Agree To Disagree

18 Mar

We’ve given up on the idea, not just that we can change people’s minds through conversation, but that people’s minds can change at all

We accept that art and commerce are linked at the hip, but see no value in linking art and politics. In fact, we are actively discouraged from doing so. 

There are no good or bad ideas now, no rights or wrongs to be debated. If you try it in public, you’re politely told to stop being pushy. If you try it in prose, you’re called “too political.” If you try it during an election, you’re accused of poisoning the debate. 

People want to be seen to be ‘telling it like it is,’ but only in so much as people want to see Jeremy Clarkson as a rebel, and as long as the way it is doesn’t extend past their own perceptions, and as long as you don’t challenge them by telling it like it isn’t.

Decades of a plague have seeped through, spread constantly down to those who otherwise could make a difference, that we should never discuss politics or religion, that we should never discuss our voting intentions, we should never debate too strenuously lest we offend. 

People now get angry at you for sharing political or social debate in a public space. For daring to talk politics on Facebook, or for trying to take an idea into a crowd where it’s not welcome. The very place an idea needs to go.

We’ve forgotten how to debate, how to discuss. If you share ideas that are even vaguely to the left of Ming the Merciless, you are subversive, and if you continue to share them past the first point of resistance, you are expected to leave the conversation. A whole load of people can stand in a group not seeing past their own noses, and it’s the person who comes in with different point of view, or a minority opinion, who is seen as extreme or, somehow, part of a “politically correct brigade” (a term that is one of the cheaper ways of shutting down a conversation.) Where people will manufacture offence over you “manufacturing offence” rather than engage and discuss the issue. 

We think politics is something that belongs to politicians. We think power belongs to the powerful, and that art belongs to artists. We choose to no longer think that all three belong to us, or that we can achieve them.

People believe that belief is enough. That ideas don’t need to be tested or debated. That it’s enough that they’ve made a decision, and that no further facts or ideas should be shared beyond that initial decision.

People think “agree to disagree” is a sensible way out of a conversation. Do we agree to disagree on the future of our world? On politics? On social issues? On equality? On art? On welfare? No, we fucking don’t. We have ideas and suggestions, and we need to test them fully. I’m prepared to try and change your mind, and I credit you with the faith that your mind can change. And I expect you to try and change my mind, and to credit me with the intelligence that my mind can change, too. I do not agree to disagree. 

If we can change minds, we can change the world. If you don’t think it’s worth a mind changing, or worse, if you don’t think it’s possible, then what are we even doing here? 

Bob Stinson, 1959-1995

18 Feb


My favourite guitar player passed away twenty years ago today.

Robert Neil Stinson was born in 1959. It’s not my place to guess about his upbringing or to make any calls about what his younger days may have been like, but by his teen years he’d clearly seen a few things. We know this because, when his younger brother Tommy was edging towards adolescence, Bob put a guitar in his hands as an alternative to going out and getting in trouble.

Any big brother will tell you, there are times when the easiest route -by far- is to be a dick and hang with your friends. But Bob Stinson, when he was twenty years of age, was happy to spend time hanging out in the basement, teaching his twelve-year-old brother to play bass, and forming a rock band to keep the kid out of trouble.

Now, okay, forming a r0ck band to stay out of trouble might go down as one of the stupidest ideas in history, but let’s give him a pass on that one, okay? Forget the rock’n’roll myths, forget the legend of the band he formed, forget everything else; all I’ve ever needed to know about Bob Stinson is on show in those moments he spent with his kid brother.

But if you do need to know more, make it the next bit.

A lot of people want to take credit for inventing grunge. A lot of people are happy to put their hand up and claim it. Truth be told, I’m never truly convinced there even is/was such a thing. Even as a fan of the music. Nirvana were a punk band. All of the great bands who were touring and playing in the build-up to the the grunge explosion were playing DIY punk rock, or metal, or hardcore, or simply “indie”. They were all left of the dial, for sure, but ‘Grunge’? That’s always seemed like a marketing term to me.

I once heard someone argue (or maybe it was me, when I was drunk, who knows) that you can hear the grunge sound kick in halfway through the 8:24 of Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns by Mother Love Bone. And I’ve also heard fellow Replacements fans try and assign all the credit for the movement to the writing of Paul Westerberg.

I love that song, and Westerberg is my favourite songwriter, but both of those arguments miss the mark.

Listen to Cobain’s guitar on the first two albums. Listen to Mother Love Bone. Listen to Pearl Jam. Listen to all of them. Then go and listen to the guitar playing of Bob Stinson. A guy with zero pretension, with no need to pretend he was something that he wasn’t. A player who simply liked to play, who liked metal, rock, pop and prog rock. A player whop managed to fuse all of these into an interesting punk rock guitar sound.

His last few years weren’t kind to him, but that’s not the story I’m interesting in telling. Bob was 35 when he died, and he’d been in the best band in the world, inspired a generation of musicians, and looked out for his brother.

Transcend The Genre

12 Feb

Richard Price has a new book coming out. There are few guarantees in life, but we can all rely on the stone cold fact that a new Richard Price book is a good thing to have in your life.

Mr. Price was interviewed in advance of publication by The New York Times , and, as these things always seem to do, the piece has ruffled a few feathers. Not because of factual errors or omissions -there is no mention of the ‘Jay Morris’ episode, for instance- but because of some old attitudes that creep in whenever the mainstream press tackles crime fiction.

Here’s one quote in particular that seems designed to rile and annoy;

Mr. Price had good reasons for going undercover for “The Whites,” which will be published next Tuesday by Henry Holt. He wanted to inoculate himself against literary critics who might sneer at him for writing a slicker, more commercial book. He was already late on delivering a separate novel, set in Harlem, that he owes a different publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and hoped to hide the fact that he was moonlighting. And he wanted to see if he could write a stripped-down, heavily plotted best seller, without sacrificing his literary credentials.

I winced the moment I read that part of the article. I could already hear my friends in the crime fiction community starting to cry foul, and I could feel my own back tensing up, ready to launch my very best passive-aggressive assault on the NYT. But the real reason I winced isn’t because of ‘them,’ rather, it was because of ‘us.’

Here we go again, I thought.

Are we that brittle? Do we lack that much self-confidence in our own taste and chosen field that we need the approval of the NYT in order to validate what we already know to be true?

Every six months since I joined the online community of crime writers, there has been some variation on this. Maybe John Banville is taking shots at genre writers, maybe Tony Parsons is -before then admitting how hard it was to write- talking of slumming it. Maybe….oh who cares. It happens a lot. Almost on cue. There are two strands to it; the sneering that writing crime fiction is more commercial than “literary fiction” (which is a genre in itself) and also that crime fiction can’t be ‘literary,’ and therefore writers like Price somehow ‘transcend the genre.’

And just as predictable as the regular appearance of these views are the rebuttals from those of us in the genre gallery.

I’m here today to say, let it go. Not just because we know they’re wrong but also, in our reactions, we prove them right.

But first I’m going to wander wildly off topic and complain about comic books and stand-up comedy.

See, I love comic books. love ‘em. But I hate graphic novels. And by that, I mean I hate the term. “Graphic Novels.” A lame cop-out of a title. Something cooked up by an industry that labours away under an inferiority complex. An industry that thinks, in order to be taken seriously as an art form, they need to refer to themselves in comparison to another medium. They’re comic books. Get over it. And yet, just as regularly as our little kerfuffles in crime fiction, I’ll see someone getting upset when a mainstream critic is surprised that Watchmen or Maus have literary qualities and “transcend the medium.” The thing is, they’re right. Both of those books are brilliant works of literature, and in crossing over to mainstream attention, they pretty much do transcend the medium.

Sure, there is an undercurrent to those reviews, something mean and cold that assumes that comics as a medium are not literature, and that it’s rare for them to achieve that lofty height. But you know what? The joke is on the reviewer for thinking that, so who cares?  Well, clearly, we care, which means the joke is on us. Why do we care so much? Does it reveal that, deep down, we worry there’s some truth to it? That not all comics are Watchmen?

Along with comic books, one of my first loves was stand-up comedy. And there’s a recurring issue that the greats of the field can’t be called stand-up comedians. Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor. These guys (let’s just admit that I listed a whole bunch of guys and no women, but I have something to say about that another time) have to be “poets” or “preachers.” “Visionaries” and “Story-tellers.” They can’t simply be called what they are, the best damned stand-up comedians in their field. And stand-up, at it’s peak, is one of the purest and highest art forms.

But why is this? Why can’t they simply be called comedians? Why can’t comics simply be great comics? And why all the fuss when ideas of literary quality are introduced to discussions of crime fiction? (see, it was a trap, I never really wandered off topic) Is it because of ‘them’ or because of ‘us’?

Why do we get so angry? Sure, we’re being spoken down to. But then, if you’re that insecure about your own tastes that you need the endorsement of those who seek to do the talking-down, well, you have a whole other problem.

Is it because the concept of “transcendence” implies that there are constraints? That the rules of crime  fiction can be tight and challenging? Well, newsflash, they are. Constraints are key to art. Restrictions are there to be overcome. Rules are there to be broken. When I describe my first three novels to people, I’m often describing the ways they go against the genre, the way they’re not quite detective novels, the way my protagonist is an ethnic minority or criminal, and the ways in which I try and explore social issues and have arguments with myself on the page. Clearly, I’m not just saying, “yeah, they’re fun detective novels, just like all other detective novels.”

I have no issue whatsoever with seeing a reviewer try and find nice things to say about Richard Price by making references to his work being more literary than many crime novels, because that’s one of the reasons I read him. His writing has qualities that put him right up at the top of the field, along with writers like George Pelecanos, Helen Fitzgerald, and Reed Farrel Coleman. I could go on, I could draw up a much longer list, but the point is not all crime novels are created equal and some writers deserve all that extra praise.

I’m proud as hell to be a published crime writer. I wear the title as a badge of honour. And I -like most people who get upset when these issues come up- know there are many brilliant writers in the field. There are works of crime fiction that stand as some of the finest pieces of literature ever crafted. But not every work does. Not every comic is as good as Watchmen. Not every comedian is as good as Pryor. We each set out with a blank canvas and do our best. If we’re diligent and honest in what we’re doing, our ‘best’ gets a little better each time.

‘Literary’ is not a bad word. Or, it shouldn’t be. Sometimes, sure, reviews are using it in a condescending way, but often times they’re using it as praise. They’re using it as a short-cut to praise a writer for doing something good. each time we shout about it, each time we sneer or moan or snark, we put some distance between us and ‘literary.’ There’s something aspirational to the idea of literature. I aim for it every time I start out with a blank page, and I don’t hide that, or apologise for it.

And the other people? The ones we think we’re railing against? The people who assume there is no art or literature in genre, that comics can’t be amazing and that comedians are the bottom of the rung? Fuck ‘em. Put the joke back on them. If they don’t know where to look for good art, that’s not our problem and, frankly, I don’t need their approval. Neither do you.