At the launch event for Best European Fiction 2010 a few weeks ago, the Norwegian author and dramatist Jon Fosse made some wonderfully cutting and dismissive remarks about crime fiction.

Here, exclusively for ReadySteadyBook, Jon expands on his thoughts about what he calls the "pornography of death":

Literature is basically a personal, and at the same time universal, asking into the fundamentals of existence, made possible by the aesthetic possibilities of language. The more personal it gets, the more universal it becomes. When literature gets private, it looses its quality, as it does if it ends up as universal in this sense: something everyone agrees about.

Of course, one can learn about life in literature, for instance to see how life is for other persons, perhaps in another time, in another culture: in the novel everyone has the right to be understood, nowhere else. And to me dramatic literature is about getting a glimpse of the forces that somehow, in their invisible way, direct life. But more than this, literature is about learning to die, as Harold Bloom has put it.

What then about crime fiction, so highly esteemed as literature, at least here in the Scandinavian countries? Is it at all literature? No it isn’t. The aim of this literature is not to ask into the fundamentals of existence, of life, of death, it is not to try to reach the universal through the unique, it is a try to avoid such an asking, such unique universality, by stating already given answers that are not really answers, but just something one has heard before. It therefore feels as a pleasant and safe answer, and what feels pleasant and safe one could also call entertaining.

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, at least when doubled with what cannot exist without it, love, is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn't for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved.

And when even the aesthetic ambition, this never-ending process of saying it all again, seen from a new perspective, is replaced by filling out a plot with variations, how can one possibly see crime fiction as literature? Add some political correctness to this plot, and we live in a perfectly safe and stupid world.

Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one's lie. It's pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

Readers Comments

  1. The problem with this argument is that there is a vast amount of crime fiction that has nothing to do with murder as a puzzle to be solved. That Agatha Christie model of things can't account, for example, for Simenon's "romans durs", Highsmith's Ripley, James M Cain's novels that play out like Greek tragedies, Jim Thompson's schizophrenic protagonists, the whole genre of films noirs and the novels they're based on - one could go on and on.

  2. Marlo D. Cruz-Pagán Tuesday 02 March 2010

    While Fosse's words are very eloquent, his argument proves that he's an ignorant reader of crime fiction. Not only that, he seems to be stuck in the aesthetic value of literature criticism. There's absolutely no consideration of the socio-cultural-political implications in novels by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and, as Joe C. above stated, the psychological traumas that drive Jim Thompson's protagonists. Furthermore, he completely ignores that which has been labeled the "metaphysical detective fiction," where the puzzles generally go inwards and solutions are not presented in a clean and packaged form. Such ignorance belies that Fosse is speaking out of pure literary snobism, Nonetheless, it's always amusing to read random writers pretend to be the final authority in what makes a text into Literature.

Leave a Comment

If you have not posted a comment on RSB before, it will need to be approved by the Managing Editor. Once you have an approved comment, you are safe to post further comments. We have also introduced a captcha code to prevent spam.




Enter the code shown here:   [captcha]

Note: If you cannot read the numbers in the above image, reload the page to generate a new one.