james lee burke

plot + character | genre – literature

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Biz

I’ve made the point before (and will make it again) that the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is artificial and has more to do with social and class issues than anything else. Literary fiction is just another genre, with its own set of expectations and history and intended audience. Some people would argue that the literary genre is inherently more worthwhile or better than the other genres, but I see those arguments as circular and self-serving.

My take on this whole thing in a nutshell: characterization is crucial, but so is story. That is, plot is not a four letter word. A really good novel will have great characterization, a compelling, well put together plot/story, and in bonus cases, beautiful prose. These three things are not mutually exclusive.

[asa book]0743277198[/asa] I am raising this topic because I just finished reading James Lee Burke’s newest novel, Crusader’s Cross. I’m not going to do an indepth review, but I will say this: the man has all three crucial points covered: plot, characterization, prose.

There are some writers out there who are unapologetically not-literary-genre-focused and who are both commercially and critically successful. Burke is one of them. Elmore Leonard is another. Both of them write crime fiction, and both are very good at what they do. They deserve general praise and love and lots of readers. But I’m busy wondering how that happens. Why are some authors who write outside the literary genre spared the sneering of the crit-literati? Is it that some genres are lifted into the realm of literature over time? Think of the first big immigration waves from Ireland and Italy, and the discrimination those people had to deal with. Within a couple generations they were running city hall and giving fancy balls. With enough time they lifted themselves into the higher society and took their turns sneering at the new immigrants.

Is the crime genre like that? Has it been around so long that it’s been subsumed into literati land? Any ideas?

White Doves at Morning — James Lee Burke ****+

coverThis might best be called creative non-fiction, as Burke has written a novelized version of his own family history and an ancestor, Willie Burke, the son of Irish immigrants who settled in New Iberia, Louisiana. Willie Burke — impulsive and idealistic — is drawn into the Civil War with his best friends, despite his doubts about the cause and his dislike of slavery. The story moves back and forth between his experiences (including the bloody battle at Shiloh) and what’s going on in New Iberia, where women and a few men who have evaded fighting for one reason or another continue to fight wars of their own. Abigail Dowling, a nurse from Boston, is an abolitionist who is not well loved by the local patriarchy, but she struggles to carry on. The pivotal character is a slave called Flower, the daughter of a slave woman and the plantation owner. Flower’s struggle to maintain some semblance of dignity and independence (from her father/owner as well as from the abolitionists) is sensitively portrayed, without sliding into the realm of the sentimental.

I have a low tolerance for Civil War novels; I think I overdosed on them some years ago, and so it takes an unusual story to really capture my attention. This one did, although I will also say that I wonder how far Burke went in his fictionalization and idealization of an ancestor with such enlightened sensibilities.

books — by other people, too

I’ve posted some questions in the discussion forum about Fire Along the Sky, in case anybody would like to get involved in a more detailed discussion. These are just a few issues that interest me, for anybody who has the time and energy.

While I was in London I went into Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. Foyle’s is one of the last big independent bookstores on Charing Cross — I’m sorry to say that Border’s has been on the rampage over there, too, eating up independents like so many bonbons. My great fear is that Border’s will insinuate itself into the lovely space across from Trinity College, Cambridge, where there is now a great bookstore called Heffer’s. The Mathematician was a fellow at Trinity, so we could have got married in the chapel if I hadn’t been too shy (which in retrospect I regret).

At Foyle’s (and Heffer’s) I spent a lot of time looking for historical fiction. For some reason the Brits like it more than Americans do, and I have never come home without a half dozen novels that look interesting, but are unlikely to be published over here. This time I got the sequel to Diana Norman’s A Catch of Consequence (which I reviewed ast year). The sequel is called Taking Liberties and it’s very good, but then everything of hers that I’ve come across really is worth reading.

[asa left]1410401731[/asa] I also got (but have barely started) a novel called Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone, which is about a young man who comes from England in the early 1800s to search for his sister who has been lost, and is now living among the Ottawa. While I was gone I also read James Lee Burke’s White Doves at Morning, which I liked tremendously. Burke normally writes contemporary mysteries (his Dave Robichoux series is highly regarded by critics and readers both), so this historical novel about the Civil War in Louisiana was a departure from him. It’s based in part on his own family story, and it’s extremely compelling. I’ll be posting a full review sometime soon. I hope.