Sara Paretsky is known for her crime fiction. One of the first writers in this genre to feature a female protagonist, Paretsky’s tales exist in the netherworld of murder, corruption and general venality that often crosses into that part of the human soul where power, lust and greed combine to produce sheer evil. It is this familiarity with that juncture that makes Paretsky’s recently released collection of essays on our current condition so interesting. The book, titled Writing In An Age of Silence (Verso, 2007), is a heartfelt expression of the age of fear we live in. It is also much more than that.
Paretsky discusses her childhood and how that part of her life played into the origins of her fictional characters. She writes about her parents’ struggle as immigrants to understand the United States and the meaning of the almost total destruction of her family by the Nazis. She describes a childhood that was not easy but also quite typical of her times and circumstances. In another part of the book, her description of her experience as a foot soldier in the civil rights movement in Chicago when Martin Luther King came to that town to protest housing discrimination leads into a discussion of the realities of US class, and race and the way the two phenomenon are manipulated. “That summer,” she writes, “changed my life forever.” Besides opening her eyes to the aforementioned realities of race and class and the inferno the mix could create when manipulated by those whose interests such manipulation served, Paretsky tells the reader that the summer of 1966 made her aware of the issues of voice and voicelessness — issues that helped her decide what to write and continue to dominate her writing.
I have been working in libraries for twenty years and writing for even longer. Therefore it was with great interest that I read Ms. Paretsky’s final essay in this book. It is a discussion of the publishing business in the world of global capital, the fate of libraries as democratic institutions, the fear to write what one truly believes in the wake of the 9-11 and the so-called PATRIOT Act and the fear to borrow certain books from the library. It is also about the fear to read and discuss such books for fear that someone might be listening who might then report you. I know that when I plan what I will read on an airplane trip, I am always certain to not carry a book whose title might cause some TSA worker to pull me off to the side and question me. It doesn’t even have to be the government that watches us. It can be a fellow citizen who has allowed their fears to overcome their reason.
Over the course of Writing In An Age of Silence, Paretsky addresses religion in the US, American exceptionalism and its influences on how Washington frames its imperial adventures, her experiences as a woman in capitalist America, and even Dashiell Hammett and his inspiration in her writing. This book is light in its weight, but not in its content. It is a concise, compellingly written discussion of everything mentioned here which, despite the darkness of the authoritarian night within which this discussion resides, there is a ray of light. That light is Paretsky’s writing. It is learned without being aloof, and accessible yet not condescending. One hopes that those who like Paretsky’s crime fiction (and that is a good number of today’s readers) will take the time to read Writing In An Age of Silence, and then do something about what they have read. Yet this book should not only be confined to those familiar with Paretsky’s fiction It is for anyone concerned about living in the times Ms. Paretsky so aptly describes as an age of silence.