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The New Social Novel

Tom Wolfe and other writers used to tell us about the state of America, but now if you’re looking for great social novels you’d better turn to crime writers like Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, says Justin Peacock.

08.31.10 10:45 PM ET

A little over twenty years ago, Tom Wolfe published a controversial “manifesto for the new social novel.” In it, Wolfe decried American fiction’s retreat from realism into post-modernism and called for American novelists “to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”

Wolfe was arguing for the realist mode of fiction over literary game-playing, but more specifically he was arguing for American writers to write social novels in the vein of Dickens and Zola: fiction that depicted the social milieus which shapes individuals and which they struggle against. A social novel does not mean a protest novel, or fiction that is meant to teach the reader some tidy life lesson about a particular social problem. What Wolfe instead meant by the social novel is fiction that fully immerses itself in the workings of the society from which it springs.

By making itself too rarefied, the literary novel has deprived itself of the necessary oxygen of powerful plotting and engagement with society. Any reader looking for these fundamental pleasures of the novel will have to look elsewhere.

We are living in a golden age of the social novel. However, it has largely gone unnoticed by the critical establishment, because it is taking place almost exclusively within the crime novel.

To be sure, there are a few literary novelists who are still writing quality social novels. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (and now Freedom) springs to mind, and Robert Stone has been a major social novelist for over forty years. But these exceptions are few, and the literary novel’s failure to engage with American culture has robbed it not just of relevance, but of interest as well. The mainstream literary novel has increasingly become a dull, naval-gazing affair, in which language trumps story.

As literary fiction has become increasingly introverted, it has largely turned its back on plot, and in doing so it also turned its back on truly engaging with contemporary American life. The decline of the importance of plot—a resistance to the appeal of the sort of plotting that drives not just Dickens’ novels but, for that matter, the plays of Shakespeare or even ancient classics like the Iliad—leads inevitably to a failure of novels to engage with their culture.

Blind Man’s Alley: A Novel. By Justin Peacock. 480 pages. Doubleday. $26.95.

The contemporary literary novel’s disinterest in plotting is a recent phenomenon, co-created by the rise of MFA programs and post-modernism. While plot may be more craft than art, it is as essential a skill for the fiction writer as technical proficiency on an instrument is for a musician. Plot is the primary source of conflict in a novel, and the conflict in virtually all narratives is between the desires of the protagonist and those social forces that stand in the way of the protagonist achieving those desires. Take away strong plotting and you not only eliminate conflict and narrative momentum, but also the way a novel reflects the battle between individuals and society.

The basic template of the crime novel—a murder or other serious crime that ruptures the social order, which must be restored through bringing the perpetrator to justice—virtually ensures that the material, if approached seriously, will engage the society in which it occurs. Which is not to say that there isn’t plenty of disposable crime fiction, or mysteries that offer nothing in the way of social insight, such as the Agatha Christie strain of cozy puzzles. But the so-called confines of the genre ensure that a story will take place, that matters of life and death will be revealed, and that the plot will have both momentum and resolution.

The demands of suspense, of keeping the pages turning, of a mystery that opens the book and is resolved at the end, means that crime novels are devoted to the craft of plotting. Even the most mediocre crime novelist can usually be relied on for better plotting than that supplied by a number of the most critically-acclaimed literary writers.

Similarly, while novels have always taken inspiration from the events of the day, today we see that so many crime novels are “ripped from the headlines,” and so few literary novels are. Which is not to say that drawing from current events automatically leads to insight. But it does speak to grappling with the actual, immediate world that surrounds the writer—a task that so many literary writers seem to have completely abandoned, and the few who do attempt are content to do largely through sterile postmodern game-playing.

The godfather of the contemporary social novel is undoubtedly Richard Price, a novelist who’s managed to thrive in the literary establishment despite the fact that his last four novels are police procedurals, albeit the best-written procedurals around, with vivid dialogue, memorable characters, and cinematic writing. Price has been a giant influence on a subsequent generation of writers, though you wouldn’t know it by perusing the New Yorker’s recent 20 under 40 list. But in the world of crime fiction, leading writers such as Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos have long pledged allegiance to Price.

Lehane also explicitly sees himself as following in the 19th century traditions of the social novel: “the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel.” Indeed, Lehane’s most recent novel, The Given Day, is not really a crime novel at all—this historical tale of the Boston police strike of 1919 bears more resemblance to the work of E.L. Doctorow than it does Raymond Chandler.

Given the social novel’s tendency to examine society’s most intractable problems, it comes as no surprise to find that race and racism—a topic practically invisible in recent literary fiction—is frequently addressed by serious crime novelists. There’s Walter Mosley, who used the private detective genre to tell us a counter-history of Los Angeles, giving voice to a black perspective that had been rendered invisible in previous tellings of the era. Or James Ellroy, whose novels look back in fascinated disgust at that older America filled with red-baiting, misogyny, racism, and homophobia, offering up fevered nightmares of sick-souled cops doing battle with pure evil.

Even more commercial crime novels often tend to examine our society in a way unmatched by so-called literary fiction. Michael Connelly, probably our best contemporary writer of conventional detective novels, is also one of our leading portraitists of contemporary Los Angeles. On the more literary side is Colin Harrison, who weds thriller plotting with sophisticated literary chops and a portrait of New York’s high society in our most recent gilded age.

To the extent that the political novel is a slightly different beast from the social novel, that too has largely been claimed by thriller writers. There can be little doubt that John Le Carré is the pre-eminent political novelist of the last fifty years, something he has accomplished while working pretty much exclusively in the domain of the spy thriller. Richard North Patterson, who began his career as a relatively conventional writer of legal thrillers, has increasingly ventured into political novels that echo those of Allen Drury. And it’s not just American crime writers who are getting in on the act. Scandinavian crime fiction has always used the murder mystery to explore social problems, from the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in the 60s and 70s, to those of Henning Mankell and culminating—in popularity if not in craft—with Stieg Larsson’s trilogy becoming a global phenomena. Scotland is also a hotbed of excellent socially-engaged crime fiction, with writers such as Ian Rankin and Denise Mina.

The novel is the only major storytelling form in our democratic culture where out-dated and counter-productive distinctions between high and low, between genre and literary, still exist. No one in their right mind would dismiss The Shield or The Wire’s (on which Price, Pelecanos and Lehane all worked, and of which Price is again openly acknowledged as the major literary inspiration) place as two of television’s greatest achievements because they are crime stories, anymore than a film critic would try to insist that Martin Scorsese is a second-tier filmmaker because so many of his movies are about organized crime. But the novel was always meant to be a popular medium, to be the realm of storytellers. By making itself too rarefied, the literary novel has deprived itself of the necessary oxygen of powerful plotting and engagement with society. Any reader looking for these fundamental pleasures of the novel will have to look elsewhere, but they will not have to look far.

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Justin Peacock, author of A Cure for Night, received an MFA from Columbia University and a law degree from Yale. Prior to attending law school, he worked as an online producer at the New York Times. His legal experience ranges from death-penalty defense to First Amendment cases. He lives in Brooklyn.