Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fiction and Transgression: 12 Preliminary Theses

  1. Without conflict, there is no story.
  2. In a stable society, where the power of the state is or appears secure, there is no conflict without transgression of one or more social norms.
  3. When a social norm is codified in law, its transgression is defined as a crime.
  4. To the extent that human conduct is governed by laws which are enforced by a state, therefore, literature as the telling of stories will tend to become synonymous with crime fiction.
  5. A given work of literature's relationship toward crime fiction must be judged synchronously with the system of laws in place at the time and place of its telling.
  6. At present, in the core states of the Anglophone world (U.S. and Britain), as well as the more prosperous states of the periphery (e.g. Canada and Australia) the authority of the state is not subject to large-scale challenge, and has not been for quite some time.
  7. Also at present, within those geographical and linguistic areas, crime fiction is generally regarded as something distinct from fiction as literature, a "genre," and as such is regarded as literature only insofar as it engages in some form of ill-defined self-transcendence.
  8. Coincident with the emergence of that distinction, there has been a widening of the scope of privacy such that certain social norms which were once enforced through law are no longer, though they remain social norms. When Hardy wrote about adultery, for example, he was writing about an act which was defined as a crime, and thereby critiquing the intervention of the state into these libidinal transactions. Now the adultery plot is staple of literary fiction, without criminal implications of any sort. (It is beyond the scope of this entry to consider whether there is a causal or conditional relationship between the emergence of the distinction between "crime" and "literary" fiction and the decriminalization of certain "private" acts. Their temporal coincidence suggests that this would be something worth investigating.)
  9. Thus, crime is now something to be avoided by the writer who seeks for his or her fiction the marks of literary distinction. Yet it is impossible to avoid transgression at all--for without transgression there is no conflict, and without conflict there is no story.
  10. Within "literary realism," therefore, transgression must be kept within careful bounds. Either it must be a transgression of a social norm that is not, or is no longer, a criminal matter, or it must be the sort of transgression that, while formally against the law, is rarely enforced--the sort of thing, like smoking pot or exceeding the speed limit, that "everyone" does and for which "no one" gets arrested.
  11. In practice, this limits the potential subject-positions of the protagonist of such literature. For some people do indeed get arrested for smoking pot or speeding--members of the lower strata of the working class, especially those who are marked as non-white. Just as a young man of color "risks" getting stopped and frisked if he dares walk in New York City, a story risks categorization as genre simply by having a few too many swarthy and/or impoverished characters.
  12. From the above conceptual framework, combined with empirical data, it would be possible to derive a set of mathematical equations for predicting the frequency of certain story-lines (the affair, the uncomfortable cocktail party), characters (the functional alcoholic, the lecherous professor) and demographic types (professionals vs. manual laborers; white people vs. non-white; native-born vs. immigrant) within any given set of fiction defined as "literary".

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