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Sara Paretsky, Writing in an Age of Silence (New York and London: Verso, 2007. $22.95 hardback). Pp. 138. ISBN: 9781844671229

The Personal is Political’ is a well-known feminist phrase, coined by Carol Hanisch in the title of her 1969 essay. This dictum could also very well be used to describe the American crime writer Sara Paretsky’s recent book of memoirs from 2007, entitled Writing in an Age of Silence. Paretsky is of course well-known for her series of hard-boiled crime fictions, written with a strong feminist twist coupled with a social consciousness, admirably fronted by the gutsy female private eye detective, V.I. Warshawski. In this fiery and funny autobiography, Paretsky explores the social and cultural developments which led her to become a crime writer, and which continue to inspire her and inform her storytelling. Reading Writing in an Age of Silence, I became fascinated by Paretsky’s voice, and by her persona in the book, and I was disturbed, and frequently moved in equal measure, by her astute reflections on American contemporary culture post 9/11. I was also excited by her use of life writing strategies as a means to interrogate the contexts of the genre of crime writing. Writing in an Age of Silence seeks to trace two parallel journeys, between developments within the crime novel genre, and Paretsky’s personal quest for self-expression as woman writer. Paretsky herself makes this connection, between her life writing and crime fiction, explicit. Her book Writing in an Age of Silence foregrounds the ongoing ‘conversation’ between the individual and the collective, and between what may superficially appear as quite distinct and rather different literary genres. Paretsky’s book is an excellent demonstration to scholars of the writer’s art of rendering history a felt process through their engagement with a personal development, and with their political and creative ‘journey’.

In Writing in an Age of Silence, Paretsky makes a stand for the noble American tradition of ‘dissent’, as a strategy for resistance against a repressive dominant ideology. The notion of ‘dissent’ has, of course, a long-standing tradition within American thought and letters. The 19th-century transcendentalist writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the first to articulate this idea, of making a stand, of resistance, as emblematic of an alternative re-visioning of the American self. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe, the first modern crime writer and explorer of criminal psychology, showed that writing about crime could be a dark and Gothic antidote to the more saccharine aspects of ‘the American Dream’ which tended to gloss over the contradictions at the heart of American culture. Susan Glaspell, the early 20thC modernist woman writer, wrote a one-act play called ‘Trifles’, a text which is structured like a crime narrative, and which suggests that, for women, silence can be a form of resistance and dissent, as can creativity and sisterhood. Paretsky’s determination to channel such quintessentially American counter-cultural ideas into her crime writing has contributed in no small way to her questioning of ‘Americanness’ in both her autobiography and her crime fiction. In Writing in an Age of Silence, Paretsky explains how she: ‘grew up with a very idealized vision of what the country should be and could be...believing in the America of the Statue of Liberty.’ Importantly, Paretsky’s response in Writing in an Age of Silence, and her emphasis on the significance of ‘voice’, should also be seen in the context of post-9/11 fuelled American anxieties about civil liberties. Thus, Paretsky’s autobiography is part of a larger outpouring of texts and debates, in the wake of 9/11, about American values and identity. In Writing in an Age of Silence, Paretsky insists that writers ‘must bring their work to an outside world where the market, or public outrage, or even government censorship can destroy our voice.’

Paretsky explores the importance of voice/words/writing in Writing in an Age of Silence, and not just through the title of her book, or through examining American cultural and literary responses to international crime such as terrorism, but also by paying attention to American women’s changing access to public life and speech over time. Paretsky notes that her memoir ‘traces the long path [she] followed from silence to speech’ or as she also puts it, ‘focusing on questions of voice and voicelessness’. In order to emphasise the enormity of that experience, and the effort it takes to overcome silence, Paretsky openly admits that this issue ‘dominates my writing, because they dominate my emotional life.’ This acknowledgement of the crushing power of silence for women is powerfully worded, and serves as a reminder that, far from glibly dismissing crime fiction as popular culture pulp, the genre may encompass pertinent and powerful forms of social and cultural critique, as in Paretsky’s case. Writing in an Age of Silence is a wonderful autobiography, told with wit, passion, rage, empathy. It brims with thoughtful observations about the links between socio-cultural events and the politics of crime writing, described from the vantage point of one individual writer in the midst of it all, trying to make sense of their life’s work and the culture they live in. Paretsky’s voice is nuanced and intelligent, and for all avid readers of her crime fictions, Writing in an Age of Silence contextualises her body of work convincingly. This is especially so, since, in Writing in an Age of Silence, Paretsky describes growing up with ‘the feminine mystique’, and pitting herself as a woman writer against ‘the Angel in the House’, stating that: ‘In Kansas during the fifties, in a society where everyone had a defined place, where everyone knew right from wrong...girls often saw limited horizons in the future.’ She comments on the significance of feminism in shaping her creative path as a writer, saying: ‘It was feminism that triggered my wish to write a private eye novel, and it shaped the character of my detective, V.I. Warshawski,’ and, ‘I wanted to create a woman who would turn the table on the dominant views of women in fiction and in society.’ In Writing in an Age of Silence Paretsky defends her own sexually liberated fictional characters, positing their stories as a counter-discourse against what she perceives as an increasingly woman-hostile climate in America in the 1990s and 2000s, concluding that: ‘We are in a peculiar state of mind in America these days. We want untrammelled capital markets. We think speed limits, handgun controls and taxes are an un warranted intrusion into personal liberty. But we feel an overwhelming need to control women’s sexuality.’ The personal is political, but the fictional is also political, according to Paretsky. Her Writing in an Age of Silence is an exploration, as well as an embodiment, of the ‘body politics’ of American women’s life writing and crime writing.


University of Gloucestershire



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