Historical Crime Fiction, Agency, and the Contemporary Mindset

September 30, 2010

I am a big reader of crime novels. From Agatha Christie to Simon Kernick to the ubiquitous Steig Larsson, they delight me with their rapid plot progression and suspenseful chapter endings, which is something I’ve never been very good at writing myself. Nonetheless, in my daydreams, I have envisioned a series of my own that would combine two of my principal interests: crime novels and historical fiction. It would ideally contain all the charm of the nineteenth-century novel, with the plot development of a modern thriller. Call it Pride & Prejudice & Warrant Cards.

I have occasionally forayed into the world of historical crime fiction, and been disappointed with what I’ve read each time, less because of the lack of CSI-type technology (and have you also noticed that computer hackers of some kind are now essential to move the plot along?) than because they are such unrealistic representations of the eras they claim to inhabit. Admittedly, I am more of a stickler for historical accuracy than most, but it strikes me that there are some major barriers to writing a character in the past that most authors overcome simply by ignoring them. Moreover, being a feminist of sorts, I would insist that the protagonist of my series be female. This choice, of course, compounds the difficulty of the situation – there are a number of alterations that would need to be made to maintain accuracy, all of which would seriously compromise my character’s agency.

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Privatopias and the New Social Capital

September 27, 2010

What is the impact of homogeneous thought on political action? It is a pressing question, and one that has received extensive media and scholarly treatment since the explosion of information enabled by recent technological advancements. On the one hand, we have more access to information than ever before, and with it more access to diversity of thought. Such access makes those who can sift through and aggregate information into easily understood patterns and trends extremely valuable, as I discussed in my post about cultural intermediaries. They can make sense of it all, and turn the incoherent information noise into music.

But information can also divide. More information means more segregation, as like-minded individuals take advantage of technology to seek each other out and self-select into communities of shared interests. The result is millions of small forums for like-minded individuals, and less and less interaction with those who think differently in broader, more general social settings. It has also led to decreasing tolerance for those with different views, since it is easier and easier simply to retreat into isolation with those who will not challenge how we think.

It is an ever-quickening acceleration of what Robert Putnam famously wrote about in his 2000 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” These days, he argued, we (and by “we” he meant “Americans,” though I believe the trend can be seen in other western societies) are more likely to join organizations centred on specific common goals and interests, such as professional associations, and less likely to participate in more general ones, like community action groups, boy scouts/girl guides, or (hence the title) bowling leagues, as citizens did forty or fifty years ago. Instead of bowling as a collective with others who may have different backgrounds, we are bowling alone.

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The Necessity of Traditions

September 20, 2010

A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful, life-changing experience of being a bride. The positive (and stressful) aspects of the wedding are obvious, but I was surprised by the constant presence of the past – my own, my family’s, and that of those around me – throughout the planning process. It seemed as though the wedding and associated events almost ran themselves. I discovered that much of what weddings are about is set, if not by law then by the dictates of formality and tradition. From the timing, content, and participants in the ceremony to the many, many superstitions about the day (such as the irritatingly ubiquitous “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”), weddings are almost like pre-determined packages, complete with expected players who must attend, observe, or otherwise provide their input.

Being a happily modern woman, I had (and exercised) the option of picking and choosing to suit my taste — no three-tiered fruit cake or garter, but large bunches of flowers and the fancy white dress were okay — but I felt throughout the process that unless I protested something and deliberately carved a new and different path, it was considered to be included by default.

It was a powerful reminder of the role that tradition plays in our lives, especially at those times considered particularly significant. Traditions are things to fall back on. They are the unspoken way things are, promoting a shared understanding among their followers. They provide comfort and consistency across generations and cultures, which is reassuring to all those they impact.

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