Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Distinguished Crime with a Classical Tint – Reading Ruggiero (2003)

Chancing upon the title Crime in Literature: Sociology of deviance and fiction, I expected to find the author undertake sociological analysis of crime fiction. Instead, while still maintaining the title’s implicit promise to unleash social science research apparatus upon literary fiction, Ruggiero chose to look at (more or less major) classics of literature as fodder for his examinations. Interestingly, while the choice of fiction as a valid field of study receives some explanation, the choice of studied works is not commented upon. Nevertheless, I do find it interesting.
The examined authors range from Cervantes to James Baldwin, with a strong overrepresentation of 19th century writers, including Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Manzoni, Melville, Twain, and Zola. No works of living authors appear among the analysed writings. Since there is no accompanying explanation, I remain struggling with possible reasons for choosing material to study—after all, depictions of crime, criminality, and the law process could be found among a variety of genres and forms of literary expression, widely spread across the ages of literacy. The author’s reading preferences are one obvious criterion, but so is the possible interpretive richness of great works of fiction. Or, possibly, the use of established classics sheds some credibility onto the dubious endeavour of sociological analysis of fiction.
Choice criteria are important not just as an exercise of curiosity, or as part of a misguided quest for methodological rigour, but also for discussion of the importance of quality judgement for any interpretive or critical endeavour, as discussed in the preceding post. It must be said, though, that Ruggiero’s book fails to offer any conclusive evidence. There is little in the way of explicit critical evaluation of analysed material’s quality, but numerous offhand remarks attest to a generally appreciative reception: “Melville was... an excellent novelist (p. 154); The Devils is “a literary masterpiece” (p. 19), and Manzoni’s Storia della Colonna Infame is “[A] neglected classic of Italian literature.” Praise is not spread evenly, though, with Baudelaire, London and Zola being treated with uncharacteristic condescension. The former pair is exposed as ignorant—they do not “appear to be aware” (p. 74) of imminent expansion of drug use popularity, and “fail to predict the process ahead” (ibid.). Baudelaire “totally overlooks the economic aspects of drug production, distribution and use” (p. 75) , while London “neglects the outcome of drug use criminalization (ibid.).” There is an obvious quality judgement here, but one focused on the authors’ knowledge rather than any literary merit of their work, consistent with Ruggiero’s avowal that “[i]t is not a book of literary criticism, but a book written by a sociologist who reads classic fiction sociologically” (p. 1).
Yet, when we turn to Zola, the line begins to blur. He is discovered to be “more romantic than he wanted to admit” (p. 84), who “thought he could complete the transition from Stendhal and Balzac... to the new technique of naturalism” (p. 84-85), and apparently failed. Furthermore, “[b]ecause he could not always consistently adhere to his own programme, he is said to have become a great writer” (p. 85, emphasis mine). This critical distance towards Zola lies at the heart of Ruggiero’s interpretation, where exposition of Zola’s dislike of his own heroine implies his misogyny. As a reader, I start doubting whether Ruggiero’s (admittedly, implicit rather than explicit) commitment to cold examination of literary works is not just as flawed as that of Zola.
One more thing jumps out at me when reading the book—the work of Cesare Lombroso, the 19th century father of positivist criminology, reappears numerous times in the text to provide background for analysed fiction. It is used mostly to show the writers’ criminological assumptions as rooted in their specific milieu. In the same process, of course, it shows Lombroso’s work as anchored in the very same context as the fiction of his contemporaries, and leaves me disappointed that Ruggiero refrains from dissecting the criminological classics using the very same methods he applies to fiction. It would have been very interesting to see the results of such an endeavour.
This brings me to my final comment: Ruggiero’s analyses jump from the analysed works’ temporal context (Lombroso on crime, Freud on drugs) to recent criminology with no reasons given for choosing one frame of reference over another. This is exacerbated (or perhaps just exemplified) by providing original publication dates for only some of the cited works: Dostoyevsky ([1872] 1971) coexists with Dostoyevsky (1979) – and it’s not like Crime and Punishment was not published, or translated into English, until the 1990s. A reader could be excused to assume that Richard Wright’s Native Son (referenced as 1981 but published in 1940) was written in response to James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (referenced as 1965, written in 1964) when, in fact, the opposite could be said to have been the case. As a result, I miss any consistent temporal grounding of the analysis—does Ruggiero wish to examine works in their context or comment on general (and timeless) issues surrounding criminality? I do not believe the two mix quite as well as the author expects them to.
Ruggiero, Vincenzo (2003) Crime in Literature: Sociology of deviance and fiction. London: Verso.

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