This past summer I enjoyed the detective writer P.D. James’s little book, Talking About Detective Fiction (Knopf, 2009), a distillation of the author’s insights into the genre she has practiced so well for nearly five decades. In the opening chapter she takes up a charge that has been made against detective stories since they first came onto the scene in the mid-19th century: the charge of sensationalism.
For example, in the 19th century, the critic Matthew Arnold vented his spleen against the “new” trend in sensationalist fiction, typified by Wilkie Collins’s detective story, The Moonstone (1868). Arnold describes such novels as “cheap…hideous and ignoble of aspect…tawdry novels which flare in the bookshelves of our railway stations, and which seem designed, as so much else that is produced for the use of our middle-class, for people with a low standard of life.”
Ouch. I read The Moonstone this past summer and very much enjoyed it. Maybe I have a “low standard of life” and don’t know it?
Or maybe there is something more to sensationalism than Arnold gives credit for. P.D. James thinks so. For a powerful statement of her own view, she refers the reader to one of the greatest of 19th-century novelists, Anthony Trollope, and a passage from his Autobiography where he addresses the issue of sensationalism in literature. Trollope was considered by many to be an anti-sensational, or realistic, novelist; his friend Wilkie Collins on the other hand, a sensational one. But here’s how Trollope himself views the matter:
The readers who prefer… [realistic novels] are supposed to take delight in the elucidation of character. Those who hold by the other [i.e., sensational novels] are charmed by the continuation and gradual development of a plot. All this is, I think, a mistake—which mistake arises from the inability of the imperfect artist to be at the same time realistic and sensational. A good novel should be both, and both in the highest degree. If a novel fail in either, there is a failure in art….Let an author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his tears, and he has, so far, done his work well. Truth let there be,—truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth, I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.
In this Trollope, I think, is absolutely right. Sensationalism is essential to fiction, as long as it is linked to wonder, to the pursuit of the truth about the human quest for happiness.
James goes on to praise G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown detective stories, for bringing two things in particular to detective fiction: “He was among the first writers to realize that it could be a vehicle for exploring and exposing the condition of society, and for saying something true about human nature.”
“Those words have been part of my credo as a writer,” James writes. “They may not be framed and on my desk but they are never far from my mind.” Neither, in enjoying detective or other sensationalist forms of fiction, should they be far from ours.
The danger of sensationalism, of course, is that it will abandon Trollope’s and Chesterton’s and James’s concern with truth, and settle for the titillation of what the philosopher Jacques Maritain, in his little book, Art and Scholasticism, calls our “sense needs and sentimental egos.”
It would be interesting to make a list of contemporary books, movies and television shows that avoid this danger, and how they succeed in doing so. What contributions would you make to that list?