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Big Budget Cop-Outs (or, Too Big to Fail?)

Let’s face it: You get marginalized in this culture if you’re a novelist who’s too open about your left wing politics. Of course, if you’re willing to suppress all (or most) of your social commentary, the rewards are there.

Two authors whose work I respect and admire recently published novels that were huge disappointments to me precisely because of the workings of the marketplace (and the pressures of the book-a-year cycle): the bigger you get, it seems, the less you want to risk alienating a chunk of your audience by expressing genuine outrage at the various white collar crimes and other offenses (e.g., war crimes) that permeate and corrupt the ideals of our society.

One of these novels took place at a major metropolitan newspaper that was in the middle of downsizing—a terrific set-up for an examination of the collapse of journalistic standards that has helped usher in the toxic political discourse and socio-economic morass we now find ourselves in—written by a one-time industry insider who was perfectly placed to take on this huge (and hugely important) subject, only to turn into a standard serial killer scenario that the author in question has already done twice before, and better.

The other novel took place in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina—written by a richly evocative writer who knows this terrain as well as anybody alive. But again, I was disappointed to see it degenerate into a standard there’s-a-psycho-after-my-daughter plot that abandoned virtually any attempt to explore (much less condemn) the nearly incomprehensible crime of the U.S. government allowing a major American city to drown.

There’s a consensus in the world of film noir studies that the low-budget B movies may have been a bit shabbier than their rich “A” movie cousins, but the lower budgets allowed the B pictures more freedom to explore the dark side of American society in a way that was not acceptable for A pictures.

Something like that seems to be happening with our literary culture as well (Which is why I’m grateful to be working with PM Press, baby!). So, if you want social realism, read a crime novel—preferably one by an author who is not a New York Times bestseller.

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