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, September 26, 2008

Three Chords And The Truth

If the prospect of ‘low’ entertainment being transmuted into art makes you queasy, look away now. For lo, Peter Murphy has a fine treatise on the influence of punk music on Irish literature over at his Blog of Revelations, in the midst of which he has this to say:
“The compost theory of culture holds that what was once held as ‘low’ entertainment – gothic, southern gothic, pulp fiction, westerns, post-war noir, horror, magic realism, new journalism, the new wave of ’60s sci-fi, EC and Marvel comics, tales from the crypt, performance poetry, graffiti art, graphic novels – gets turned to precious metal by the pressure of successive decades heaped on top of each other, until, at this end of the process, what was once derided as common has become retroactively transmuted into art.
  “Anybody feeling queasy here should note that Cormac McCarthy, maybe the most respected living American writer, has worked exclusively in genre for decades, be it the post-apocalyptic (THE ROAD), modern noir, (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), western (THE BORDER TRILOGY) horror masquerading as western (BLOOD MERIDIAN) or southern gothic (CHILD OF GOD, OUTER DARK).”
  Peter I love like a mother from another brother, etc., but there’s an issue at the heart of his argument I can’t get my head around, which is that he views Irish literary works through the prism of the punk music of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, et al.
  Surely, if the ‘low entertainment vs art’ argument holds true, then punk – and pop, rock, C&W, metal, et al – are simply genres of music, with classical the only music worth taking seriously for true connoisseurs.
  Here’s something that occurred to me while watching the Coen Brothers’ take on NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – the movie would not be judged on its merits as a genre flick, but simply on whether it was a good or bad movie. And when the awards season rolled around, the film wasn’t awarded ‘Best Crime Flick’, it was given ‘Best Flick’.
  You can argue, as I’ve been known to do after a dry sherry or four, that movie-making being a relatively new form, it’s more in tune with generalised democracy and universal suffrage – as with TV, it instinctively understands that its audience is for the very great part composed of a classless society, or at least believes that it belongs to a classless society.
  The world of books, on the other hand, has its roots in a much different world order, one which depended for its very existence on the idea of a pecking order. And no matter how you arranged that pecking order – by title, rank or money – the essential element underpinning it was snobbery.
  Peter, back at the Blog of Revelations, celebrates the social and cultural leveller that was / is the punk ethic by urging us to:
“ … imagine a climate where Irish writers and, crucially, non-Irish writers resident here, co-opted punk’s refusal to observe protocol, where there’s no confining delineation between so-called serious and popular literature, where language, theme, storytelling craft and imagination all co-exist.”
  He goes on to cite, as examples of same, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Joe Hill, AM Homes, David Foster Wallace, Steven Hall, Jeffrey Eugenides, Dave Eggars, George Saunders, Katherine Dunne and Tom Spanbauer.
  I don’t get the “and, crucially, non-Irish writers resident here” bit, but what I can suggest is that there many Irish writers who have “co-opted punk’s refusal to observe protocol”. They include John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Alan Glynn, Tana French, Adrian McKinty, Gerard Donovan, Colin Bateman … you get my drift.
  If punk was about anything, it was about telling it like it is. Some, like the Pistols, were wilfully raw. Others, such as The Buzzcocks, were deceptively articulate and sophisticated.
  Crime writing – whether wilfully raw or sophisticated and articulate – tells it like it is.
  All together now: “Even fallen in love with someone / Ever fallen in love / In love with someone / You shouldna fallen in love with …”


John McFetridge said...

Excellent post.

Declan Burke said...

Folks? Keep a weather out for Peter Murphy's JOHN THE REVELATOR ... "an absolutely wonderful novel," according to Colm Toibin.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

A blog-host writes: Peter exercised his right to reply, but the comment machine gremlins were up to their old tricks. So here's his feedback ...

Ey up Declan.
Can't seem to post a comment on the site, so I'll just send you this
via email, and you can have your evil way with it as you choose.

I should clarify that the reason I was looking at Irish literature
through the punk prism is because that was the theme of the Edge 08
Festival in Ballina this year, so I was kind of beholden to stay on
point. Given a freer brief, I might have written twice as much, or
maybe nothing at all, in the same way as I rarely buy anything in
Chapters cos the selection is too good.

I suppose my general point is that there's loads of Irish writers
doing 'highbrow' literature. Not so many melding 'genre' with
'highbrow' like so many of the American writers I mentioned. Re crime
fiction, this is one area where Irish writers excel, so I didn't feel
quite so driven to beat the gong as for other mavericks. I'm more
interested in why so many Irish writers have avoided speculative or
slipstream, or modern gothic or horror or that luvverly area between
sci-fi and near future dystopian novel a la Ballard, Bradbury etc.

"Surely, if the 'low entertainment vs art' argument holds true, then
punk – and pop, rock, C&W, metal, et al – are simply genres of music,
with classical the only music worth taking seriously for true
Not sure I quite get that bit.

The reference to non Irish writers resident here I feel is important
because I've made quite a few friends from abroad who've been living
here so long they've gone native, but they offer a fascinating hybrid
perspective on what's going on, and one healthily removed from the old
rainy realism model.

"John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Alan Glynn, Tana French, Adrian McKinty,
Gerard Donovan, Colin Bateman … you get my drift."

An earlier draft mentioned a few of those folks (the ones I omitted
were simply not to my taste) but in the end, for reasons of space and
general accent of argument, I favoured the mutants because of crime
writing's enviable position as one sub-genre that is actually dominant
and increasingly more respectable in the mainstream (hence Benjamin

This is why I'd cite Nocturnes as more important than any of the
Charlie Parker books, not because of quality necessarily, but