- American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art by Peter Swirski
Diversified as it is, literary studies as a discipline shares four goals: 1) it transcends the confines of any particular discipline; 2) it is politically engaged; 3) it denies the separation of "high" and "low" or elite and popular culture; 4) it analyzes not only the cultural work that is produced but also the means of production (Guerin 240–41). Seen in this light, Peter Swirski's American Crime Fiction: A Cultural History of Nobrow Literature as Art is a quintessential representative of the discipline, even as it stands above the rank and file in its interdisciplinary richness, political (scholars who know Swirski's many earlier studies of American political culture would say "political political") engagement, nobrow orientation, breath of erudition, and sheer delight of his prose. In short, even as it pursues the above goals, it sets the new standard in literary and American studies.
Firstly, American Crime Fiction easily transcends the confines of literature. As always, Swirski's focus is on literary fiction in the context of broader issues pertaining to American culture at large, ranging to history, [End Page 143] politics, social studies, and in this particular case aesthetics. The amount of space he gives over to strictly literary analysis accounts, as a matter of fact, for about a third of the book, leaving the greater parts of it for "non-literary" context in which literature is always embedded. It seems correct to say that the discussion of American crime fiction offers him any number of vantage points from which he freely ranges over related topics, such as genre authorship, literary readership, book production, the social context for all of the above, and not least histories of all kinds, from the history of American crime fiction and American crime forces to the history of reception of the genre and of its representative practitioners.
In each chapter Swirski crosses not only from one topic or social issue to another, but between the fictional and the factual and between the present and the past, more often than not without the reader's notice of it at the moment. We must attribute this to Swirski's effort to blur the line between such dichotomies as author and work, work and reader, text and context, fiction and fact, present and past, literary studies and social studies. As a result, he is able to show us a continuous and far less reductionist picture of contemporary literature and culture, one that is more authentic because socially embedded. As Swirski would say, no one can tell where water ends and sand begins on Matthew Arnold's Dover beach (American Crime Fiction 20), or as he repeats after William Faulkner, all history is really the present (2). Consequently, in American Crime Fiction the cultural picture he draws of America with respect to crime fiction, crime fact, and the social history in which they figure is always complex, interactive, and polyphonic.
Judging by Swirski's example, literature and culture no longer stands alone as if enshrined aesthetically and no longer can it be studied in isolation for its own sake. By the same token, literature is elevated to the status of an important social, cultural, and even anthropological instrument of knowledge and, as such, requires that it be studied as an integral part of its aesthetic and social context, namely, this social-historical wholeness we call "culture." Here as elsewhere, cultural studies necessarily transcends the discipline of literature in favour of interdisciplinary studies. Peter Swirski is simply one of the most prominent exponents of this idea on the contemporary critical scene.
Not surprisingly, given that Swirski is the bestselling author of several leading books on American political culture—Ars Americana, Ars Politica (2010), American Utopia and Social Engineering (2011), American Political Fictions(2015)—American Crime Fiction is also politically engaged. As Swirski observes, in the past when a crime occurred it occurred sporadically [End Page 144] without the society as a whole being affected, but in modern...