For countless generations, meat has been considered the single most important component of any meal. But meat is more than just a form of sustenance, it is the very king of all foods. It’s a source of societal power.
Historically, the resources required to obtain meat meant it was mainly the preserve of the upper classes, while the peasantry subsisted on a mostly vegetarian diet. As a result, the consumption of meat was associated with dominant power structures in society, its absence from the plate indicating disadvantaged groups, such as women and the poor. To control the supply of meat was to control the people.
It is not surprising that food metaphors, often meat-based, infuse our daily speech. There is invariably a gastronomically themed way of expressing almost any situation. Having money troubles? Then your goose is cooked if you don’t bring home the bacon.
Winterson – who sparked internet outrage a few years ago by catching and cooking a rabbit – is noted for her meaty metaphors. She uses meat as an important and recurring presence in her fiction. In her novel The Passion, the production, distribution, and consumption of meat symbolises the unequal forces at large in the Napoleonic era. The main female character, Villanelle, sells herself to Russian soldiers in order to have some of their scarce and valuable supply of meat. The female body is just another type of meat for these men and carnivorous desire leads to carnal pleasure. In contrast, Napoleon’s obsession with devouring meat symbolises his desire to conquer the world.
Of course, Winterson is not the only writer who has shown in fiction that meat has meaning beyond its nutritional value. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf describes a beef stew that takes three days to make. This meal dominates the domestic setting and requires much effort from the cook, Matilda. When it is finally ready for the table, the hostess Mrs Ramsay’s first thought is she “must take great care … to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.” Despite all the female labour poured into the dish, the patriarchal mindset of the early 20th century is so powerfully ingrained that a man’s right to eat the best meat is unquestioned. Woolf may not be writing about an emperor conquering most of Europe, but the message is the same as Winterson’s: meat is power, meat is for men.
Given that fiction often reflects on real world events and societal issues, it may very well be that down the line powerful meat metaphors are eschewed. While its unlikely we’ll start saying that someone has been overlooked like “chopped cabbage”, some shift in language is inevitable.
The increased awareness of vegan issues will filter through our consciousness to produce new modes of expression – after all, there’s more than one way to peel a potato. At the same time, metaphors involving meat could gain an increased intensity if the killing of animals for food becomes less socially acceptable. The image of “killing two birds with one stone” is, if anything, made more powerful by the animal-friendly alternative of “feeding two birds with one scone”. If veganism forces us to confront the realities of food’s origins, then this increased awareness will undoubtedly be reflected in our language and our literature.
However, that is not to say that meaty descriptions will be done away with immediately – after all, it can take language a long time to change. And who is to say that even those who choose a vegan or vegetarian diet even want to do away with the meaty descriptions? It is interesting to note that a range of vegetarian burgers have been made to “bleed” like real meat. Although the animal components of such foods are substituted, attempts are made to replicate the carnivorous experience. Beetroot blood suggests the symbolic power of meat may well carry into the age of veganism, in which case the idea of meat as power will also remain in literature for some time to come.
I count myself lucky. Weird, I know, in this day and age when all around us the natural and political world is going to hell in a handbasket. But that, in fact, may be part of it.
Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.
Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.
Regardless of the reason, this conception of literary fiction has been widely accepted – leading self-described “weird fiction” novelist China Miéville to identify the Booker as a genre prize for specifically realist literary fiction; a category he calls “litfic”. The best writers Australia is famous for producing aren’t only a product of this environment, but also role models who perpetuate it: Tim Winton and Helen Garner write similarly realistically, albeit generally fiction for one and non-fiction for the other.
Today, realism remains the most popular literary mode. Our education system trains us to appreciate literatures of verisimilitude; or, rather, literature we identify as “real”, charting interior landscapes and emotional journeys that generally represent a quite particular version of middle-class life. It’s one that may not have much in common these days with many people’s experiences – middle-class, Anglo or otherwise – or even our exterior world(s).
Like other kinds of biases, realism has been normalised, but there is now a growing recognition – a re-evaluation – of different kinds of “un-real” storytelling: “speculative” fiction, so-called for its obviously invented and inventive aspects.
a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously … not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labelled “genre” fiction.
Rawson’s latest book, From the Wreck, intertwines the story of her ancestor George Hills, who was shipwrecked off the coast of South Australia and survived eight days at sea, with the tale of a shape-shifting alien seeking refuge on Earth. In an Australian first, it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, our most prestigious literary award, after having won the niche Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction.
The Aurealis awards were established in 1995 by the publishers of Australia’s longest-running, small-press science-fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. As well as recognising the achievements of Australian science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers, they were designed to distinguish between those speculative subgenres.
Last year, five of the six finalists for the Aurealis awards were published, promoted and shelved as literary fiction.
A broad church
Perhaps what counts as speculative fiction is also changing. The term is certainly not new; it was first used in an 1889 review, but came into more common usage after genre author Robert Heinlein’s 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.
Whereas science fiction generally engages with technological developments and their potential consequences, speculative fiction is a far broader, vaguer term. It can be seen as an offshoot of the popular science-fiction genre, or a more neutral umbrella category that simply describes all non-realist forms, including fantasy and fairytales – from the epic of Gilgamesh through to The Handmaid’s Tale.
While critic James Wood argues that “everything flows from the real … it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream and so on”, others, such as author Doris Lessing, believe that everything flows from the fantastic; that all fiction has always been speculative. I am not as interested in which came first (or which has more cultural, or commercial, value) as I am in the fact that speculative fiction – “spec-fic” – seems to be gaining literary respectability.
(Next step, surely, mainstream popularity! After all, millions of moviegoers and television viewers have binge-watched the rise of fantastic forms, and audiences are well versed in unreal onscreen worlds.)
One reason for this new interest in an old but evolving form has been well articulated by author and critic James Bradley: climate change. Writers, and publishers, are embracing speculative fiction as an apt form to interrogate what it means to be human, to be humane, in the current climate – and to engage with ideas of posthumanism too.
These are the sorts of existential questions that have historically driven realist literature.
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared between 1970 and 2012. The year 2016 was declared the hottest on record, echoing the previous year and the one before that. People under 30 have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. Hurricanes register on the Richter scale and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added a colour to temperature maps as the heat keeps on climbing.
There is an infographic doing the rounds on Facebook that shows sister countries with comparable climates to (warming) regions of Australia. But it doesn’t reflect the real issue. Associate Professor Michael Kearney, Research Fellow in Biosciences at the University of Melbourne, points out that no-one anywhere in the world has any experience of our current CO2 levels. The changed environment is, he says – using a word that is particularly appropriate for my argument – a “novel” situation.
Elsewhere, biologists are gathering evidence of algae that carbon dioxide has made carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious. So the plankton that rely on them to survive might eat more and more and yet still starve.
Fiction focused on the inner lives of a limited cross-section of people no longer seems the best literary form to reflect, or reflect on, our brave new outer world – if, indeed, it ever was.
Whether it’s a creative response to catastrophic climate change, or an empathic, philosophical attempt to express cultural, economic, neurological – or even species – diversification, the recognition works such as Rawson’s are receiving surely shows we have left Modernism behind and entered the era of Anthropocene literature.
And her book is not alone. Other wild titles achieving similar success include Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, shortlisted for the Aurealis, the Stella prize and the Norma K. Hemming award – given to mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a speculative fiction work.
Kneen’s book connects five stories spanning a century, navigating themes of sexuality – including erotic explorations of transgression and transmutation – against the backdrop of a changing ocean.
Earlier, more realist but still speculative titles (from 2015) include Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Bradley’s Clade. These novels fit better with Miéville’s description of “litfic”, employing realistic literary techniques that would not be out of place in Winton’s books, but they have been called “cli-fi” for the way they put climate change squarely at the forefront of their stories (though their authors tend to resist such generic categorisation).
Both novels, told across time and from multiple points of view, are concerned with radically changed and catastrophically changing environments, and how the negative consequences of our one-world experiment might well – or, rather, ill – play out.
Catherine McKinnnon’s Storyland is a more recent example that similarly has a fantastic aspect. The author describes her different chapters set in different times, culminating – Cloud Atlas–like, in one futuristic episode – as “timeslips” or “time shifts” rather than time travel. Yet it has been received as speculative – and not in a pejorative way, despite how some “high-art” literary authors may feel about “low-brow” genre associations.
Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, told The New York Times when The Buried Giant was released in 2015 that he was fearful readers would not “follow him” into Arthurian Britain. Le Guin was quick to call him out on his obvious attempt to distance himself from the fantasy category. Michel Faber, around the same time, told a Wheeler Centre audience that his Book of Strange New Things, where a missionary is sent to convert an alien race, was “not about aliens” but alienation. Of course it is the latter, but it is also about the other.
All these more-and-less-speculative fictions – these not-traditionally-realist literatures – analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed, to echo Tim Parks’s criterion for the best novels. Interestingly, this sounds suspiciously like science-fiction critic Darko Suvin’s famous conception of the genre as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”, which inspires readers to re-view their own world, think in new ways, and – most importantly – take appropriate action.
A new party
Perhaps better case studies of what local spec-fic is or does – when considering questions of diversity – are Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius.
The first is a distinctly Aussie Handmaid’s Tale for our times, where “girls” guilty by association with some unspecified sexual scenario are drugged, abducted and held captive in a remote outback location.
The latter is another idea whose time has come: an apocalyptic act of colonisation. Not such an imagined scenario for Noongar woman Coleman. It’s a tricky plot to tell without giving away spoilers – the book opens on an alternative history, or is it a futuristic Australia? Again, the story is told through different points of view, which prioritises collective storytelling over the authority of a single voice.
“The entire purpose of writing Terra Nullius,” Coleman has said, “was to provoke empathy in people who had none.”
This connection of reading with empathy is a case Neil Gaiman made in a 2013 lecture when he told of how China’s first party-approved science-fiction and fantasy convention had come about five years earlier.
The Chinese had sent delegates to Apple and Google etc to try to work out why America was inventing the future, he said. And they had discovered that all the programmers, all the entrepreneurs, had read science fiction when they were children.
“Fiction can show you a different world,” said Gaiman. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.”
And when you come back, you see things differently. And you might decide to do something about that: you might change the future.
Perhaps the key to why speculative fiction is on the rise is the ways in which it is not “hard” science fiction. Rather than focusing on technology and world-building to the point of potential fetishism, as our “real” world seems to be doing, what we are reading today is a sophisticated literature engaging with contemporary cultural, social and political matters – through the lens of an “un-real” idea, which may be little more than a metaphor or errant speculation.
On January 17 1803, a young man named George Forster was hanged for murder at Newgate prison in London. After his execution, as often happened, his body was carried ceremoniously across the city to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it would be publicly dissected. What actually happened was rather more shocking than simple dissection though. Forster was going to be electrified.
The experiments were to be carried out by the Italian natural philosopher Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered “animal electricity” in 1780, and for whom the field of galvanism is named. With Forster on the slab before him, Aldini and his assistants started to experiment. The Times newspaper reported:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
It looked to some spectators “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
By the time Aldini was experimenting on Forster the idea that there was some peculiarly intimate relationship between electricity and the processes of life was at least a century old. Isaac Newton speculated along such lines in the early 1700s. In 1730, the English astronomer and dyer Stephen Gray demonstrated the principle of electrical conductivity. Gray suspended an orphan boy on silk cords in mid air, and placed a positively charged tube near the boy’s feet, creating a negative charge in them. Due to his electrical isolation, this created a positive charge in the child’s other extremities, causing a nearby dish of gold leaf to be attracted to his fingers.
In France in 1746 Jean Antoine Nollet entertained the court at Versailles by causing a company of 180 royal guardsmen to jump simultaneously when the charge from a Leyden jar (an electrical storage device) passed through their bodies.
It was to defend his uncle’s theories against the attacks of opponents such as Alessandro Volta that Aldini carried out his experiments on Forster. Volta claimed that “animal” electricity was produced by the contact of metals rather than being a property of living tissue, but there were several other natural philosophers who took up Galvani’s ideas with enthusiasm. Alexander von Humboldt experimented with batteries made entirely from animal tissue. Johannes Ritter even carried out electrical experiments on himself to explore how electricity affected the sensations.
The idea that electricity really was the stuff of life and that it might be used to bring back the dead was certainly a familiar one in the kinds of circles in which the young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – the author of Frankenstein – moved. The English poet, and family friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the connections between electricity and life. Writing to his friend the chemist Humphry Davy after hearing that he was giving lectures at the Royal Institution in London, he told him how his “motive muscles tingled and contracted at the news, as if you had bared them and were zincifying the life-mocking fibres”. Percy Bysshe Shelley himself – who would become Wollstonecraft’s husband in 1816 – was another enthusiast for galvanic experimentation.
Aldini’s experiments with the dead attracted considerable attention. Some commentators poked fun at the idea that electricity could restore life, laughing at the thought that Aldini could “make dead people cut droll capers”. Others took the idea very seriously. Lecturer Charles Wilkinson, who assisted Aldini in his experiments, argued that galvanism was “an energising principle, which forms the line of distinction between matter and spirit, constituting in the great chain of the creation, the intervening link between corporeal substance and the essence of vitality”.
In 1814 the English surgeon John Abernethy made much the same sort of claim in the annual Hunterian lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons. His lecture sparked a violent debate with fellow surgeon William Lawrence. Abernethy claimed that electricity was (or was like) the vital force while Lawrence denied that there was any need to invoke a vital force at all to explain the processes of life. Both Mary and Percy Shelley certainly knew about this debate – Lawrence was their doctor.
By the time Frankenstein was published in 1818, its readers would have been familiar with the notion that life could be created or restored with electricity. Just a few months after the book appeared, the Scottish chemist Andrew Ure carried out his own electrical experiments on the body of Matthew Clydesdale, who had been executed for murder. When the dead man was electrified, Ure wrote, “every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face”.
Ure reported that the experiments were so gruesome that “several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment, and one gentleman fainted”. It is tempting to speculate about the degree to which Ure had Mary Shelley’s recent novel in mind as he carried out his experiments. His own account of them was certainly quite deliberately written to highlight their more lurid elements.
Frankenstein might look like fantasy to modern eyes, but to its author and original readers there was nothing fantastic about it. Just as everyone knows about artificial intelligence now, so Shelley’s readers knew about the possibilities of electrical life. And just as artificial intelligence (AI) invokes a range of responses and arguments now, so did the prospect of electrical life – and Shelley’s novel – then.
The science behind Frankenstein reminds us that current debates have a long history – and that in many ways the terms of our debates now are determined by it. It was during the 19th century that people started thinking about the future as a different country, made out of science and technology. Novels such as Frankenstein, in which authors made their future out of the ingredients of their present, were an important element in that new way of thinking about tomorrow.
Thinking about the science that made Frankenstein seem so real in 1818 might help us consider more carefully the ways we think now about the possibilities – and the dangers – of our present futures.
In English, we might claim we could “murder a good steak”. Italian and Spanish speakers might “kill for a coffee”, and Germans refer to acute hunger as Mordshunger or murderhunger – but do people really kill for food?
Cannibalism is by no means the only way in which crime and food are linked.
Disputes over food may lead to murder. In the Bible, when Abel’s sacrifice of meat is preferred to Cain’s second-rate offering of produce, jealousy results in a deadly attack.
Food may also be a deadly weapon, killing through poison, or as in Roald Dahl’s fiendish short story Lamb to the Slaughter, serving as a blunt instrument.
Indeed, research has shown that the brain does not differentiate between real-life and fictional sensory triggers. Food memories can really bring a story alive.
Rather than serving to highlight a limited range of functions (as a weapon, as an element of characterisation or setting), food has immense potential in crime fiction. Our book addresses a broad range of questions, including what role recipes play in these narratives, whether crimes can be committed against food and how eating rituals relate to cultural belonging, sex, gender or class.
In chef and author Anthony Bourdain’s fictional and factual writings, eating and the preparation and experience of food are always situated on the edge. The professional kitchen is not primarily a place where delicious food is produced but is instead a site of violence.
This kitchen-as-crime-scene contradicts its expected role as the cultural and emotional centre of the domestic and social sphere.
Food is a pervasive element of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano franchise. Eating rituals may increase dramatic suspense, but they also mark place and cultural identity and contribute to the psychological characterisation of the detective hero.
Food plays a crucial role in outlining Montalbano’s distinctive personality, just as it does for other famous detectives such as Georges Simenon’s Maigret, for whom eating is an essential part of any investigation. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine cuisine. Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho is both an experienced cook and a famous glutton.
In recent years, culinary mysteries have become very popular in Germany, marketed to both fans of detective fiction and food aficionados. Ella Danz’s Georg Angermüller mystery series features a police inspector who likes to cook and eat. In her novel Geschmacksverwirrung (Taste Confusion), a food critic dies after being force-fed goose liver pâté in the same way geese and ducks are force-fed to produce foie gras.
While investigating the crime, the detective confronts issues like factory farming and ethical food production. Solving crimes requires skills that can equally be used to discover hidden truths about food. Truffled goose liver pâté may contain large amounts of pork fat and only a tiny amount of truffle. Factory animals never get to see the green grass and blue sky on the packaging.
Danz provides an appendix with recipes, a practice that has proven popular with readers. Adding recipes to culinary mysteries also allows bookstores to display the books in both the cook book and and mystery sections, thus doubling exposure.
Feminist food rituals
Feminist crime fiction sheds a different light on food. Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Dominique Sylvain all portray eating as an expression of female independence and agency in opposition to gender norms, challenging the cultural ideal of thinness.
The eating habits of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone not only signal that women are allowed to enjoy heavy food (McDonald’s), but they are just as much a commentary on the obsession with health and healthy food in American culture. In the French context, both Sylvain’s and Fred Vargas’s female detectives show strong appreciation for good food, prepared well.
Another, somewhat opposing idea in the novels is an indifferent or oblivious attitude to eating. The female detective who stares into her empty fridge is a recurrent scene in all the series, representing another blow to the traditional association of femininity and domesticity. Replacing marriage and family with friends is a typical feature of feminist crime fiction that rejects traditional gender roles, highlighting the female detective’s independence.
Bars and restaurants play a crucial role in this. The importance attached to the local eating place that functions as a headquarters inhabited by friends, as opposed to family, reflects the detective’s liberation from the domestic sphere and traditional femininity.
The female protagonist and first-person narrator of Ruth Rendell’s novella Heartstones is 16-year-old Elvira, whose mother has died from cancer. Through her retrospective narrative, the novella follows Elvira’s descent into anorexia, her obsession with her emotionally distant father Luke and her relationship with her younger sister Spinney, who overeats.
The clues Elvira later discovers suggest Spinney murdered Luke and his new fiancée, and may murder her, too. The narrative focuses on the denial of food and the compulsion either to eat or to avoid eating. Food is the enemy, a form of poison, and eating is the crime. Rendell uses the domestic noir genre, which highlights intimate experiences from the personal and domestic sphere to create a feminist critique of eating disorders and the patriarchal family as a “crime scene”.
Food and identity
Like Saga Noren (Bron/Broen) and Sarah Lund (The Killing), Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is lacking in emotional intelligence, which prevents her from establishing a personal relationship to the social code of food. The emphasis on the very narrow range of food she consumes stands in clear contrast to the other characters in the stories. She lives on frozen instant meals, mostly pizza, heated in the microwave or the oven, bread, apples, and of course coffee, which she usually consumes alone.
Eating frozen pizza not only blurs the boundaries between child and grown-up, but also introduces a male characteristic — refusing to take on the female role in the kitchen — that fits perfectly in the masculine area of the nerd and the hacker.
The relationship between food and identity, and the use of food as a symbol of the diversity of identities, place Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s work in line with recent trends of international crime fiction. He uses traditional food and drink to expand and challenge the definition of Cubanness. Cooking is a way to preserve the richness and variety of local and traditional culture.
Many traditional Cuban dishes, such as the stew ajiaco, are under threat because of the scarcity of ingredients. Padura suggests here that the richness of Cuban culture is a victim of the revolutionary government’s attempt to create a coherent national narrative and a standardised identity model.
National dishes represent identity in other contexts, too. Cultural differences appear in Georges Simenon’s work through references to food. Where, when, what and with whom people eat are all potentially useful clues for Maigret. They can serve first, when among people of the same nationality, to underline difference and make clear the boundaries between people. Second, when foreigners are involved, they can confirm similarity, suggesting unity and togetherness.
In the case of the English-born Australian writer Arthur Upfield, food offers insights into complex race relations and colonial influences on the traditional owners of the land. One example is seen in Upfield’s most famous protagonist, Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), and the detective’s ability to identify, through observation alone, an Aboriginal Australian who has been living on a white man’s menu rather than a traditional indigenous diet.
Ranging from “meals” to “grub”, food is critical to establishing, maintaining and handing on cultural practices and social identity. The suspects in Bony’s investigations — male, female, single, married, working class, upper class — are separated by what, and how much, they eat and drink as easily as they are by gender, living situation and occupation.
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The representation of food in international crime fiction, running the gamut from giggles to gore, is clearly a rich field for exploration.