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.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

On Crime Fiction And Respectability

When an author references another writer’s novel twice in one book, it’s fair to presume that he or she is drawing attention and inviting comparisons. In THE KILLING CIRCLE, Andrew Pyper twice refers to THE MAGUS, the John Fowles novel which blends a number of genre staples, among them the thriller, the war novel, the supernatural and quasi-scientific propositions.
  Asked at an advanced age what he would change if he could live his life over again, Kingsley Amis thought for a moment and said, “Well, I wouldn’t read THE MAGUS.” I love it, although I know a lot of people hate it. But the point about THE MAGUS is that it’s a literary novel that has a hell of a lot of fun with mashing up genres.
  THE KILLING CIRCLE also blends genres, most obviously those of crime and horror, although, given that its narrator is an aspiring author who lacks the imagination to create a unique story, it’s also intended as a serious meditation on the writing process. In that context, the references to THE MAGUS are presumably intended as reminders to the reader that Andrew Pyper is engaged in a literary activity, despite the genre staples.
  Which brings me to a comment Adrian McKinty – yep, him again – left on a post further down the page, vis-à-vis the consecration of crime fiction as ‘interesting and important’. To wit:
“One thing though about Banville, Rushdie, Chabon etc. writing crime novels is that they would never have ventured into the territory in the first place had not the zeitgeist begun to see crime books not as disposable pulp fiction but actually as interesting and important. When the Library of America started bringing out Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Highsmith in annotated quality hardbacks, it was a sign that the critical community had embraced those writers and no longer despised them. The rising tide began to float the boats of the whole genre.”
  Writing about the inclusion of Rob Smith’s CHILD 44 on the Booker Prize long-list for the LA Times recently, Sarah Weinman made a similar point:
“And yet, if CHILD 44 -- a serial killer novel that takes place in the last years of Stalin’s Russia -- appears at first glance to be a brash upstart, a closer look suggests that its inclusion might not be so unlikely after all. Indeed, this is the most recent example of the blurring of the line between crime fiction and literature, which raises hope that the so-called genre wars are lurching toward, if not an end, then at least a tentative cease-fire.”
  Yes, yes – but is this actually a good thing? Crime writing has always had stylists as fine as anything the literary world can offer, if only the reader has eyes to see, but the idea that respectability is about to be conferred on the genre seems somehow grotesque, and not least because the respectability is to be conferred by the literary types.
  I write crime fiction, but I’m not a crime fiction nut. As I’ve said elsewhere, crime fiction only accounts for about a quarter of my reading, or maybe as much as a third. I read for all kinds of reasons, although mainly because I’d probably go blind if I didn’t. I can read Salman Rushdie and John McFetridge, say, as I did earlier this year, and be equally impressed by both.
  But when I read crime fiction, I read it for the adrenaline buzz of knowing that it is getting under the skin of the world we live in, broaching taboos and creeping down the dark alleyways that we’d prefer weren’t so dark, or there at all, and doing it with an authenticity and immediacy that makes it utterly believable, even if I’d rather it wasn’t true. And as far as I’m concerned, respectability is far more likely to blunt that edge than hone it. To mangle Groucho Marx, I don’t want to be in any club that’d have me.
  Every writer should aspire to be as good as Rushdie, Chandler, Highsmith and Fowles. But that’s not the same thing as aspiring to write a Booker Prize nominee, or to write a novel worthy of the approval of the self-anointed adjudicators of quality.
  I hope for Rob Smith’s sake that he wins the Booker Prize. But I hope for crime fiction’s sake that he doesn’t.


seanag said...

Declan, I agree with all you say. As a bookseller and writer, I feel like I'm constantly straddling the various liteary realms and trying to resist being labeled. Rushdie came to town recently, and his visit was thrilling, as was finally reading Satanic Verses in honor of his visit. But I would never want a diet of all Rushdie and no Michael Connelly, for instance. And I don't think Rushdie would be happy in a world without genre writing either, because what comes through crime writing or any of the other genres and medium that literary snobs think they can dispense with is actually what informs us. Rushdie, as he revealed at the talk he gave here was an ad man. I am sure this experience informs his writing. More importantly, I think it is easy for 'high literature' to get stultified. Genre literature has so many wellsprings of vitality in comparison. First of all, people want to read it, rather than feeling they have a duty to read it. Secondly, it is free from looking over its shoulder at whether the highbrows will approve--the only thing that matters is whether the public is willing to buy it, from which everything else follows. And finally, it, particularly crime fiction has an unlimited range. It can look at society and all its seamy undercurrents just as closely as it dares. And, in an age of ambivalence, it can draw moral consequences! I don't mean that the bad guys always get captured, or even that the bad guys are always portrayed as bad guys. It's just that you see the consequences of their actions, and I think a vivid realization of consequences always has something to say in the moral sphere.

Declan Burke said...

Good to have you on board, Seanag, and it's marvellous to hear a bookseller with such enlightened ideas about crime fiction - as you well know, with your writer's hat on, not all booksellers and opinion formers are of the same opinion. Cheers, Dec