“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Alas, Poor Novel. We Knew It, Horatio ...

In common with most crime fiction readers, the Crime Always Pays elves tend on the whole to be readers first, crime fiction devotees second. As far as they’re concerned, a good book is a good book is a good book. They’re not even prejudiced against literary fiction – some of the literary novels they’ve enjoyed so far this year include Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, Mary Renault’s THE MASK OF APOLLO, Brian Moore’s BLACK ROBE, Sebastian Faulks’ BIRDSONG, Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD, Primo Levi’s THE TRUCE, and John Banville’s THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE. Of course, Banville’s offering could easily be considered a crime fiction novel rather than a literary one, although there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be both. Quoth Marcel Berlins in Saturday’s London Times, reviewing THE SILVER SWAN:
“John Banville won the Man Booker Prize for THE SEA, but may be remembered just as much for the crime novels he writes as Benjamin Black. I do not imply that he’s dumbing down. On the contrary, he has applied his superb literary skills to a new genre, and discovered – as have his readers – that he’s a wonderful crime writer …”
No quibbles here: Banville is a wonderful writer, and could probably turn his hand to churning out quality pornography if the mood took him. But it’s that “I do not imply that he’s dumbing down” that gets under the skin of the elves’ collective inferiority complex. Why should any genre fiction, or non-genre fiction, require ‘dumbing down’ per se? Yes, there are bad crime writers, just as there are bad porn writers, and bad chick-lit writers, and bad literary writers. But what you generally don’t get in genre fiction, and which is increasingly the case in literary fiction, is a writer disappearing up his or her own fundament. A case in point: Adam Thirlwell’s MISS HERBERT, reviewed last week in the Sunday Times by Tom Deveson, the gist of which runneth thusly:
Thirlwell is a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, as well as the author of a previous novel, POLITICS … the scholarly showmanship is impressive and he flourishes his paradoxes with panache. Here is a novel that “is not really a novel”, one with a theme and variations but “no plot, no fiction, and no finale”. In a jetlagged version of literary history, Diderot and Kundera, Joyce and Hrabal are collaborators. Tolstoy “is a miniaturist”, a descendant of the “economical” Sterne.
Yes, well, huzzah. And there’s plenty more in that vein, until Deveson concludes:
It seems that Thirlwell can’t decide whether he is writing “an inside-out novel”, producing a look-at-me-mum firework display or instructing those less fortunate than himself in how to appear well read.
Which is, as far as we can make out, a polite way of saying that Thirlwell is so far up his own hole he’ll need a miner’s helmet, two maps and a compass to find his way out again. But the real issue is this – that it’s Thirlwell and his fellow fellows, with their novels that aren’t really novels, their book-shaped empty vessels devoid of plot, fiction and finale, who regularly pronounce the novel dead. Now, it’s possible that the doomsayers are commenting exclusively on the literary novel, in which case they’re only slightly wrong. But it’s also possible they’re the writing equivalent of the kid who descends from his ivory tower with a shiny new football, then discovers that the ill-bred oiks in the street are running rings around him, and so declares the game stupid, and takes his ball home, there to puncture it in a sulk. Should we indulge that petulant child as he kicks his flat ball around his ivory tower, or should we encourage him to get back out into the street and compete against the oiks, honing his craft to the point where he can beat them at their own game or finally, honourably, admit he just doesn’t have what it takes to play ball? Answers on the back of a used million-yen note to the usual address, people. Oh – and if anyone come across a review similar to that of MISS HERBERT above, mail it on here, placing ‘Putting The Fun Back Into Fundament’ in the subject line. Here is a novel that “is not really a novel”, one with a theme and variations but “no plot, no fiction, and no finale” ? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell, it’d take a heart of stone not to laugh at that.

2 comments:

DanaKing said...

Well put. A recent thread on the Crimespace site decried the lack of the "new" in crime fiction, an unwillingness to be "experimental." Not advocating for the same old same old, but experimentation for the sake of experimentation runs the risk of moving writing into the realm of contemporary classical music, where the composers really only write for each other, as it takes a DMA to understand the compositions; forget about listening to them for enjoyment. Literary fiction risks a similar fate, if the comments on Thirwell's book are any indication.

Declan Burke said...

Dana - I think the key word here is 'enjoyment', on whatever level that happens to occur - story, style, character, etc. I think the more experimental literary writers have wandered off at a tangent, in which the writing has become an end in itself rather than a means of conveying a narrative. Shun them in the streets, they who declare 'story' naive or - worse - claim that 'all the stories have been told already'. A story doesn't have to have a moral, or - as Poe demonstrated in his short stories - anything as conventional as a beginning, middle and end. But almost by definition, the inherent conservatism of the crime / mystery genre lends itself to narrative - 'experiment' that drifts away from that undermines the whole point of crime writing. And that's my two cents ... Cheers, Dec