Why Crime Writers Must Learn to Sing

The subject of this column forces me to brag. This is hard, nay, painful, for me, because I am a man of impressive humility. Indeed, my literary genius is exceeded only by my modesty. But needs must…

Though some might pretend otherwise, it’s safe to say that all authors like it when their books are praised, some because they believe in their books, and others because they mistake praise of their books for praise of them. In the 26 years since my first novel was published when I was 23, I’ve had some praise, and enjoyed it, and a lot more condemnation, and enjoyed that even more. Mostly there’s been indifference, which no author could enjoy or they wouldn’t have any reason to write. But there’s a type of praise that’s better than any other, and it comes rarely. I’ve had it twice. It’s the praise of someone who not only likes your work, but understands what you’re trying to do, and both times I found it exhilarating.

The first time, it came from the author Nick Mamatas, one of the publishers of this estimable organ. He told me that my books were the only ones he had read on his phone. This might not seem like the most effusive accolade, but for me it was—because it told me that I was fully succeeding in what I was trying to do… to write books so short and easy to read that you would gobble them up on your phone.

The second time, it came from Brian Thornton, the moderator of a panel I was on at this year’s Left Coast Crime. The subject of the panel was the novella, and when the moderator introduced me he said that he had read my 14,000-word book One for My Baby, and had been taken aback that such a short book had as many characters and plot twists—as much story—as a full-length novel.

Neither Mr. Mamatas nor Mr. Thornton compared me to Shakespeare or offered me their daughters. But each of them told me that, whatever my sales or reviews, my books were entirely successful.

I consider writing long books to be bad manners, and I’ve always aimed at one thing: to get as close to a blank page as possible and still have a story. Elmore Leonard said that he aimed to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip over. So many authors name Mr. Leonard as an influence, and so few seem to share his vision. Even in books that I enjoy, I usually find myself skipping paragraphs, and pages, with no loss of story. More often, I stop reading.

There are crime writers who are faithful to the Gospel According to St. Elmore. James M. Cain managed it in his early books, not so much in the later ones. George V. Higgins did it better than any other English-language author in his first novel, and never managed it again. W.R. Burnett was mostly faithful, but sinned sometimes. Vicki Hendricks does it sublimely in her first novel. At his best, James Sallis manages it. Jean-Patrick Manchette managed it in every damn book he wrote. (I’m tempted to include Nick Mamatas’ Love Is the Law and J. David Osborne’s Black Gum, and Larry Fondation’s Fish, Soap and Bonds, and Bart Lessard’s Full of Days, but I probably shouldn’t tout my friends, even though I just did.) But if you took a novel by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett (with the exception of Red Harvest) and removed all the unnecessary prose, you’d have a short story.

So, more and more, I find most novels, however acclaimed, unreadable. I can see that James Ellroy is great, and I love his sensibility, but I’ve only managed to get through a couple of his books, and I was tired at the end.

There are people who think the physical weight of a book correlates to its literary weight. One of the other authors on the novella panel did. She said that her novellas were slighter than her novels, and took less time to write. She said in so many words that she wrote a novella when she didn’t have an idea good enough for a novel, and that it kept her publisher happy to have something they could sell between novels. She seemed surprised when I said that it takes me at least twice as long to write a novella of 14,000 words than a novel of 50,000. I don’t cut story, I don’t cut characters—I cut words. That takes a lot of slow, intense attention. My short books don’t have less story, or less depth, than my longer ones (not that I’ve ever written anything long—my longest is 60,000 words, which some authors I know still consider novella-length). I don’t consider my shortest books novellas, but short novels.

The author Travis Richardson remarked to me that George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is less than half the length of 1984, contains a larger story. In less than 30,000 words, it depicts the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalinism. In comparison, 1984, at almost 90,000 words, is little more than a love story with a dystopian setting, interrupted with a long, imagined history. I sometimes wonder how many people actually bother to read the alternate-history part of that book.

For me, brevity began as an aesthetic preference, and it’s the reason that I think the novels of Yasunari Kawabata (who was inspired by haiku) and Osamu Dazai are the most perfect books. But, at this time in literary history, I think there’s an imperative need for concise novels that still tell large stories if books are to have the relevance they once did. “Nothing extra,” as we say in the Zen tradition of which Kawabata was a devout practitioner.

The Scottish poet and philosopher Kenneth White declared in the early 1990s that he considered the novel to be “a 19th Century form,” and therefore irrelevant. I disagreed (I told him that, by his reasoning, the poem, his chosen form, was a thousand years more archaic), but I could see his point; the length and structure of novels had changed little since the time of Dickens…

But nowadays, everything else has changed—including our minds. All my reading life, I’ve found that as I read a book, I see the events depicted in miniature, about the size of a TV screen. Did readers in the 19th Century see the story happening at the size of the illustration on the book cover? I doubt it. With no other mass media to influence them, why would they? They most likely imagined the events the way we imagine events told to us by friends about people and places we know—full-size, real. It seems likely that people who first began to read in the era of cinema mentally saw the story at the size of a movie screen.

In the second decade of the 21st Century, our world and our collective mind are so different that we are barely the same species as our recent ancestors. How often, when reading a long book (or even article) do you get curious about something mentioned, take a break from what you’re reading and look it up on Wikipedia? Do you prefer texting to talking on the phone, as I, and most people I know, do? Do you, like me and like many, if not most, people I know, prefer reading on a device? (I was a latecomer to the Kindle, but I knew it was more than a passing fad when friends in their seventies talked about how much they loved their Kindles.) Though some complain about a lack of literacy, more people are reading and writing than ever before. But we’re reading and writing differently.

For novels to be more than a niche entertainment, they have to adapt to the age. Sure, there will always be people who like long, digressive books, just as there are still people who like to ride horses—but horses have not been the standard mode of transportation in a while. As fewer people carry dead-tree editions around in their bags, how do you write books that have as much story, nuance, complexity, resonance and poetry, but few enough words that they can be read on a phone by someone on the bus or train home from work? Or, better yet, read by someone on their way to work, because the story is so compelling that they’re eager to take up where they left off yesterday?

I hear some of you yelling, “I won’t compromise! I won’t butcher my lovely, lyrical, fine, fragrant prose! I won’t pander!” I wish you luck, and hope you enjoy your obscurity.

To everyone else, I suggest that there’s probably a writing class available to you in your home, right now.

It’s in your record collection.

One of my favorite novels—and it is a novel, in the largeness of its story—covers three generations of a criminal family. John Lee Pettimore is a man who lives in a rural area and who only comes to town once or twice a year to buy what he needs to make the moonshine that everyone knows he makes. A “revenue man” wants to nab him so badly that he makes the mistake of going to the place where Pettimore lives…and is never seen again.

John Lee Pettimore Jr. follows his father into the business. He and his brother buy “a big black Dodge,” a former police car, at an auction, they fix it up, and he uses it to transport his product. Pettimore Jr. has a son, named after his father and grandfather. One night, the boy is wakened by the sound of the his mother crying as the Sheriff tells her that her husband has been killed in a wreck while moving his weekly load of moonshine. The accident was so severe that you “could smell the whiskey burning.”

Pettimore III doesn’t become a moonshiner. Instead, on his 18th birthday, he joins the army, knowing that “they draft the white trash first—round here, anyway.” He does two tours of duty in Vietnam, and when he returns home he is so traumatized that when he hears Drug Enforcement Administration helicopters “I wake up screamin’ like I’m back over there.”

And there’s a reason for the DEA being nearby… Pettimore has “learned a few things from Charlie,” coming back from that country “with a brand new plan.” He’s growing drugs on his grandfather’s old place… on Copperhead Road.

This is all contained in the song “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle. Yes, a three-generation family saga, a story of war and crime, all told in a few minutes including the guitar instrumental.

Just as John Lee Pettimore learned a few things from Charlie, I suggest that novelists who want to be read can learn a few things from Steve Earle, and from Robert Earl Keen (“The Road Goes On Forever” is a novel to rival the best of Elmore Leonard), and from Bob Dylan, and from Ghostface Killah (one of the greatest living storytellers), and from any number of ballads through the centuries. The balladeer has always had two challenges: to tell a complex story, and to tell it with such compelling detail in a short time that the audience listens, remembers, and passes it along.

I’m not suggesting that writers reach for guitars. I am suggesting that we embrace an urgency, that we write books that sing to our readers. I am suggesting that while the likes of Jonathan Franzen masturbate in the shadows, that writers with stories to tell take their place at the campfire, look at the audience, and tell the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.


About the Author

Barry Graham

Barry Graham is a Caledonian gentleman of letters whose previous occupations have included prize-fighting, monastic vocation, the fourth estate, vagabondage and the general avoidance of honest toil. Along the way, he has penned more than a dozen books, including the novels The Book of Man (an American Library Association Best Book of the Year) and When It All Comes Down to Dust (a Mystery People Best Book of the Year). Three of his novels and a collection of his stories have been translated into French.

In 1995, he fled his native land for the U.S.A., and thus far has managed to avoid deportation. He spent 12 years in the cactus jungle of Phoenix, Arizona, five years in the hell realm of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is now a denizen of Portland, Oregon.



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