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Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Holiday Reading: Everyone's an Imposter

We went on holiday to Crete this year to do very little except lie on the beach and read books. I went through Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler which was fantastic; a bunch of crime writers at the top of their game and all interlinked in various ways. Jim Thompson stars in the film adaptation of Farewell My Lovely, the one with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, Raymond Chandler wrote the script for Highsmith's Stranger on a Train and they all died alcohol and smoking related deaths.

They're all massively hardboiled too. If they were eggs, they'd be bubbling away for a couple of hours. Highsmith was probably the hardest-boiled of them all, ending her life holed up in Switzerland hating everyone (as shown in the brilliant play Switzerland). Chandler, by contrast, was a lovely man, with a loveliness that comes across in Marlowe, a man who, for all his hard-boiledness has a socialist nostalgia for a time when corruption and greed didn't define his Los Angeles settings.

But then I ran out of genre novels to read and all I was left with was Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. It's the first in the Children of Violence series and I'd read it before but it's literary fiction and I'd been in the world of Raymond Chandler, and 1940s LA. Farewell My Lovely was all corrupt cops, instutional racism, dysfunctional drinking, sex used as a weapon of domination and oppression. There are struggles for identity and daily life is a grind to get through with only small glimmers of human hope to get you through the phoniness of daily life.

And then I read Martha Quest (which is essentially an autobiographical novel telling the story of Martha growing up in 1930s Rhodesia) and it was essentially the same. There  is corruption and racial injustice, Martha Quest struggles to find a life worth living just as Philip Marlowe does, alcohol and casual sex (both given and withheld) feature largely, as do  the dysfunctional social structures of 1930s  Southern Rhodesia.

The broad themes are basically the same, the only difference being that Philip Marlowe has a gun and Martha Quest doesn't. The big difference is Raymond Chandler is crime fiction and Doris Lessing is literary fiction. I wonder what it would take to slip Chandler into Lessing and Lessing into Chandler. I quite like the idea of Martha Quest (and why do so few people read the Children of Violence series?) being a hard-boiled private eye. It would completely work as well in terms of character but perhaps not in other terms. And Doris Lessing did do the crossover into Science Fiction so she had that ability to slip in and out of genres not just convincingly, but with the whole hearted conviction that made it work completely.

Chandler and Highsmith and Thompson are all brilliant writers so there is some slippage into the literary world. They have been allowed in to an extent, reluctantly and behind times, but allowed in. It's an allowing in that removes their genius from the genre world and places it into a literary field. It's an annexation of their talent if you like. It's a hostile act, hostile to the original world in which the work was placed. Or if not hostile then selectively forgetful, a wilful amnesia of how, why and where the work was written and published.

I was thinking about this generic slippage in relation to photography. It's the kind of thing where Robert Capa tells Cartier Bresson to be a photojournalist and not a surrealist (when he's not either). You can self-identify in photography in a way that you can't in literature. And you see it all the time, people who in all seriousness suddenly decide that they are an artist and not a photojournalist, that they are a poet of images and not a documentary photographer, that they are somebody engaged in conceptual, sculptural, physical, abstract, metaphysical investigations that are altogether more important than whatever it was they had been identified with before.

It's strange because most functional photography is pulp - in the very best meaning of the word - it's easily digestible, it has a visual hook, it serves emotional narratives, it's spectacular, it answers to your basic needs, it's comforting, it reinforces your prejudices (in both a good way and a bad way), it's beautiful, escapist, addictive, familiar. It's also produced under demanding conditions, in circumstances where security and power are firmly in the hands of other people.

Photography isn't complicated in other words, and photographers are powerless - and at the heart of it all mercenary in a pound shop kind of way (or is that just me). But we like to pretend we have power, and one way of doing that is by making photography complicated. It's almost as though we are ashamed of the basic attraction of photography in the first place  - it's accessibility. And you can double that shame up with the essential powerlessness of the photographer. So we distance it, we make it academic, we project our fantasies of what we would like to be onto it. So photography becomes a tool of witnessing, of salvation, of resistance and change. It becomes an intellectualised weapon in our arsenal of understanding, a tool of science and logic that serves the discourse of sobriety.

It's not always convincing but it's fine as long as you know that the recipe might not work out quite as you planned - that the easily digestible suddenly becomes the indigestible, that what was once engaging and entertaining becomes incredibly laboured and tedious, that our claims to change the world are far-fetched or delusional.

You do get the feeling sometimes that there is a panic-loaded bead of sweat dribbling down the photographer's unconscious, that fear of being found out for the little trick they are trying to pull, that fear of being found out for being an imposter as they dig their fingernails onto the bandwagon that they imagine will pull them onto the first class carriages of the gravy train that lies somewhere there out of sight, just beyond their grasp. But that's fine as well, because everybody is in the same boat, struggling along pretending to be somebody we're not, looking to find the definition that will set us above the rest, that will press the buttons that will earn us money, get us critical acclaim and make us popular and give our images a value above and beyond that sly, slippery surface of an image. We'll no longer be photographers, we'll be artists, messiahs and philosophers. Except we won't. We'll be imposters, but that's in keeping with the world around us. Everybody's an imposter.

And that's really what both Chandler and Lessing were writing about, people trying to live a decent, fulfilled life in a world where corruption, grandstanding, lying and fakery abound. And ultimately Martha Quest is as hard-boiled as Raymond Chandler. They are the same, but different. And the same but different is always good. Except where it's bad. But it's not bad here.

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