Writing in Troubled Times

It’s interesting that here in the United States, 2020 is a troubled time, in a somewhat similar way to how the 1920s in America were a troubled time. So far, at least, they are troubled for different reasons, though of course one should never count on the future as certain. I don’t think that the specifics of the troubles matter very much, though, to the subject I want to talk about.

As you may remember from previous posts, I’m very much in the camp that approximately the first thirty five years of the twentieth century (in England) were the golden age of detective fiction. That is not to say that there hasn’t been good detective fiction since, of course. The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are some of my favorite mysteries and they were written between 1977 and 1994. The period from 1900-1935 was, however, one of astonishing growth and development of the genre that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created in the 1887. (In a sense Poe created it with Murders in the Rue Morgue, and A Study in Scarlet even references Dupin, but there seems to be very little between the two, and an explosion in the style only after Sherlock Holmes was born.)

While there was a great deal of development in the early part of the 1900s, the 1920s are sort-of smack-dab in the middle of the golden age and were the origin of some of its most celebrated sleuths. Coming shortly after the first world war shattered the optimism which had, to some degree, dominated the late nineteenth and very early 20th centuries, the 1920s involved a great deal of exhaustion, both religious and moral. America, though across an ocean, was deep into the rise in organized crime which Prohibition had caused and exported many sensational stories about organized crime to England. Divorce was ceasing to be scandalous. Contraceptives were becoming more popular and sex outside of wedlock was becoming far more accepted. It was a troubled time.

In spite of that, it was an artistically creative time. Detective stories, which are almost always rigorously moral stories, were wildly popular, and writing them was also popular. We tend to forget the troubles of the past because we don’t live them; even when we’re aware of them it’s hard to feel their concerns because ours are different. Moreover, we know how things turned out for previous ages and so the many worries that people at the time had seem unreal to us because we know which worries never came to pass. Given that we, in 2020, know that the 1920s was a troubled time, that should give us some idea of how troubled must it have been to live in it!

Despite their troubles, the authors of the 1920s were able to write, and often to write a lot. Granted, many of them made money at it, but not always a lot, at least not at first. For example, it was not until after she published her fifth Lord Peter Wimsey story that Dorothy L. Sayers was able to quit her day job to write full-time. And even if they did it for money, creativity is not something can simply turn on, like a spigot, regardless of the conditions.

One possibility is that writing was itself a refuge for the writer. Many of us like to read detective stories in part because we seek refuge from the troubles of our own lives, and want to take a holiday in a place where intelligence is used well and wrongs are set right. It is possible that for some writers, writing allows them that escape while they are writing. I don’t find that so much for myself, but others might.

The other possibility that comes to mind is that the writers who were successful in the 1920s were those who were good at pushing the stresses of the day aside and focusing on the task at hand. It’s a very useful skill, and one that probably needs no argument for trying to get better at.

After all:

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