“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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

No, You’re A Snob. No, YOU!

Apparently John Banville (right) created a bit of a to-do at Harrogate last weekend when he said that he writes the Benjamin Black novels a lot faster than he writes his John Banville novels. Stuart Evers blogs about Banville’s snobbery here, and Sarah Weinman writes about it here … No one, apparently, asked Banville himself.
  The truth about the difference between crime fiction and literary fiction, even if it’s an unpalatable one for most crime fiction fans, is that literary fiction tends to be written with more style and panache; and for those who are offended by the fact that crime novels don’t win the Booker Prize, say, well, that’s because the Booker is generally given to writers who are eloquent stylists.
  Yes, there are superb stylists writing crime fiction, just as there are wonderful storytellers writing literary fiction; but – and it’s a broad generalisation, I know – crime fiction fans tend to favour character, plot and narrative over the inventive use of language. When was the last time you read of a crime fic fan recommending an author or novel on the basis of how well it’s written? And – for the record – how well a novel is written should ALWAYS be important, regardless of what kind of novel it is intended to be.
  But aside from all of that, what’s all this nonsense about being offended because John Banville writes Benjamin Black novels quicker than he writes John Banville novels? Are crime writers and readers so insecure in their choice of reading that they need to be flattered by the literary crew? Are they so delicate in their reverse snobbery that they can’t accept criticism, be it implied, perceived or otherwise? Are they so narrow-minded that they can’t take on board a contrary point of view without resorting to name-calling and pigtail-pulling?
  To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, yet again: there are only two kinds of books, good books and bad books. And to paraphrase John Connolly: 95% of crime fiction is shit, because 95% of everything is shit.
  Anyone who knows anything about the business of writing crime fiction knows that there is one bottom line, and that’s the almighty dollar: and it’s this bottom line that results in so many functional, practical, fast-paced but ultimately bland crime fiction novels in the genre. Take a look at the best-sellers – John Grisham, Dan Brown, James Fucking Patterson.
  Seriously, people – when those three ‘writers’ are the biggest and best in the genre, don’t you think the literary crew are entitled to sneer?

UPDATE: Crime Fic Reader Rhian was at the John Banville / Reginald Hill interview at Harrogate, and took notes. If you’re interested in what was said, clickety-click here.

15 comments:

Brian said...

And to paraphrase John Connolly: 95% of crime fiction is shit, because 95% of everything is shit.

Great post. But I'd like to point out that the above is know as Sturgeon's Law. Named after Ted Sturgeon

Stuart Neville's writing has it's hooks in me at the moment. There is also an Australian book called The Low Road by Chris Womersley that, based on the writing alone, looks interesting.

Reverse snobbery can be an interesting thing. I'm surprised at the lack of coverage (so it seems anyway) at Denis Johnson's book, Nobody Move.

Declan Burke said...

Brian - Denis Johnson of Tree of Smoke fame, I presume?

And yeah, Stuart's novel is terrific.

Cheers, Dec

Brian said...

One and the same. However I meant to write 'lack of coverage within the mystery/crime community'

Brian said...

I also think that a lot of mystery and crime fiction worships at the alter of transparent prose which ties in with this subject too.

I'll stop littering you comments section with stray comments now.

Declan Burke said...

On the contrary, Brian, stick around ... I'd like to hear more on your theory about the worshipping of 'transparent prose', for one thing. I'd say we're on the same page of the hymn-sheet for that one.

Cheers, Dec

Donna said...

Great post Dec. The two reasons I enjoy the crime fiction that I do are the characters and the writing. Plot driven crime novels leave me cold if they don't have the characters I can care about (which doesn't necessarily mean LIKE). Equally, navel-gazing literary fiction also leaves me cold.

I agree - a good book is a good book - who cares what genre it is - crime, literary, or free verse science fiction romance set on the planet Zog

You said "When was the last time you read of a crime fic fan recommending an author or novel on the basis of how well it’s written?"

Me - whenever I recommend Daniel Woodrell. And my latest discovery - short story writer Donald Ray Pollock's KNOCKEMSTIFF. For both of them the writing is wonderful - stylish, lyrical, beautiful, heartbreaking, breathtaking.

Sandra Ruttan said...

There are a number of variables that could be brought forward that could skew the perspective people have on Banville's comments. For one, this isn't the first time he's "slammed" or "insulted" or "degraded" the genre. Personally, when I hear he's said something that some people find offensive, I just figure he's using it to get publicity because it's the thing I associate with him most. For all my activity online and awareness of what's going on in the genre, that's what I associate Banville with: controversy, in the form of possibly offending genre readers and author.

There's never been a single thing said that's generated any interest in his books, so I can't speak to his writing at all.

Now, as for what you said about crime fiction and referring books based on the use of language, what about James Sallis? And isn't that the basis of 90% of the comments I read about how wonderful Ken Bruen is - lyrical, poetic, killer lines that cut you to the core, etc. However, I agree with Brian that, in general, transparent prose rules the day.

Where you can see the divide, even within the genre, is when you read truly skilled writers like Ray Banks, and then read something that's on the bestseller list. This is a generalization, but I don't want to name names. I've tried some books by bestselling thriller authors, and the story is 99% tell. If you're looking for an easy beach read that works fine - I can read, watch the kids and have a conversation all at the same time. But put Sallis or Banks or McFetridge or Guthrie in my hands and my full attention is demanded.

And gladly given.

Jay Stringer said...

Interesting read.

I do agree with Sandra's last point about writers like Banks, McFet and Guthrie. They give us things to think about without needing to use too many words, while many books labeled 'literature' give us little to think about while using way to many words.

I agree with Declan though that there's no real slight here, unless it is carried over from previous comments Banville's made. We often praise crime for is stripped back prose, so that shoudln't be an insult.

At the same time, most writers i talk to who are known for lean prose take as much -if not more- time to write the books than more verbose writers. Because its a constant process of refining and stripping back, crafting the story down until it's lean. That takes a lot of work.

I don't know. I guess i'm on the fence.

Ian Connor said...

Er, how can we have got this far without anyone mentioning Adrian McKinty? One of the best writers writing today regardless of genre. To quote Ken Bruen, The guy is a fucking genius.

I agree with Sandra, JB has more than once talked about how he is slumming it in the crime genre. The dude has a bad rap. Has anyone read his crime books? You can tell what he feels about the genre in his prose.

Inidentally I heard Pete Leonard (Elmore's son) on WKAR here in Michigan talk eloquently about how much he respects the genre his father helped create. I'd link to it if I knew how.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Recommend a crime novel or author based on how well a book is written? Bill James, Peter Temple and, though it's harder for me to judge because I read his work only in translation, Friedrich Glauser. No one ever accused them of not being crime writers because they happen to be superb prose stylists.

How good need a crime writer's (or anyone else's) prose be? Good enough to do what it sets out to do.

I might find John Banville to be a pill if I met him, but the man attended a crime-writing event. He can't hold the genre in that much contempt.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter Rozovsky said...

Ruth Rendell. Reginald Hill. Fred Vargas.

Oh, and nice headline on this post, both for its prose and for its pertinence to the matter at hand.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

sheila quigley said...

well said son.

Declan Burke said...

Ta, folks ...

McFetridge, Banks and Guthrie - all three were on the same list as your humble correspondent at Harcourt, signed up by Stacia Decker, and all three are terrific writers, guys I'd read for their facility with language as much as their ability to spin a good yarn. McKinty's top quality too; and Chandler, Ellroy, Leonard, Pelecanos, Connolly ... there's loads of crime writers who are superb stylists, for want of a better phrase. But there's an awful lot more who are plodding, prosaic and barely functional, and that includes the top rank of best-sellers.

I should declare an interest here, by the way - I've met John Banville, to interview him, and I found him great fun, with a very dry, ironic sense of humour, which isn't necessarily something that translates well to a big audience. He's also passionate about good crime fiction, and gave me a few examples of what he considers works of art.

Does crime fiction aspire to be art? Does it need to be? And just how soon do I start sounding wanky after I start bandying the word 'art' around?

Questions, questions ...

Cheers,

Dec

Rebecca Pool said...

Great article! I heard Banville speak at Murder by the Book in Houston on this very subject and he did not come across as a snob. He stated simply that he writes his crime fiction in a different manner than his literary fiction. He laughed and said that he found himself stopping and tinkering with phrases when he was writing as Benjamin Black, but that he would consciously start writing again began he felt the flow of the language of crime fiction called for less tinkering and more urgency.

I have read Christine Falls and The Lemur, which were great books. I have The Book of Evidence in my "to be read" stack. It is essentially a crime novel, but written under his "literary" identity. It should be an interesting comparison.

I got a book signed after the event and had the opportunity to speak with him. I found him to be very personable. He enjoys crime fiction and talking about his writing.

I read both literary fiction and crime fiction. I don't think one is better than the other, just different.

NickH. said...

The unspoken assumption behind much of this debate is that good, let alone great, plotting is...
a) easy
b)inferior to other qualities such as style, characterisation etc..

Now while(b)is a matter of taste and inclination, (a) is patently untrue. Few writers have the ability to write a good plot and exceedingly few, great ones. It always amazes me when for instance Dickens is mentioned as a mystery writer when he couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag. Of course this doesn't mean he wasn't a 'great' writer (and you can debate the meaning of that for ever more). Great plotting is a rare rare skill. You may not like the skill but it should never be underestimated. Hell with two billion sales if other people could plot like Christie wouldn't they be doing so?