“A sheep should not venture into a pen of wolves. Not the least of the reasons I agreed to attend the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing festival 2009 in Harrogate was that the name charmed me. Also it was a chance to revisit Yorkshire, a part of the world I greatly like, if only for the rough poetry of the common speech there - for instance, on the train from Leeds to Harrogate a woman in the seat behind me was speaking of a fickle friend and said: "She coomes on lak a dyin' swan and then puffs oop."Well said, that man. “I prefer to think of Benjamin B. as lording it among aristocrats …” Nice.
“My event was a public interview with Mark Lawson, an expert conductor of the third degree; also on stage was that fine writer Reginald Hill. We had a large and attentive audience, consisting mostly of fans of Reg, I suspect. During the hour-long conversation I described my differing work methods as John Banville and Benjamin Black, saying how the former writes painfully slowly while the latter is fluent and fast. I am told that many in the audience took offence at this, imagining, I presume, that I was making a disparaging comparison between my "literary" books and my crime fiction. I also made a joke - limp, I admit - to the effect that I fully expected Black to win the Nobel prize; this has been blogged as my saying that I expected to win it. Imagine a weary sigh.
“Another blogger did a survey among attendees. One of them, Ruth Dudley Edwards, a good writer who should have known better, allowed herself to be quoted as saying that I was slumming it as Benjamin Black. The inevitable implication of this is that Dudley Edwards considers crime writers to be slum dwellers. I prefer to think of Benjamin B. as lording it among aristocrats such as Georges Simenon, James M Cain, and my much-missed friend, the lavishly talented, late Donald Westlake, aka Richard Stark.
“I deplore the apartheid that has been imposed on fiction writing, so that in shops the "crime books" are segregated from the "proper" novels. Of course, there are bad crime novels, many of which seem to have been written with the blunt end of a burnt stick, but the same is true of so-called literary fiction. The distinction between good writing and bad is the only one worth making. I revel in the challenge of crafting my crime books, trying to make something new in an old convention - for is that not what any artist does? Baa.”
As for Ruth Dudley Edwards and the ‘slumming it’ bit, and on the basis that she wasn’t being ironic, or quoted out of context – what’s so wrong with the idea that John Banville is slumming it as Benjamin Black? I find the idea that Banville is writing from an ivory tower and Benny Blanco in a tenement slum very appealing, actually; it puts me in mind of Chandler’s take on Hammett, that he took murder out of the drawing room and dropped it back in the alley, where it belonged. To me the crime novel – and I make the distinction between crime novel and mystery novel, or thriller – belongs in the slums, its sewers thronged with rats made mad by poverty and poisons and doomed to drown, sooner or later, in the endless flow of shit.
A very broad generalisation, I know, and it very probably says more about me than I’m willing to examine too closely that that’s not only my idea of a good time, but a metaphor for life itself and the universe at large.
John Banville says he’s not slumming it, and good enough for me. In the long run, though, it’s a moot point. He’ll be judged by the books, not on his attitude or what he did or didn’t say. And it’d be a shame if some kind of inverted snobbery were to deny him a fair hearing.
John Banville’s THE INFINITIES is published on September 4.