“One reason, I think, that critics are giddy over Black is that—let’s just say it—he’s more fun to read than Banville. (Well, some of Banville.) THE SEA is as exquisite as an Irish mist, but I won’t read DOCTOR COPERNICUS, KEPLER, and THE NEWTON LETTER again for all the whiskey in Quirke’s favourite pub. Another reason is that Benjamin Black’s territory is a new one for critics who regard themselves as “serious.” I suspect most of them have never dipped into the sordid but seductive world of Irish crime fiction—Patrick McGinley, for instance, or Ken Bruen, who is direct enough about his debt to Chandler to title a book DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS and whose detective, Jack Taylor, is so dissipated he makes Quirke seem like “a parfait genteel knight.” Banville might take it as an insult, though I think Black would not, that the Quirke novels are as good as anything produced by his contemporaries.A couple of things about all that:
“In 2006, when Banville accepted the Booker Prize for THE SEA—and, to be clear, if they had asked me, I would have voted for it—he made his famous statement, “It’s nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.” The egoism expressed in this statement bothers me not at all, but the deliberate tossing about of the phrase “work of art” makes me think that the man who used it was a pretentious prig who could do with a cheap thrill or two. Perhaps there is a difference between John Banville and Benjamin Black; if so, I think I prefer the latter. Black is Banville to be sure, and as Groucho said, outside of the improvement, you can’t tell the difference.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to see a work of pulp win the Booker Prize?”
One, a work of pulp will never win the Booker Prize, because the Booker Prize isn’t awarded for pulp. It’s like suggesting that a pole-vaulter should win the gold medal for the javelin, because they’re both Olympic sports and involve running for a bit with a big stick and then letting go. The Booker Prize is what it is; I honestly don’t get this obsession some crime fiction writers and readers have with a crime novel winning it. To me it suggests an inferiority complex, that crime fiction will only be fully validated when it wins a literary prize. The truth is, if you want to win the Booker Prize, or be in with a chance of winning it, at least, then write the kind of book that tends to win the Booker Prize. And yes, I know that there’s great excitement about the fact that AD Miller’s SNOWDROPS has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker (along with Patrick DeWitt’s western SISTERS AND BROTHERS), and happy days for AD Miller if the book wins. Would it change the way people read and write crime fiction? Should it? Isn’t one of the attractions of crime fiction that it’s the half-breed outlaw of the publishing world? It is for me, at least. Do I want or need to see the kind of stories I like to write and read receive some kind of belated pat on the head as they pass through the gilded pillars into the whited sepulchre? Because - and it gives me no great pleasure to say this - literary fiction is on its knees. And not just in terms of sales - how often have we read the latest in an interminable series of ‘the novel is dead’ eulogies, in which some writer we’ve never heard of laments the fact that the literary novel has disappeared up its own fundament? The fact of the matter is, the literary novel is a vampire, a beautiful but dead shell which requires regular infusions of new blood in order to maintain the illusion of vitality, sucking up inspiration from the genres it purports to despise. Maybe crime fiction and AD Miller’s SNOWDROPS is just the latest victim, who knows. And really, who cares?
Secondly, and as all Three Regular Readers will be aware, Ken Bruen has yet to write a book called DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS, although he did contribute a short story to the collection of essays, interviews and short fictions published by Liberties Press earlier this year.
Thirdly, John Banville is as entitled to a sense of humour as anyone else, and his ‘It’s nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize’ comment was as much mischief as it was any kind of qualitative judgement on previous winners.
As to whether Benjamin Black is as good, or better, a writer than John Banville, well, that’s a matter of opinion, and mine is that Banville is the better writer by some distance. But one thing is certain: Benny Blanco don’t write no pulp, in either guise.