Home > Book Reviews, Harry Crews > A Manifesto for Tough Fiction

A Manifesto for Tough Fiction

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About five or six years ago now, I was between genres as a reader. A refugee from science fiction (you can read more about that here), I hadn’t yet found the kind of fiction that would sustain me into my next decade. I read some literary fiction and sometimes I read it with enthusiasm, but frequently I found (and find) literary fiction ponderous, slow moving and dull. Two books, read in 2008 and 2009, changed all that. The first was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and the second A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. One crime fiction, one southern fiction or southern gothic. Both by dead American men.

The Big Sleep was a revelation to me. Until I read that, I’d had a strong prejudice against crime fiction that I’d developed in my late teens after having to read a novel by Patricia Cornwell for a university assignment. Now, Patricia Cornwell may be a fabulous writer, for all I know, but in my mind I had a box containing books by people like her and John Grisham labelled under ‘Trash’. Chandler showed me the folly of that. I read each of his novels with enormous enthusiasm for the first time in 2008 and 2009, and thereafter I was on my way into crime land.

I’d have gotten around to Chandler eventually, but it was a chance occurrence in 2009 that opened the door for me to a very different type of fiction. My mother had a box of books sitting in her house that she’d been given by a friend who was moving away, and as I always do I got to sifting through them immediately. I don’t know what about the cover or blurb of A Feast of Snakes it was that appealed to me, but when I read the first page I was hooked. Upon finishing the novel, I promptly started it again to fill the void it’d left. What followed was my ‘Crews Cruise’ (more about that here) that would end up rivaling the fervour I felt for the work of Philip K. Dick when I first read him in my late teens.

Books beget books. From Chandler, I read crime fiction by the likes of Megan Abbott, J. C. Burke, Alan Carter, Garry Disher, James Ellroy, Andrey Kurkov, Ken Kalfus, Julienne van Loon, Andrew McGahan, Derek Raymond, Peter Temple and David Whish-Wilson. From Crews, I read other southern fiction by Larry Brown, William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor and Daniel Woodrell. The boundaries between these genres is porous and, ultimately, probably meaningless, with Abbott writing introductions to Woodrell’s books and Woodrell blurbing Abbott’s. But all of these authors, whether they are from the South or not, whether they write crime narratives or not, whether they are American or not, share something in common. They all write fiction that is pretty fucking tough in character.

Tough fiction is about the ‘real’ world. It isn’t usually fantasy or science fiction (although there are always exceptions, such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and China Mieville’s The City and the City. Tough fiction isn’t metafictional or self-referential. It isn’t self indulgent or bloated, and it rarely lasts for more than 300 pages at a time. Tough fiction contains a very strong, even overbearing line of narrative. It is about life and death and it is often rather violent. Almost always there is some kind of crime, a truckload of cuss words and plenty of misbehaviour. These books contain drugs, foremost among them alcohol. They are, like all the best stories, about people doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. Tough fiction rarely spends long describing settings and yet it conveys a very strong sense of place, of regionality. Tough fiction can be set anywhere, but it is often set in rural landscapes rather than urban ones. While it seems to me that this type of fiction emanates from the U.S., it can be written in the U.K., Australia, and other Western countries. Tough fiction is about Western Civilisation and its apparent decline. But it’s always been declining, as it was when Nathanael West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust in the 1930s.

Tough fiction is also usually class conscious, and it is almost always written from the bottom looking up. It often demonstrates a working-class ethos but it’s rarely political. Its protagonists aren’t hedonistic, but they crave sensory experience. They might be religious but more frequently they are not. In the past, tough fiction has more often than not been written by men, but this is changing. Pat Barker’s World War 1 novels are prime examples of tough fiction. So is the work of Zoe Heller, especially her first novel, Everything You Know. Sometimes tough fiction straddles other genres, for example horror. The late Paul Haines wrote fiction of the toughest kind, and so does Kaaron Warren, in books like Dead Sea Fruit. Some of the toughest stuff isn’t even fiction, like Jack Black’s long-ago crime memoir You Can’t Win, which was championed decades after Black’s death by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was a tough guy himself, not only in Naked Lunch but in his later Westerns like The Place of Dead Roads. Tough fiction can also be short fiction, such as the stories of Raymond Carver. It doesn’t come much tougher than that.

All of the books mentioned above are examples of tough fiction, but I’ve saved what I think of as the quintessential tough fiction novel for last. I read James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, later made into a film of the same name, barely a year ago. Dickey was a poet and it shows in this book, because the prose jumps right off the page at you and smacks you in the head with its brilliance. And yet the story is about four dudes and their ill-fated canoeing trip. If you haven’t read Deliverance, then you must. Then you’ll know what I mean by the label of tough fiction.

If you like that, then you’ll like what I like. If you don’t, you won’t.

FOR FURTHER READING – SOME TOUGH FICTION

  • Megan Abbott – Queenpin, Bury Me Deep, The End of Everything

  • Pat Barker – The Eye in the Door, Toby’s Room

  • Jack Black – You Can’t Win

  • JC Burke – Pig Boy

  • Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

  • Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye

  • Harry Crews – A Feast of Snakes, The Gypsy’s Curse, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

  • Kenneth Cooke – Wake in Fright

  • J M Coetzee – Disgrace

  • Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

  • Joel Deane – Another

  • James Dickey – Deliverance

  • William Gay – Provinces of Night, The Long Home, Twilight

  • M John Harrison – Climbers

  • Zoe Heller – Everything You Know, Notes on a Scandal

  • Paul Haines – Slice of Life, The Last Days of Kali Yuga and Other Stories

  • Julienne van Loon – Road Story

  • Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing

  • Andrew McGahan – Praise, 1988

  • Derek Raymond – The Devil’s Home on Leave, I Was Dora Suarez

  • Peter Temple – Truth, The Broken Shore

  • Kaaron Warren – Dead Sea Fruit

  • Nathaniel West – Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust

  • Daniel Woodrell – Winter’s Bone, The Maid’s Version

  • David Whish-Wilson – Zero at the Bone

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Categories: Book Reviews, Harry Crews
  1. October 20, 2014 at 1:54 am

    Good stuff. I’d also recommend Jim Tully as an early practitioner of tough fiction. James Carlos Blake as well.

    • guysalvidge
      October 20, 2014 at 8:44 am

      I will add those names to my list – cheers!

      • April 12, 2016 at 9:16 pm

        Did you ever get around to either Tully or Blake? I just happened on this page again after another search for Harry Crews-related material and, having forgotten my earlier comment, was about to recommend Tully and Blake again!

  2. guysalvidge
    April 12, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    Stan, no I didn’t but I’ll put both of them on my Book Depository wishlist!

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