This question has been pre-occupying my mind so much for the last few days that I think I have to talk to some psychologists to try to find an answer:
Why do we like reading about things we can't listen to or watch on TV?
This comes as a result of recent horrific story in NYC. Several days ago, an elderly (73-year-old) woman was raped in Central Park's Strawberry Fields. The investigation is ongoing, but authorities are tying it to the idea that the woman took a photograph a week earlier showing a man doing something he shouldn't be doing in public.
For many of us old enough to remember, the news story was horrifically reminiscent of what has become known as the "Central Park Jogger" case in 1979, a particularly brutal case that terrorized women's psyches in Manhattan for years to come.
I heard about this latest case on the radio as I was driving, and after the initial news report, I turned it off. I didn't want to hear more about it - It was too much to handle. And I can admit this only to millions of people on the Internet, it immediately struck me what a good set-up it would be for a novel. Great setting, inexplicable crime, professional crime scene people coming in to do what they do best, an investigation that uncovers information quickly.
So why, I have to ask myself, would I read or publish a book with this type of plot (provided the manuscript is good), when I couldn't bear to hear about the details on the radio?
Many theorists and observers have provided answers to the question "Why do we read crime fiction?" The question seems to come up a few times a year on Internet gathering sites for mystery lovers: DorothyL, Murder Must Advertise, and so on.The answers run the gamut from writers who say, "I was working out my frustrations on paper, killing off some people who needed to be killed" to readers who say "I love to see justice done."
Yet something specific must motivate the mystery reader to choose our genre. Many people read across genres, fiction and nonfiction, but over the years I've talked with many readers who stick mostly to crime fiction and thrillers. Are these a particularly violent or twisted group of people? That hasn't been my impression.
Looking at my own reasons for loving the genre, I think that the aspect that has always appealed to me the most is the sense of a game between reader and writer, or between villain and hero. I'm a huge fan of puzzles - crosswords, word searches, crostics, logic puzzles, you name it. And, having grown up on many of the Golden Age writers, I loved the feeling of pitting my wits against other smart people. No surprise that 50 years later, I am still looking for manuscripts that seek to outwit me. They, sadly, are few and far between. The reason for that, I think, is that more and more people are reading for character and psychology, for pure escapism, and less for the puzzle.
(An interesting note about that - When reading through Amazon reviews, I can easily identify the people who are like me. They are often the lone 2- or 3-star reviews among the masses of 4- and 5-star reviews. Many of them say, "Huh? OK, the characters are fine, and the setting is nice, but where's the mystery?)
I also think the genre allows for intense creativity - hence the many different genres, and the many different methods employed by P.I., professional sleuth, amateur, antihero in a noir novel, et al. I know formula is a part of our game, but for me the books that rise to the top are those that layer a creativity on top of the formula. This is a really tricky proposition. I've published books that fit that description that have taken off (which made me think, "Ah, the reading public GETS it!"") and books with that description that have sunk like rocks (which made me think, "Oh God, does this mean I have to start publishing books with punning titles to keep my job?")
Still, I'm avoiding my own question: Why can I read novels about these kinds of events, while I can't listen to radio reports?
It probably has something to do with having daughters and granddaughers, not to mention a wife. When I first heard about the Strawberry Fields case, before the victim's age was released, the first thing I did was call my wife, who then immediately called our three kids/grandkids in the New York area. All was well - but feelings were already a bit raw following the anniversary of 9/11.
And the crime itself - so brutal. In some ways, worse than murder (though take me with a grain of salt on that). But I'm starting to think that readers (and editors) have a way of thinking about fictional murder that lets us read about it without getting too disturbed by it - the way we'd be disturbed in reality.
So here's my theory: Many of us look on a fictional murder not as a horrific act of violence but rather as a means of elimination. The murderered characters are eliminated from society to get the story going, and some others are murdered in the course of the book to keep the plot moving. In a sense, then, genre fiction turns these people into objects and uses them to build a book with a good story, an interesting cast of characters, and so on. They're not so much "murders" as they are the removal of characters.
I suspect many can, and should, argue with that theory. Certainly there are many books that trace the victim's life and create great reader sympathy (a good example is Ruth Rendell's SIMISOLA). And yet, how else to reconcile the cozy lover's need for no sex, no violence, and no profanity - in a quaint village - with the desire for a murder?
Maybe it comes down to, as so many have suggested, a simple desire to see justice done, regardless of the subgenre. Even in hardboiled/noir, there tends to be a normative character with a stronger sense of morality who's willing to run down the creeps and bring them to justice (even if it's a violent, subjective justice - and who among us has not wanted to take the law into his/her own hands, at least once a week?).
All thoughts are welcome.