Wednesday, 24 August 2011

What leaves you cold?

I guess we've all got our cultural blind spots - activities or genres that you just don't get. It might be that you've grown up in a context which didn't expose you to particular activities, or or some more mysterious process.

I was thinking about this because I've just read The Smiler With The Knife. It's a political crime thriller from 1939. The author is Nicholas Blake, who is actually C. Day-Lewis, the wonderful Anglo-Irish poet (father of the actor). So I thought it would be great: good author, my period, my interests (it's about smashing a fascist coup), good title (it's a Chaucer quote): the signs were good.

Unfortunately, it just didn't do anything for me. There were some neat turns of phrase here and there, but the characterisation was poor, the dialogue awful, the plot twists nonsensical - and the politics confused. Perhaps it's just a bad book by the terms of the genre, but I have to say that detective thrillers in general leave me cold, as do crime, 'action' and romance novels. It's not that I'm agin genre literature: I read a lot of science fiction, and devour John Le Carré. So why is it that particular cultural forms are closed to me? I'm not marooned in my past: my tastes have changed over the years, but some things are beyond me, and not just from snobbery.

A short list:
Ballet - despite loving much classical music and understanding where ballet comes from.
Musicals and light opera (with the honourable exception of South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut.
Contemporary interpretive dance.
Horse racing.
Reality TV.
Beach holidays.
Dance music/techno whatever it's called now.
The Romantic composers.
Horror novels and films. Too susceptible. I hate them. I'll never get rid of various scenes from Candyman.

BUT: I'm not saying that any or all of these things are stupid or rubbish. That would be arrogant and blinkered. And it's certainly true that the categories I like also contain a lot of what I'd consider junk. Instead, these are things that just don't do it for me. Take the electronica world, for instance. I'm addicted to the minimalists: Glass, Reich, Adams, Andriessen, Donaghy and more, so you'd think I would go for LFO and their spod allies, but I don't. Not one bit. It's not their failing: it's mine.

How about you? And how will you convince me to reassess my views on any of these?


Grumpy Bob said...

Actually, I perceive an unsettling synergy with your list. Mind you, I make a distinction between what is nowadays classed as R&B with 'real' R&B such as the output of Chess records.


The Plashing Vole said...

That's a good caveat: I mean the cynical consumerist and misogynistic stuff churned out currently.

I should also say that there's an awful lot of dross in the genres I happen to love.

Rob said...

I have to disagree - I really like old detective stories, and remember enjoying The Smiler With The Knife. Do we expect realistic dialogue, etc in these stories? And even so, they often provide surprisingly astute social commentary - read the opening of Murder Must Advertise (pre WW2) by Dorothy Sayers for a critique of commercial culture that stands up today. Margery Allingham is good on society too. Agree with you about ballet, though my views about contemporary dance were challenged when I saw the mesmeric talents of four dancers in France last year - blogged about it here. I'd add snooker and darts to tennis as unwatchable "sports". One thing that really annoys me is deliberately obscurantist academic writing, something of an occupational hazard in our profession.

crispy said...

crime friction - john dickson carr/ carter dickson for his playful gothic logic problems. edmund crispin's "the moving toyshop" for the madness of thing (and general playfulness). cyril hare for "an english murder". anthony berkeley for stretching the form as far as he could go while still being very much part of the form. gladys mitchell for the dialogue. michael innes for being a little pompous but for sometimes just bringing it all together with a book as wonderful as, say, "appleby's end". the list goes on

for me crime is my favourite genre because it's such a simple formula that it needs to follow in terms of plot. then you can read the drab cosies of your ngaio marshes or agatha christies if you so wish. but then you can read one of the astonishing talents above, or something like john franklin bardin's "deadly percheron" or joel townsley rogers' "red right hand" from america. or if you're feeling particularly brave *anything* by harry stephen keeler

there's acres of dross but when something special comes your way, it's *really* special

The Plashing Vole said...

Spencro: that's an interesting point. As a literary critic, I don't necessarily expect realism, and I can spot the generic requirements of crime, for example, without necessarily finding it personally pleasurable. Reading it for social significance is what kept me going, and I totally take your point: I'd far rather read ABOUT the cultural significance of detective fiction (very interesting actually) than actually read any! Though I do have a soft spot for Dorothy L Sayers.

Bravo to your comment about academic writing!

Crispy: thanks for the recommendations. One of the attractions of genre writing is that once you know the ground rules, you can appreciate those who bend or break the rules: and you have to be very good indeed to mess with the rules successfully. Furthermore, if the reader knows what to expect in terms of situation/solution s/he can appreciate the twists, literary skills etc.

OldGirlatUni said...

I loathe Beethoven. I'd rather fill my ears with porridge. I adore Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart and many others. And, I do like opera.

I love crime based fiction - my personal favourite is Edmund Crispin, but I prefer 'Glimpses of the Moon' to 'The Moving Toyshop'.

Apart from that, a lot of the Vole's list corresponds with mine (even if I do secretly watch 'The Only Way is Essex'), but I do also hate football.