Academic journal article Reader

The Politics of Sara Paretsky's Detective Fiction

Academic journal article Reader

The Politics of Sara Paretsky's Detective Fiction

Article excerpt

Very popular, the detective fiction of Sara Paretsky has spent many weeks on the best seller lists, been published in thirteen countries, and produced a world-wide network of fan clubs. To explain this popularity, some reviewers credit Paretsky's feminism. As Michelle Green enthuses, "Beneath that Dresden china exterior. . .is an ardent feminist with a magnum intellect and the guts to go where other doctorates fear to tread" (132; see also Koch 135). Other critics suggest that, on the contrary, her fiction conforms to its generic conventions and, hence, its readers' traditional beliefs. LeRoy Panek claims, for example, that Paretsky uses "the conventions of detective and hard-boiled fiction" to show "the essential truths about character and the world contained in the best hard-boiled fiction" (84). I will argue, by contrast, that what explains the popularity of her fiction is Paretsky's critique of the genre's conventions, not her demonstration of their "essential truths" nor her "ardent" feminism and "magnum intellect." Because the fiction's readers, who in the early twentieth century were mainly male high school graduates, now include a growing number of college-educated women, Paretsky's novels can challenge the conventions by which readers understand them and still achieve popularity. The growing sophistication of her readers enables her fiction to undermine the conventional distinctions between the text and the reader, the academic and the ordinary, or the public and the private. As John Frow says, textuality is a cultural construct produced by readers, not an autonomous entity (147-51).

Erin Smith grants the importance of the reader but preserves the traditional view of the popular text. In HardBoiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, Smith claims, for example, that the feminist detective fiction of the 1980s and 1990s does not break with the genre's conventions; rather, as Panek suggests, it is implicit in the 1930s fiction, in which the detective's secretary shows an ambiguous gender-like Mike Hammer's Velda, sexy but often violent too. Smith also claims that the hard-boüed mystery rejects literary self-consciousness or ideological critique but blames this rejection on the largely male, working class readers, who in the 1920s and 1930s acquired only a high-school education. They pursued middle class comfort and social mobility but faced the historic loss of the artisan's economic autonomy, the growth of fast-paced industrial production, and the increased economic independence of women.

In "Women Readers and Women's Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction," Smith also argues that the fiction's generic conventions reaffirm traditional social and gender hierarchies; however, she goes on to emphasize the interests of female readers. She shows, for example, that, instead of appreciating the plot's complexity or the detective's solution, the female readers of Paretsky or Sue Grafton identify with the protagonist or with minor characters or favor realistic settings in order to work out personal issues or to make sense of a fragmented, complex modern world. Moreover, to explain why the novels are so popular, Smith credits advertising which appeals to women, who appreciate depictions of independent female professionals, and to men, who assume that, because the detectives are sexy, they stay "in their place" (202). She also credits the "social structure that shapes ways of reading," since the "hostile environment" of male writers, publishers, and reviewers forced women writers to organize professional associations promoting their detective fiction (197).

Smith rightly and forcefully shows that the fiction's generic conventions do not govern the practices of readers, who pursue their own interests. Smith maintains, however, that seductive advertising and effective professional associations overcame hostile writers, publishers, and reviewers and explain the fiction's success. This view assumes that the conditions facing authors and the social practices shaping readers are identical. …

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