India Uncut

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

James Ellroy: The Tolstoy of the crime novel

One of the characteristics of much crime fiction is that so many of the protagonists in them are straight-talking buggers. They may be laconic or brusque or in-yer-face, but they tell it as they see it. So why should crime writers be different? James Ellroy, who's written books such as LA Confidential and The Cold Six Thousand, doesn't turn on any false modesty in this interview:
Do you think of yourself as a novelist or as a crime writer?

I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime writer who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music.

How do you know since you say you don’t read other books?

I just know. There is a line from a wonderful Thomas Lux poem: “You’re alone and you know a few things.” I just know that I am that good.

What about Raymond Chandler, who wrote so evocatively about Los Angeles lowlifes before you?

He is egregiously overrated.
Such hubris, you might think, but I find it refreshing coming from someone who is, well, an acknowledged master of his genre. Literature ain't no sporting contest, but when Ernest Hemingway would describe himself as the "literary heavyweight champion" of the world, you had to think (if you were as much a fan of the man as I am, especially of his short stories) that he had a point there.

It's not, I think, about thinking yourself to be better than everyone else as it is to feel like you're the master of your domain, in complete command of your craft. Indeed, when I read Hemingway, I cannot but feel in awe of how perfect some of his work is, with not a word or punctuation mark out of place, and no artifice or pretensions. As an aspiring writer myself, I struggle to make narratives speak without talking, the way Hemingway could. If Hemingway -- and Ellroy, in the context of the crime novel -- speak of themselves as so many of their fans undoubtedly see them, well, good for them. Why hold back?
amit varma, 11:15 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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