from the LSE on this MONSTER class: 20th Century World History. The reading list was freaking 30 pages long, but by subject (Vietnam, China, etc) and with stars to indicate definitive texts. So, I go through, highlight the 20 or so that look most interesting and then spend an enjoyable hour on Amazon bottom feeding on the slightly beat up and very cheap.

Remember what you paid for your texts in college? I find it absolutely amazing that I can get pretty much whatever I want delivered to my door for between $4 and $8.

Locally, a long time favorite used book store Avenue Victor Hugo is closing shop. They print on their homepage the reasons for this and include a 10 point essay on how this is the new dark age of reading. Here:

I say: "BS". More books of higher quality and cheaper prices have never been so available in the history of humanity and I'm loving it (not to mention audiotapes, the Teaching Company, and downloadable stuff!). Get a clue, Avenue Victor Hugo, it's just that high rent ritzy streets perhaps aren't the best place for a used book store! In contrast, Maine has a 3 story ex-CHICKEN COOP barn that is one of the most fun used book stores I've ever seen. Bet they don't pay rent either.


Posted by: Robert Holzbach on April 8, 2004 1:36 PM


Isn't it funny how many times people have to rediscover the virtues of being a 'low-cost supplier'? Back in the late 1980s, a very go-go time in Los Angeles, a friend of mine used to call on real estate developers as part of his business. He reports that after a few years of this he came to the conclusion that anyone with a nice office and a good-looking secretary out front was almost sure to be out of business in twelve months or less. Whereas, when my friend would visit a real estate developer who operated out of an office in the basement of an apartment building he also managed, with linoleum on the floor, a metal desk, and a bare light bulb providing illumination, my friend always found that these guys were worth millions and had been in business for decades.

Low-cost suppliers, baby.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 8, 2004 2:27 PM

I read half-a-dozen or so Elizabeth George novels some years ago, and I agree--she's very good. But for some reason, her books always leave me in a grumpy mood. Not, I hasten to add, in a mood to grump about her books, but just generally, tired, worn out, and grumpy. This speaks well for the power of her writing, I suppose.

I don't like feeling grumpy, so I don't read her books any

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 8, 2004 2:52 PM



Posted by: Will Duquette on April 8, 2004 2:53 PM

Elizabeth George makes many assumptions in the quotation you provided. First, just because a book is "lofty" doesn't mean it can't tell a good story. But I understand what she's getting at, and to an extent I agree -- any writer who's aim is to be "lofty" is bound to fail. Second, since when must an entertaining novel have "real characters who grow and develop" or "a setting thatís brought to life"? I can think of many entertaing novels that have neither.

Posted by: Joseph on April 8, 2004 3:45 PM

Robert -- The easy and cheap availabilty of books these days is really incredible, isn't it. The publishing biz and many authors don't want you trading and buying used books, because they make nothing from it. But the savings are pretty incredible. My feeling is that the authors at least should be pleased someone's paying attention to them at all. As for the publishers ...

Will -- She's pretty impressive, don't you find? But what about her books left you feeling down? Hmm, I've got to read some more of them, I can see.

Joseph -- I'm guessing, of course. But I think George's point isn't that character, story and setting are necessary in every book, but that they are the lifeblood of fiction more generally -- that even if you're personally doing some abstract, poetic or avant-garde number, you're still dependent on a general culture of storytelling and interest in storytelling. Without a healthy such scene, there simply wouldn't be more than a few people interested in plowing through hundreds of pages of fiction-text. If that is her point, I buy it completely. You don't?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2004 4:45 PM

I love her books, have read them all, and eagerly look forward to reading the next one. The great thing about the popular serial mystery is that there's such potential for the characters to grow and change over time, and I like that about George's characters -- along with John Lescroart's Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky, and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. They're terrific writers of supremely enjoyable books.

Posted by: missgrundy on April 8, 2004 7:21 PM

Michael, Friedrich -

What movie are we in? The comment is linking us to Friedrich's post, I think.

Anyway, I wanted to comment on Michael's Elizabeth George note.

You are right to praise good writing where you find it (some genre novels) and damn the tedious, recumbant writing attached to most of the "quality lit" books (those "pinwheeling, attitudinizing literary hijinks"). I don't think you should criticize the effort to produce a "quality lit" books, though.

For all its delights genre fiction is a low-ceilinged affair; it's premises are artificial. Crime fiction presupposes a degree of intelligence in the criminal world that just doesn't exist.

John Cheever said that good fiction should explode and refresh. There may not be much explosive, refreshing lit fiction out there (though, I think there is) but we shouldn't stop wanting to read it (or write it).

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 9, 2004 3:17 PM

Missgrundy -- Good to hear, and thanks for the tips. I tried one Lescroart and enjoyed it. Very juicy. Lordy, yet another writer to get back to.

Doug -- Like you, I'm grateful to take writing talent where and when I run across it. We may part ways a bit on the genre and "lit fiction" question, though. Many people seem to take "genre fiction" to mean the same thing as "formula writing," and although I don't have anything against formula writing either, I don't think that's in fact the case. I take genre forms to be akin to poetic (or, what the hell, musical) forms. There's nothing intrinsically formulaic about a sonnet, for instance, although it's certainly possible to write a formulaic sonnet. But the sonnet form per se dictates only a certain pattern of rhythm and rhyme -- it's really a very open set of expectations and conventions. As are, I'd argue, the many different genre forms.

As for "lit fiction," I'm thrilled to read good stuff, and have friends writing it, so I'm sympathetic. At the same time, I see it differently than many people seem to. I see it as a very special, minority taste. The division between popular fiction and literary fiction cropped up (broadly speaking) with modernism, and with modernism the highbrows threw out much of traditional fiction's concerns and decided to foreground certain techniques (word patterns, stream of consciousness, "writing" per se) instead. That's fun, that's interesting, I love some of those books. But the older I grow and the farther we get away from modernism, the more I see it as a very strange little escapade, and the more I see the problems with it. One of them is that it tends to attempt to do without genre (ie., traditional form), and as a consequence falls victim to chic fashion. Remember how, five or seven years ago, it seemed as though every new lit-fiction book moved towards incest-as-a-metaphor-for-what's-wrong-with-America? With rare exceptions, a lot of "lit-fiction" product strikes me as tired and bloodless -- most of the experiments have been carried out by now. Meanwhile, the storytelling end of the new-fiction world (the genre writers, in other words), often strike me as having tons of gumption, humor, talent, life, observational skills, openness to life as it's lived, fantasy ...

But, like I say, I'm thrilled to take the talent where I can find it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2004 5:13 PM

Can I disagree with you about crime fiction?

I'll use P.D. James as my reference, since she's the only one of these three I've read.

One of her novels ("The Children of Men") is definitely out of her normal genre. It has the same effective writing style, but the subject is an alternate future. The story was probably classified as sci-fi by most who saw it. But it's low on science, and high on personal interactions. And there is a mystery in wrapped up in the story, even if it's not the center of the story.

In her detective-novels ("A Certain Justice", for example), the story doesn't presuppose an incredibly intelligent criminal. It supposes an intelligent detective, and a murder (or string of them) in which the evidence is thin, the suspects are many, and the personal entanglements run deep. That combination of factors is enough to spin a good detective story without a genius as a villain.

I don't know how detective fiction in general is, but P.D. James is definitely a high-quality author in her category.

Posted by: steve h on April 11, 2004 12:50 AM


You are right to champion P.D. James as a fine and yes, literary writer. But I would timidly point out that you illustrate my point when you say: "One of her novels ("The Children of Men") is definitely out of her normal genre."

I think I did not explain myself very well.

I was trying to address Michael's distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. As you know Michael has offered up some very sharp analysis of the way literary fiction is pimped and pushed and heralded by the publishing industry season after season this literary lit is hyped, not much of it is very good. In contrast, Michael has written, there are many fine genre writers who actually accomplish what many lit writers pretend to do: offer up vivid characters, interesting psychology, intriguing plots in vivid prose. (And good genre writers accomplish this within snubbing range of the literary critics.) And I think Michael is right to point to Modernism as the movement that separated the popular butter from the literary cream of the traditional novel.

Here begins the part where I disagree with Michael.

The novel does not need genres to bring forth its tensions and possibilities. In another post Michael compared literary genres to musical forms, e.g., sonatas, arias or movements, etc. I don't think the analogy holds, though. Music, being sound, resembles water more than it does words. Music is lost without sturdy forms to box it into shape and bring forth its dynamism.

The novel on the other hand needs very little by way of form to get itself going; it only requires a simacrulm of life to kick-start it: a memoir, a long letter, a will, a biography, a wandering mariner, a dream, an informal history, a shaggy dog campfire tale (you can think of many more).

In other words, the traditional literary novel takes life as its model. And what is going on in life? Everything and nothing. The exhilaration we feel from a well-executed literary novel is the exhilaration we feel from our greatest moments stumbling around in life.

The premises of genre novels, on the other hand, are hugely artificial. Let me speak to the crime/detective genre. I spent five years as a contractor to the federal prison system working closely with case workers, secretaries, cops, shrinks, detectives - and criminals. I enjoyed working with the good guys, but the bad guys the criminals, well, the dominant trait among crooks is stupidity. I mean deep bottomless stupidity. This isn't to say that some of them weren't interesting characters and, yes, there was the occassional bright crook - I met two guys with IQs above 170, but these two also had stupid streaks. The cops and robbers biz you find in genre novels has been processed beyond recognition of its real-life model.

That's my beef with genre fiction.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 12, 2004 4:35 AM

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