A couple of days ago Sarah mentioned in passing that she thought she was seeing a welcome shift in popular fiction: “I think the mood is changing. Only six months ago, I swear every cozy mystery released genuflected towards the homeless, who were always laid off computer programmers, or something. Now… not so much.”
That observation cheered me for two whole days… until I decided to take a break from my current preoccupations (reviewing German and soaking up Appalachian folklore) with the latest Dana Stabenow. I don’t usually name writers with whom I have a bone to pick on this blog, but in this case I think it’s relevant. You see, Stabenow isn’t exactly a struggling mystery writer who might feel a need to keep in good with her publishers. She is extremely successful. And I don’t read her books because I’m longing to be lectured on the correct opinions of the year (Month. Day. Hour. Whatever. They’re moving too fast for anybody to keep up with.) I picked up the new Kate Shugak novel expecting the usual: some malfeasance wrapped up in Alaska Bush stories, an occasional recipe, and the shenanigans of the Aunties who keep the Park in line.
Yeah, I got all that. But I also got whacked over the head with some righteous anger about “kids in cages,” a phrase which was as usual employed to imply that the phenomenon was something personally thought up by the current president out of a desire to be nasty, and had no connection with court decisions and Federal policy predating his administration.
Sigh. Sigh. Okay, I managed not to be annoyed by that, mostly by concentrating on the creativity that must have been required to make the problems on our Southern border an issue in a book set in Alaska. But then, as the story was drawing to a close, our heroine threw in a totally unnecessary reflection on how much she admired the younger generation: “They believed in climate change, Medicare for All, dumping the Electoral College…”
None of which had the slightest thing to do with the story Stabenow was supposedly telling.
Why, Ms. Stabenow, why? You don’t need to curry favor with your publishers; your books have been so successful for so long that you could shoot somebody on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage and your next book would still be another best-seller. You don’t need to curry favor with your readers; five will get you ten that the number of your readers who really want to be beaten over the head with your political views is close to zero. Do you want to make sure that nobody with incorrect opinions sullies your books by picking one up? Way to go. It probably won’t cost you.
It just costs me. You’ll never miss my purchases, but I’ll miss a writer whose books have afforded me a great deal of escapist pleasure in the past.
And that’s why I’m not feeling as optimistic as Sarah about a shift in the culture. From where I sit, today, it feels very much as if American writers are now where British writers were in the eighties, when every bloody novel about any bloody subject had to include at least one slur on the Thatcher administration. The peasants may be revolting in the voting booth, both here and in Britain, but if politics is downstream from culture, we are still in a great deal of trouble.