Presumed Innocent

by jbloodwell

As has been mentioned, I had a recent encounter that softened me up somewhat to considering “genre” and “mainstream” fiction with more generosity than I typically showed either. The first book I read afterwards was Stephen King’s Under the Dome (which was a great read; it’s proving not to linger on in memory but, you know, whatevs). But I also took the step of ordering a couple books that my conversational counterpart (the one-time Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys series) suggested as being particularly good “genre” fiction. (An aside, to be filed under Reasons I’m Glad to Be out of Graduate School: How nice merely to put “genre” in quotations and trust that my readers have a vague-but-close-enough sense of just what I mean, without needing to strictly define, problematize, historicize, put in a specific cultural context, or otherwise footnote the term.*)

One of these books was Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. I’ve been working on it for a few days and though it was slow going to begin with, I’m now one late night away from ripping through it. In this case, Franklin W. Dixon’s pitch to me is worth paraphrasing: to wit, that though people get them confused, Scott Turow is no John Grisham; his prose is respectable, shapely, precise; there is nuance, depth, and great intelligence. Since I honestly had conflated Grisham and Turow, and from years of seeing Presumed Innocent‘s gawdy blood-fingerprint on the paperback cover had lumped it in with the pulpiest of pulp novels, this was news to me and I snagged a copy of the book with some trepidation, but with high hopes as well.

All of which have been justified. The novel is thorough and deeply intelligent, in structure as well as in the ordinary details of each scene. (The plot, in a nutshell, is that a deputy district attorney is falsely accused of murdering a former lover, and must defend himself against the prosecution of a political rival. The set-up is an elegant way of allowing the narrator to move from the prosecutor’s table to the defendant’s seat, where he picks apart the strategies of both his defense attorney and the prosecution team. It may not sound like much, but I feel I can now understand why Law and Order re-runs are constantly playing: the law is fascinating, and an endless source of conflict and human drama. To be ushered through it like this is a real pleasure.)

I won’t say that much about the novel, which was a big deal almost 25 years ago—I fear I’d be embarrassing myself, like if I’d just discovered the Star Wars trilogy and couldn’t shut up about it. At some point I will have to process some further thoughts on so-called “genre” writing; I feel at the moment that reading Presumed Innocent is only deepening my earlier conclusions, namely that there’s nothing wrong with it.

In terms of my own writing as of this moment, reading these more mainstream books has increased my desire and willingness to “go for it” in the sense of making the story exciting, as well as in terms of using the oldest, sturdiest fictional tricks: surprises, secrets, unadorned conflict. It’s very much a continuing development, but it’s certainly a welcome on.

*Re-reading that aside, it seems not so surprising that I’d be contemplating a move away from canonical “literary” fiction and toward the stuff that’s sold in airport bookstores and consumed voraciously on beaches, Greyhounds, diners, etc. etc. I’ve always reacted nastily to the lit-crit side of things, whether it was during my undergraduate studies or while earning an MFA.

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