I write theatre reviews for the Irish Culture section most weeks, and very enjoyable work it is too. The editor of the Culture section was kind enough to get in touch last week to say that he’d read the post on the blog about my quitting the writing game, and wondering if I’d be interested in turning it into an article. I didn’t want to write a me-me-me piece, even if my experience of the last few years was the hook, so I suggested we make it an article about how 2009 was an excellent year for the Irish crime novel, but that forces beyond the control of the writers could mean that the future isn’t as bright as it could or should be. Basically, I didn’t want the piece to read as a bilious case of sour grapes.
The piece that appeared yesterday (no link) was pretty much the one I submitted, although it had been subbed to give it a punchier opening, and the last two paragraphs were gone, presumably because they were weak and sentimental and because I had already made the relevant point. (This, of course, is pertinent writing advice: perhaps if my books had had punchier openings and stronger endings, I wouldn’t be ‘ex-novelist Burke’.) Anyway, the piece as it appeared yesterday comes below, and – because I’m weak and sentimental – I’ve included the excised final paragraphs beneath. To wit:
This year has been a vintage one for the Irish crime novel, as writers tackle our post-boom neuroses. But it could become a high water mark, too, warns the retiring Declan BurkeSo there you have it. Not just sour grapes, but dog-in-a-manger to boot.
Few literary agents come much bigger or more influential than Darley Anderson, and few have keener snouts for new talent. Twenty years ago, when he was getting his agency off the ground, he signed the unpublished Martina Cole and set about turning the thriller writer into a bestseller. Eleven years ago, he secured an advance of £350,000 for John Connolly’s debut novel, Every Dead Thing, the then 29-year-old Dublin crime writer having been rejected by half a dozen publishers before he approached Anderson. For reasons such as these, the publishing world listens when Anderson speaks.
It’s especially depressing, therefore, to see what Anderson looks for in authors, which he outlined in candid terms to a publishing trade journal last month: plot first, characters second. “Good writing is the last thing,” said Anderson, “and we can work with authors on that.”
The success of his stable of writers is testament to the wisdom of Anderson’s approach, but is formula is a depressing one for anyone who appreciates good crime writing. Plot and character are the staples of any good genre novel, but they are equally integral to movies, plays and even computer games. In reducing the crime novel to its most basic building blocks, and marginalising the author’s voice, Anderson is doing what the market requires. Artistry is an option extra that can be applied if and when necessary.
Many in the new generation of Irish crime writers have taken a different tack. There is no school of Irish crime writing, but writers such as Gene Kerrigan, Alan Glynn, Declan Hughes and Stuart Neville have something in common in the way they have looked for cues to America, where noir novels take inspiration from the trinity of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, writers for whom matters of style were inextricably linked with matters of content. Their novels sold to a mass market but they also came to be recognised as works of art, and as having something to say about the societies in which they were set.
In what may well come to be regarded as the watershed year for Irish crime fiction, Kerrigan, Hughes, Glynn and Neville this year published books that straddle the line between crime fiction ‘entertainments’, as Graham Greene referred to his crime narratives, and the social, or realist, novel. Political corruption, the fall-out from Northern Ireland’s Peace Process and the parlay of paramilitary gains into socially acceptable wealth were some of the themes explored. Angry, fresh and bracingly polemical, the novels are important contributions to our attempt to understand who we are and where we are going.
They have a fair wind behind them. Writing about crime has become increasingly popular in Ireland over the last decade, and particularly in the last five years or so. The seismic shudders generated by the murder of Veronica Guerin shouldn’t be discounted, but the post-Troubles fall-out, the economic boom, an increasing urban anonymity and the commercial success of ‘chick lit’ have all contributed to a growing number of writers utilising crime narratives to tell their stories about modern Ireland.
Connolly, who sets his supernatural thrillers in Maine, blazed a trail in the U.S. that Ken Bruen and Tana French have followed. There are movies being made from Irish crime novels, and awards are being won. Literary authors such as John Banville and Eoin McNamee write crime fiction under nom-de-plumes. All told, 2010 should be the year in which the Irish crime novel finally breaks out onto the international stage.
If it does – and I hope it does – I won’t be along for the ride. Last month, and despite having two published novels under my belt (Eightball Boogie in 2003 and The Big O in 2007) I decided to hang up the gumshoes and abandon crime fiction. The problems of any struggling writer don’t amount to a hill of beans, but there can come a point, especially with a young family and a hefty mortgage, when the rational decision is to withdraw.
For most aspiring writers, the business of writing involves working two to four hours per day, five or six days per week, all in the quixotic hope that someone, somewhere will like your book enough to pay you an advance that is enough, if you’re lucky, to pay two months’ worth of mortgage. Any business requires sacrifices to make it a success, but if you’re a writer, you’re asking others to make those sacrifices on your behalf, and that can come to seem wrongheaded, or worse, when you’re taking large chunks of time to write books that the market doesn’t want.
Any sensible reflection on failure involves the realisation that, for one reason or another, one simply wasn’t up to delivering what was required. My problem, according to various rejection letters, was that my books aren’t big enough. By big, publishers mean books that will translate to an international audience and be easily adaptable for the movie screen. Ireland, in its post-Troubles, post-boom incarnation, is fertile ground for a writer, particularly given the prevalence of both blue- and white-collar crime, but the advice I’m being given is that Irish-set crime novels simply don’t have the appeal to cut it on the global stage.
It’s not just me. In the last week alone I’ve had conversations with two well-respected and well-reviewed Irish crime writers, both of whom were pessimistic about their immediate futures because their books simply aren’t selling; one has already made the decision to stop writing. Their loss would not only impact on the potential of the Irish crime novel, it would raise a serious question mark as to whether the Irish crime novel can continue to generate the kind of momentum that would see it reach a tipping point of market acceptance.
There are reasons for optimism. Hughes’s The Price of Blood was this year shortlisted for the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar award in the U.S., while Kerrigan’s Dark Times in the City was nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger award in Britain. A fortnight ago, Neville’s debut The Twelve received top billing in the New York Times’ weekly review of crime fiction. Glynn’s recent release, Winterland, has been widely praised by reviewers.
As any writer will tell you, however, you can’t eat good reviews. In any case, a review is just one person’s opinion. While Neville’s novel was recently praised by a South African reviewer for how it dealt with post-conflict politics, Hughes’s was given a negative verdict by a New Zealand reviewer on the basis that raking over the Troubles is in nobody’s interest. It’s telling, too, that Neville’s novel was published under its original title, The Ghosts of Belfast, in the U.S., but was rebranded for the British market because of perceived apathy or even antipathy to anything related to Northern Ireland.
The next few years will be crucial for the development of the Irish crime novel. Are our stories big enough to compete on the international stage? Connolly sets novels in the U.S., and Bruen has recently taken to setting his standalone works in America too. Adrian McKinty’s most recent offering, Fifty Grand, was set in Cuba and Colorado, while Alex Barclay’s Blood Runs Cold, and her forthcoming Black Run, are also set in Colorado. French has proved that Irish-set crime novels can be both international best-sellers and award winners, but on current form she is very much the exception to the rule.
Right now there is a very real danger that what appears to be the Irish crime novel’s annus mirabilis will in fact come to be seen as the high-water mark from which the tide rolled back, leaving some very fine writers high and dry.
It’s a Catch-22 situation: to survive in the current publishing climate, Irish authors will have to write the big novels that publishers want; but doing so means they will no longer be writing the novels that made this year such a stand-out for the Irish crime novel. – Declan Burke
Finally, those excised concluding paragraphs in full:
Not every author will change course or stop writing, of course. Many will persevere despite their economic circumstances and the lack of commercial success. Some will do so because they have no choice but to write the kind of novels they do. Personally, I hope they survive and thrive, because the realist literature being created by the new wave of Irish crime novelists is too important to be allowed wither away.
That said, it would be a terrible pity if, having as a nation finally matured beyond Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever you say, say nothing” to broach the taboos that have historically blighted Irish society, we were to be left with “Whatever you say, keep it yourselves.”