the mystery of it all: why we enjoy crime fiction

I gave this talk at the Iowa Library Association annual conference a couple of days ago. Not sure people were ready for quite this much jibber-jabber at the end of a long day, but I promised to put it online and decided to put it up both as a PDF and here with some of my slides.

title

It’s great to be able to be here today to talk with you all about something I love. I won’t call it a guilty pleasure because I refuse to feel guilty about it. I just love to read crime fiction. I love it so much I’ve written a few mysteries myself. Tonight, I’m going to try to explain why this genre appeals so much to me  and to countless others and make some claims for its value as well as explore what it tells us about ourselves. Though I am an academic librarian, one of my interests is the ways that popular fiction can contribute to this thing all academic librarians want to believe we are doing: that when we help students learn, it will contributes to our students’ capacity for lifelong learning.  Our students like to read for pleasure but don’t do much of it during the academic year because they have so much assigned reading and busy social lives, but we do what we can to encourage reading for pleasure and to help them develop their own personal reading tastes.

lifelong reading

I learned a long time ago that you could learn a lot from mysteries. My mother was a walking encyclopedia. She knew everything. If we needed to know when a battle was fought or what a Latin phrase meant or what exactly happened to Charles the second, anyway, she knew the answer (though as part of her own educational mission she often told us to look it up in the encyclopedia). She had a terrific general education that was largely through reading. She was a child of the depression and had to leave school when she was sixteen to go to work. She never finished high school but was educated through books – and mysteries were her genre of choice.

This impression I formed early on, that we must absorb a great deal of knowledge through pleasure reading, was borne out by the research Catherine Sheldrick Ross and her graduate students did on the lived experience of avid readers. After interviewing over 200 readers, they found that reading popular fiction could be affirming (“there are other people in the world like me”), a way of learning about the world that’s inaccessible in real life, and that it contributed to their capacity for creativity and problem-solving. This led Ross to urge librarians to explore not just information seeking behavior, but the importance of information encountering, which I think is a profoundly important insight.

Psychologists have also had interesting things to say about the effects of reading for pleasure. Victor Nell studied the trance-like state of mind when lost in a book. His neurological studies suggest that the brain is extremely busy when we appear to be passively consuming a story. Our brains are busy constructing with the author a fictional world.  Keith Oatley and others have conducted experiments that found that those who read narrative stories score better on tests for empathy than those who don’t He hypothesizes that fiction exercises empathy by serving as a simulator for experiences, which develops our capacity for understanding. All of this is a good reminder to pay attention to diversity in our collections and make sure we have books that reflect the experiences of people of color and different gender identities and social statuses. As someone recently reminded me on Twitter, this is not just so that white readers’ horizons will be expanded, though that’s all good, but also so that non-white readers aren’t always simulating the experiences of people whose lives are not theirs – practicing empathy for those who have privilege. We need both empathy with others and the ability to find ourselves in our reading experiences.

brain

Another psychologist of reading, Richard Gerrig, found that readers’ brains don’t shelve fiction separately from non-fiction. What we encounter in fiction becomes part of our knowledgebase unless we know better. That is, a biblical scholar might enjoy The Da Vinci Code, but it won’t alter her understanding of church history. A less informed reader is more likely to take it as fact. Now, this is slightly alarming to me. This all supports the claim that fiction matters, that it forms an important part of our knowledgebase – but it also puts a burden on writers to get things right:  emotionally, factually, and socially.

That brings us to crime fiction,  a broad category that embraces mysteries from cozy to hardboiled, thrillers, crime capers, and noir – any stories involving crime. It’s an enduringly popular choice for readers. Though steamy potboilers about the lives of the rich and famous were more likely to be on the bestseller list until the 1990s, when crime fiction took over, we’ve enjoyed crime since the days when Elizabethan pamphlets about notorious crimes were sold on the street.

elizabethan pamphlets

Though steamy is definitely back on the bestseller list, mysteries and thrillers continue to be popular. Why are stories about crime still so fascinating when our violent rate has been halved since the 1990s? Why do so many mysteries focus on young white women as victims of violence when in reality the murder rate for young black women is four times that of young white women and 78 percent of homicide victims are male?

pulps

Of course the women-in-danger theme is hardly new. It was popular in the pulps of the 1930s.) But since the 1990s In fiction we’ve seen an epidemic of serial homicide  and stranger abductions, but in reality both crimes are rare. Why are we entertained by fear that is exaggerated? Why do we focus on threats that are so unlikely?

It’s probably in part the same impulse that puts grotesque crimes on the front page of the newspaper: if it bleeds, it leads. Stories that are unsettling are also compelling so long as the threat itself is more imaginary than real, when we can identify with the victim, yet feel the violence they experience is an aberration that won’t likely happen to us. In narrative form, crime can be contained. It poses problems that we trust will be solved, and that fictional resolution reassures us about anxiety that is otherwise uncomfortable. Readers frequently say that they like mysteries because it conveys the sense that justice is restored. According to critic Catherine Nickerson, the genre is both stimulating and soothing. It deals with explosive materials within a safe space where there are formulas to follow, where we know what to expect (including a certain measure of surprise).  It’s a genre that allows us “to draw close to the flame of our culture’s evils without actually getting burned.”

draw close without burned

One of the reasons why this genre is so popular is that it offers such a wide range of choices. There’s a spectrum  from very light to gruesomely dark; there’s also a lot to choose from in terms of focus, from the sociological (taking a Dickensian wide-angle view of violence), to the psychological (seeking explanations for deviance within people’s inner lives) to the mythological (framing the story as a Manichean battle between the forces of good and evil). I myself am wary of the latter, particularly in its willingness to attribute crime to monstrous others. This framing too often makes crime a matter of personal moral choice or some kind of genetic aberration that lets us off the hook because we then feel no responsibility for situations that in real life contribute to crime and violence. People don’t kill people, monsters do.

The suspense in the crime genre draws on things that frighten us as a society, which is interesting, because anxiety is a potent factor in the formation of social issues. Our fears are often manipulated by various groups to amplify their cause. For example, the media, which needs exciting stories to recruit and retain their audience. But we often fail to focus on what’s really important. Last year, two trials concluded in the same week. In one, a woman in Arizona was found guilty of killing a man. In the other, a man in Guatemala was found guilty of killing 200,000 people.

trials

Only one of these trials got significant news media attention in the US even though the Rios Montt trial for genocide was live-streamed, available to anyone who wanted to listen in. Why didn’t we cover it? It was messy. Our government had been involved in the coup that led to the genocide, and that would be hard to explain. It involved too many victims, mostly indigenous people, so the story would be both upsetting and hard to wrap our heads around. And it wouldn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. A higher court overturned the conviction ten days later. Though Rios Montt still faces charges, he won’t be back in a courtroom until next year. While one narrative was dramatic, the other was simply complex, upsetting, and presumably less likely to recruit and retain the attention of American audience and generate ad revenue.

The state also uses anxiety to gain support for the regulation of behavior. We can take the serial killer threat as an example. At the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Department of Justice wanted to repair the reputation of law enforcement, frayed after Watergate and the Church Committee investigation into decades of illegal surveillance of dissidents. The FBI made a startling announcement: the rate of serial homicides had jumped alarmingly to 25 percent of all murders. Later they retracted the statement. They had accidentally classified all homicides for which the victim-perpetrator relationship was unknown as the work of serial killers. Oops! But the highly-inflated figures and the sense of growing threat helped restore trust and budgets. It also aligned with the kinds of stimulating yet soothing narratives people craved at the time, which made Hannibal Lector such a hit and enabled James Patterson to mass produce serial killers to such popular effect. (Philip Jenkins, Using Murder.) Now, of course, we have to sustain an endless war on terror, which requires being afraid. Very afraid.

All three of my mysteries have been about the way fear is manipulated to produce a common social response to threat.   In On Edge, residents of a small town, once coaxed into a frenzy of accusation over satanic abuse charges, are being whipped up again when three children are murdered. In the Wind plays off the parallels between the civil liberties abuses of the Vietnam War era and the Bush era, fear of Communism converted to fear of Muslim extremists nurtured to excuse unconstitutional practices. Though the Cracks deals with a fear that strikes closer to home, the fear every woman is raised to feel in her bones, a fear that constricts our freedom and blames us for our sexuality. Fear of sexual assault.

The idea for Through the Cracks first came to me years ago when I read an investigative series in the Chicago Tribune on the shocking number of exonerations of Illinois death row prisoners. Many of them involved confessions obtained by detectives working under a Chicago police commander who valued convictions more than truth. I was, of course, appalled that innocent men had been falsely imprisoned, but I was mostly outraged for the victims of those crimes. Grabbing some guy off the street at random to make a conviction instead of pursuing the case with integrity seemed the ultimate way of saying to the African American community of Chicago “you don’t matter.” I also wondered what it was like for victims to learn the men they thought responsible were possibly innocent, and the person who had knocked their life off-kilter wasn’t locked up after all.

As I started working on the story, I faced a challenge. Threats to women – the threats that constrict our lives on a daily basis – are frequently the subject of crime fiction, used to provide that pleasurable thrill that we all crave. But I didn’t want to sexualize violence against women. I wanted to treat it as it really is: violence in the service of oppression.

Thousands of books use scores of women as throwaway props for a clever killer who is engaged in a duel of wits with a heroic detective. We are often promised a glimpse of pure evil as we are invited to step into the mind of serial killer. This is an entertaining way to reassure ourselves that we are not monsters, that when bad things happen to good people, we know who to blame, and it’s not us.

I don’t mind reading or writing about violence, but I want it to be honest. To me, the reality-free serial killer story is less honest that the fluffiest of cozies. Real crime involves real causes: inequality, poverty, racism, hopelessness, greed, jealousy, the indifference of a culture that devours news stories of stranger abductions but is bored by the fact that one in five of our children live in poverty, that enjoys stories about the serial slaughter of young women but is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of rape culture. Admittedly, real life is relatively dull and big problems are harder than dramatic ones. Like others, I read crime fiction for fun, not to be educated or to hear earnest lectures. But I’m bothered by the way women are trivialized by fantasy crimes, and for that reason I’m thrilled that so many people have taken Lisbeth Salander to heart. Who would have thought that a book that, in the original, had the title Men Who Hate Women and starts chapters with social statistics about misogyny could possibly be a bestseller in this country?  Not to mention generate perhaps my favorite title in our lit crit section.

salander

Stieg Larsson won readers over by giving them the sense that justice is possible through the actions of heroic characters who refuse to put up with injustice. Rather than be a traumatized victim who lives in fear, Salander stands up for herself when society won’t, and it’s that stance, not the threats against her, that is exhilarating. The Millennium Trilogy distinguishes itself, too, in situating violence in social systems that tolerate inequality and are easily manipulated by powerful men. Larsson remixes a variety of genre conventions to expose social structures in which evil isn’t a monstrous Other, but the actions of powerful individuals who routinely make self-serving choices, capturing our sympathy with a compelling heroine whose task is to expose and confront our assumptions.

Larsson chose to make a political argument fun by remixing every kind of crime fiction narrative: the nutty serial killer with a Nazi past, the locked room mystery, the dysfunctional family saga, the spy thriller, the financial thriller, the police procedural, the political thriller, and the courtroom drama, creating a remix of popular culture motifs that becomes an imaginative landscape within which he can work through the issues of inequality and racism that he dealt with in his journalism.

But that boundary between engaging serious issues and entertainment can be a fraught place. South African journalist and novelist Margie Orford has written about why she turned to writing crime fiction. She writes:

The nature of crime and its effects seemed to elude me in many articles I wrote on the subject. I could list the shocking facts, but in the limited space of a one- or two-thousand word piece, I felt that I could never get to the truth about crime, about social dislocation, modernity and violence, and what this says about South Africa and those of us who live here. It is only in fiction that I could begin to find the voices of the brutalised and the dead . . . The crime novel, if done well, is a way of interpreting the society upon which it focuses its lens.

That said, Orford is troubled by the fact that there is a lot of misogyny in the genre and it’s difficult to avoid the erotic charge of the damaged female body given how woven into the genre it is. She also found herself troubled by the risk of oversimplifying the silencing power of violence:

I am at a loss as to how to engage fictionally, in an ethical manner, with the incomprehensible complexity of violence of South Africa. I may have erred profoundly in imagining that fiction might be a means of finding a way back, after the obliterating effects of violence, to some semblance of a language: a different language, an empathic language, a language that speaks of resilience and survival.

I actually think she’s done rather a good job of helping readers like me think about violence in her country and all of the complexity that has gone into it, but I sympathize with the challenge this kind of fictional honesty poses. The restoration of justice that we crave in our fiction is sometimes too easy an out. I think she’s put her finger on a defining ethical issue for both writers and readers of the genre.

Finally, what I’d like to talk about briefly is the subject of my current research: how reading is both deeply solitary and at the same time social.  Francis Spufford, author of The Child that Books Built, described reading as a child as a form of separation from the world. “As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away . . . there was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside.” For him, reading books was a very personal journey and an escape. Students who have taken a course I have taught on books and culture have said similar things about the way their personal identities are entwined with the books they read.  As one put it, “My bookshelf is not just a bookshelf. It’s a time warp.“ Each book returned her to a particular time in her past. Yet as Elizabeth Long pointed out in her 2003 study of book groups, reading is also a social practice. That social connection often begins with childhood reading experiences.  As another student put it, “It was an ordinary place in our house growing up, but it became magical every night when my mom would sink into the soft cushions with a book in her hands. My younger sister and I would sit on either side of her resting our heads against her arms, peering at the illustrations that transformed our living room. My mom’s voice would decode the squiggles on the page into words, into a story. My first memory of books comes from this spot in our living room.”

social

Today, that social life of books and readers is inscribing social media with an almost limitless conversation about books.  Millions of readers around the world participate in online communities focused on sharing their reading experiences. They formed early in the history of the Internet – Dorothy-L was founded in 1990. Rec.alt.mysteries (also known as RAM) was a Usenet group that was founded in the early 90s. Compuserve had active mystery discussion groups. Yahoo Groups has hosted thousands of book-related groups over the years. I studied one of those reading communities back in 2005 and found that the combination of sharing a love of the mystery genre and having a sense of community with like-minded readers scattered across the globe was highly valued by its members. Since then, sites like Goodreads (with 30 million members), LibraryThing (1.8 million members) as well as book discussions held on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblrs and blogs have all flourished.

I always find it puzzling when pundits say “nobody reads these days” or “reading is on the decline” given the evidence that millions of readers thrive on sharing their experiences with reading for pleasure. It’s also clear from observing these social interactions that they feel their reading experiences benefit from social interactions, that readers form interpretive communities that transcend national boundaries and other differences, and that these informal critical communities play a critical role in the the formation of popular literary tastes which, in turn, are shaped by and shape our understanding of the world we live in. Wattpad is an interesting place where storytelling and sharing come together. On this site, people serially share stories for free, collecting reading communities that comment on the stories as they evolve. If you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, you probably have a sense of why 35 million people participate. Last week a 25-year-old member sold film rights to a series of romances she posted there which, over the course of time, have collected a billion views. This is an perhaps an extreme version of reading and writing as a social act, but is an illustration that storytelling and reading are popular when shared.

sociallibrary

Libraries, of course, may be the original place where reading was seen as a social act. Libraries contribute enormously to this communal sense that reading is not simply a solitary pleasure (one characterized as a guilty one indulged in by indolent women in the early 20th century when it was called “the fiction problem”). Nor is it an act of individual consumerism indulged in for free. It’s a communal experience, one that libraries encourage and support, an ongoing conversation with readers that enables what Wayne Wiegand has described as democracies of culture (“The Politics of Cultural Authority.” American Libraries (1998): 80-82). These are spaces where we let our communities decide what matters and experience the identification and the expanded world view that reading imaginative literature enables. The only gates we keep are open ones. We defend the commons, and in supporting the common reader whose tastes likely run to crime fiction, we are helping our communities experience the mystery of it all.

image credits

Background texture – Glassholic
Reader with a train – Mo Reza
Burning books – Patrick Correla
Brain –  Saad Faruque
Elizabethan pamphlets – Early English Books  Online (subscription required)
Spicy detective – Will Hart
Private detective – Will Hart
Speed detective – Will Hart
Dime mystery  – Rene Walter
Biblioburro by Diana Arias

2 Responses to the mystery of it all: why we enjoy crime fiction

  1. Sarah says:

    Great piece, Barbara. I wish I’d been in Iowa to hear it in person.

  2. Barbara says:

    Thank you, Sarah! I got quite a few nice comments afterward, but mostly from people who know me as an academic librarian and were intrigued that there was so much to think about and such a lot of research on reading narratives.

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