Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Pigeon Who Didn’t Want To Fly Home

Darragh McManus (right) waxes lyrical on the pigeonholing of writers below, and while Darragh might be an extreme example of the desire of a writer to write in different styles, genres and disciplines (Darragh’s the guy who kicked the ‘ass’ right back into Renaissance Man, basically), he makes a valid point or three.
  Two of the Grand Viz’s favourite novels were written by William Goldman, but it’s difficult to imagine two more different stories than those of MARATHON MAN and THE PRINCESS BRIDE (plus Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Right Stuff, and a veritable buncha other novels and movies and non-fiction books). Closer to home, we’re always mightily impressed with Gene Kerrigan’s work, regardless if he’s writing novels, non-fiction or his weekly journalism. Another example is John Connolly, whose standalone THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS is very different to his Charlie Parker novels, something of a minor masterpiece, and in the not-entirely-humble opinion of the Grand Viz, his finest work to date. Word around the not-entirely-metaphorical campfire is that Connolly’s book-after-next will not be a crime fiction novel, and we for one are already looking forward to it.
  So, yes, we’re perfectly open to the idea of a writer breaking fresh ground. By the same token, the Grand Viz can’t imagine wanting to read anything by Raymond Chandler outside of crime fiction; thinks Elmore Leonard is a genius in a low key, but has never read any of his Western stories, even though he loves Western movies; and cheerfully admits that he misspent a goodly portion of his youth re-reading THE CATCHER IN THE RYE but has little time for Salinger’s short stories, with the notable exception of ‘Teddy’.
  Anyway, the question is: are publishers short-changing readers by presuming they’re Pavlovian dimwits (how else to explain James Patterson?); or are they canny buggers really, who know us better than we think we know ourselves? Darragh, squire? Over to you …

My name is Darragh, and I’m a writer.
  Actually, I’ll be more specific – my name is Darragh and I want to write all sorts of things, but I’m not sure that this is possible. Let me explain.
  When I was growing up I read comic books, thrillers, crime novels, horror novels, lurid western paperbacks full of terrible Apache atrocities and even worse Apache stereotypes. I also read what might be termed ‘high literature’, albeit mainly suitable for children: ROBINSON CRUSOE, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, Sherlock Holmes stories. I seem to remember making a stab at JANE EYRE, aged around 12, which surely was a triumph of optimism over probability – if I couldn’t master this turgid leviathan in university, what hope had I at that age?
  Basically, I read any and all available printed matter, from timeless classics to the ingredients on cereal packets, and it all had an influence.
  Around my mid-teens the notion that I wanted to write for a living became formalised, became concrete in my mind. And what I wanted to write was … well, everything and anything.
  My favourite writers of all time, probably, are Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood; therefore profound, elliptical, exquisitely crafted literature was definitely on my authorial ‘to-do’ list. My favourite books of all time are NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi; therefore a paradigm-shattering, futuristic dystopia had to be tackled at some point.
  I had a soft spot for the Gothic horror of Anne Rice, Mary Shelly, Stoker, Poe et al; therefore a grand Gothic of my own (probably set in Ireland, the genre’s and my spiritual home) was factored into the master-plan. I adored comic books (particularly the more mature, ambiguous stuff like Alan Moore and Frank Miller), loved the way they married the visual and the verbal, word and image; therefore an award-winning creation, with huge movie spin-off potential, was marked as essential.
  Aged 23 I read Sarah Dunn’s THE OFFICIAL SLACKER HANDBOOK, the funniest book ever hewn by god or woman, and a collection of Woody Allen’s satire; therefore I allotted some future effort to making ‘em laugh, laugh, laugh. And I also loved James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard and Christopher Brookmyre, among many other crime writers; therefore I would, in this totipotential career awaiting me, find time for a series of dark, edgy crime novels, possibly with a metaphysical twist. (The details, as I’m sure you all recognise, were still a little fuzzy.)
  Hell, I probably even told myself I’d knock out something way post-modern, so hip it hurt, based on those cereal packet ingredients. The Tao of Vitamin B12 (a novel in B12 parts) …
  That was the plan, book-wise. In the day-job – journalism – I also desired diversity, variety, all those colours of the rainbow. I wanted to write about sport, movies, philosophy, politics, celebrity nonsense. I wanted to write serious social commentary and the silliest satire imaginable. I wanted to do interviews and reviews, match reports and features, restaurant criticism and news analysis.
  I wanted it all, baby – it’s the capitalist in me, I guess.
  So what’s the problem, I hear you ask? The problem is this: publishing and media (and in a broader sense, society) don’t want the Renaissance man or woman, the versatile epicurean of letters who can dip their quill into just about area they choose. They want to pigeonhole writers.
  Example: I spent two years, early in a journalistic career of a decade, editing an Irish sports magazine. Editing it, I might add, as a part-time gig, during which I also wrote features and satire for other magazines and newspapers. Forever after, I am known to some folks as ‘the guy who’s into sport’. I swear to God, I still meet people who say to me, ‘Oh, you write about sport, don’t you?’ Well, yes, I mean, I did up to 2001 which isn’t that long ago, so yeah, I suppose you’re not too far off the mark.
  And how does this relate to books – more accurately, to the contents of this here blog? It appears to me that it is very difficult to forge a career as a crime writer AND serious novelist AND purveyor of cheap horror tricks AND smart satirist AND who knows what else. The business, the culture and the audience don’t seem to want writers to diversify. We are encouraged to find our niche, get good at it and stick to it.
  Otherwise, whoa, who knows what might happen? We don’t want to surprise the reader, after all. God forbid a writer should challenge expectations or give a little flip to preconceptions, right?
  This is why someone like John Banville writes crime fiction under an assumed name, even though everyone knows it’s him. Benjamin Black isn’t a proper pseudonym which hides the author’s identity, but it delineates the literary, ‘serious’ Banville from the (assumed) mass-market thrills of crime fiction. He has a reputation to protect, after all. The Banville brand must be preserved in dust and amber.
  It’s why Sebastian Faulks publishes an espionage thriller with the caveat, ‘writing as Ian Fleming’. Or Steven King writes sci-fi under the name Richard Bachman. Or Iain Banks does likewise but only after inserting a middle initial on the book cover. Or a thousand other examples.
  I wonder why this is so in publishing – the field of artistic endeavour, one would imagine, that is most open to genre-busting, to freshness and the unexpected. After all, directors are allowed make movies of different kinds. Bands are applauded when they veer off in new directions. Even TV actors – the ultimate hacks in the ultimate hack medium – often quit their soap or medical drama to play a radically different character.
But for us poor writers? Get used to staying stuck in the same place.
  My first book, GAA CONFIDENTIAL, was a humorous, ironic little romp about Irish sports and culture, and I was so afraid of being ghettoised as a sportswriter that I seriously considered publishing under a nom de plume. (Thank God nobody actually read the thing, so I escaped that trap …).
  I’ve also written what might be termed a ‘literary’ novel, a collection of short stories on one motif, a crime novel with a vigilante angle, a fairly avant-garde play about dreams and memory, a broad comedy film script, a slacker drama film script, a collection of satirical pieces on pop culture and media, and the beginnings of a spoof history of the universe and a satirical travel book. I have about fifty other ideas in my computer for novels, plays, TV shows, movies, comic books.
  What’s wrong with the above list? I’ll tell you – it’s all over the place. Too diffuse, too varied, too unfocused. I mean, does this fella want to be a novelist or a comedian or a screenwriter or the new John Connolly or the new John Banville? Or what? (Wow – looking at like that, it’s no wonder I’m still waiting on a publishing deal.)
Meanwhile I’ve been trying to get satirical stuff published in British and Irish papers for over a year now, with limited success. Let me stress, in all modesty, that it’s not because the material isn’t funny, or accessible, or entertaining, because it is all three. The people turning it down even tell me so. But it’s just ‘not right’ for them, or it’s all a bit left-field, or maybe I should concentrate more on what I’m already doing …
  So I set up a blog, basically to promote myself and my work. Hopefully the features editor of the Guardian or New York Times will be passing by, stop for a gander and be enraptured by that hilarious rewriting of Hamlet in the style of Eastenders. But I’m not too confident.
  People always say, ‘Have faith in yourself.’ I have faith in myself, as I’m sure do all of you. The problem is that I don’t necessarily have faith in society, and in the publishing and media industries. I don’t have faith that any of us will be allowed a writing career encompassing crime fiction, heavily researched non-fiction, historical romances, poetry, action-espionage thrillers, elegiac non-linear novels wherein nothing happens and happens really goddamn slowly, or whatever our heads and hearts tell us to put on paper. I don’t have faith that one can earn a reputation as a journalist who writes equally strongly on sober matters and satirical daftness.
  For me there is absolutely no dichotomy in any of this. I see no tension between the guy who writes a meditative novel about death and the guy who writes a film script which crosses The Naked Gun with Commando.
  But that’s just me. The industry, I fear, goes by an inversion of the old catchphrase: ‘Now for something exactly the same as the last time.’ – Darragh McManus

A veritable cornucopia of writing can be found at Darragh’s blog, Satire For Hire


Gerard Brennan said...

A somebody who's written a horror-comedy novel, a gritty crime novel, a comedy stageplay, a collection of demented nursery rhymes, a crime caper screenplay and once had a bash at a radio play, I completely sympathise with this. And wish to god somebody would offer me a big bag of swag to publish just one of the above.

Maybe I've got ADHD, but I enjoy switching from one style or form to the next. But I've heard time and again that this behaviour can 'confuse' fans. I'll worry about that when I actually have some!

John McFetridge said...

I'm really looking forward to The Naked Gum meets Commando. As a fellow Canadian, my money's on Leslie Nielson to kick Schwarzenneger's ass.

You're right, though, the steady diet of the same thing from the same people can't be good for us - as readers or writers.

Sometimes, though, people do get established at one thing (or really I should say "famous" at one thing) and then branch out. I like Margaret Atwood's sci-fi more than her literary histories and if you've ever read Elmore Leonard's TOUCH you won't really find any crime in it (other than it doesn't get mentioned as one of his best books often enough).

Oh, and if you're interested in westerns, Declan, Valdez is Coming is terrific, but the Complete Western Stories has some short, quick reads that are also very good.

And good luck, Darragh, have faith in society - the problem is it's made up of so many people....

Conduit said...

Genre is a tricksy beast. It can in some ways restrict creativity, and in others feed it. Some authors make the leap from their own defined niche to children's fiction (John Connolly is mentioned, and Colin Bateman and Carl Hiaasen have also achieved this), but I think the distinction between a child's book and an adult genre is clear enough to allow it.

Some people are able to transcend genre, though admittedly they are the freakishly talented types. Chris Nolan springs to mind - his upcoming The Dark Knight is already being hailed as a masterpiece to rival The Godfather Part II, regardless of being a comic book movie. Back in the printed word, James Ellroy can take crime fiction trope and turn it into something entirely beyond his genre's supposed limitations.

I can sympathise with the host and the guest's frustrations with being boxed in. Finding myself in the very fortunate position of having an agent and being within grabbing distance of a publishing deal (watch this space), I'm conscious of having made my bed, and now lying in it for the foreseeable future. At this point, the idea doesn't trouble me too much at all. I'm just counting my blessings. Will I feel the same way ten years from now? Only time will tell, and the question presupposes I'll still have a publisher by then.

Incidentally, Marathon Man is a Top-Five-of-All-Time novel for me. Sheer brilliance. I'm a William Goldman fan in general, and his Adventures in the Screen Trade books are essential reading for any would-be writer (his oft-quoted line "Nobody knows anything" is as applicable to every creative medium as it is to cinema). Screen writers are not bound by genre, so Goldman was able to move from thrillers to horror to fantasy to biopic at will. Although he calls himself a novelist primarily, the fact that he was never depending on books to pay the rent probably enabled him to switch styles so often.

Darragh McManus said...

Thanks, folks, glad to see I'm not the only sane person in an insane world! (Clearly there are at least four of us...)
I don't know, maybe it's because I'm (virtually) a nobody. I will now wait until I get massively successful and powerful, suggest a radical change of direction to my publishers, then let everyone know how I got on...