Saturday, July 12, 2008


Yes, another cranky post from Gorman...

Tonight Patti Abbott talks about the use of backstory in fiction. I thought I'd post my response here.

One of the reasons I read so little contemporary hardboiled crime fiction is because there is so little character development. The old hardboiled stuff had its character cliches but so does the new stuff. You see same characters again and again all comepeting to be cool and stylish in that neo-noir way.

This is probably my age showing yet again. But I grew up reading Hemingway and Falkner and Fitzgerald and John O'Hara and Irwin Shaw (short stories) and Cheever and I was always aware that some of their greatest art was in how they used backstory to enrich the reading experience. Hell, some of their best writing and most stunning observation was in the backstory.

And I found the same thing in JohnD, Charles Williams, Peter Rabe, Vin Packer, W.R. Burnett etc.

I realize that fiction has changed, in many respects for the better, but terseness for the sake of terseness gets tiresome to me.

If you want to know how backstory can be just as powerful and compelling as fron story (and not slow the action) I recommend reading Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara.


Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, I agree totally--back stories can be used effectively as Jim Thompson, Willeford, Marlowe, and many other strong writers have shown, and don't know where this so-called 'minimal' backstory rule/fad is coming from, but it's rubbish. Btw. I make extensive use of backstory in Small Crimes (as I did in Fast Lane and Bad Thoughts) and haven't heard any complaints about it.

Ed Gorman said...

Well I think we can split the difference. I like a story that keeps moving (both as reader and writer) but I also like to know something not only about the character but about his/her context. There's no right or wrong here. It's a matter of preference. If you want to read a crime book that's both a real novel and a Jim Thompsonesque noir I recommend Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes. It's an extraordinary book as a piece of writing and one hell of a hair curling story. And yes, there are several times when he pauses to give us backstories on various people. Or hell, look what Ken Bruen has been doing the past five years or so. He went right on through backstory to outright revery in places. And it's the revery that makes his work unique and magnificent. I'd try it myself but unfortunately my supply of Genius juice hasn't arrived yet.

11:40 PM

pattinase (abbott) said...

Just listened to a book on tape on a six hour car ride. I won't say who the writer is. And it was sort of exciting--like a summer action movie. There was very little back story-also no character development or atmosphere. It was PLOT at any cost. The protagonist was an everyman. Truly I couldn't give you a single defining feature. I guess I was entertained for the car ride but I sure don't get why he'd want to write this way. A big-selling author btw. I guess that's why.

Gonzalo B said...

The terse, barebones style of storytelling can become a cliche in itself. You mentioned Small Crimes. I think that novel is a great example of the author delivering the backstory in precise snippets, fleshing out the main character along the way. I especially liked how Denton's sociopathic personality was presented to the reader not through gratuitious scenes of violence like in so many novels today, but through constant inability to see himself as anything but a helpless victim. Definitely a novel that stands out among the new noir titles.