Hey Kids, Let’s Transcend Some Genre
I think the Guardian’s Stuart Evers is making mountains out of molehills, but it does sound like John Banville rubbed some folks the wrong way at Harrogate last weekend:
About mid-way through their joint event at last weekend’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, there was a palpable crackle of tension between Booker prize winner John Banville and Cartier Diamond Dagger recipient Reginald Hill. Appearing as Benjamin Black – his crime writing alter-ego – Banville was asked to describe the
difference between writing his literary novels and his genre work. His
answer went to the heart of a debate that bubbled under in many of the
seminars and panels: why isn’t crime writing taken more seriously?
under his own name, Banville manages around 100 sweated-over, teased,
honed and polished words a day; but as Benjamin Black, he can manage a
couple of thousand. The intimation was quite clear, “Black’s” sentences
simply weren’t as important. Perhaps realising what he’d unwittingly
said, he tried to backtrack, but the damage was done and there was more
fuel for his critics. “He’s slumming it,” author Ruth Dudley Edwards
said the following day. “He says he isn’t, but he is.”
reaction to this was not to defend the crime writing art, but to
deliver a piquant rejoinder. “When I get up in the morning,” he said
dryly, “I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker prize winning
novel, or another bestselling crime book. And we always come down on
the side of the crime book.” It got the biggest laugh of the weekend,
but it did have a serious point. As author and critic Laura Wilson said
later, Hill “should have won the Booker already”.
Now, a couple of points: there’s no way a crime writer’s going to win the Booker Prize with the way the rules are set up, with publishers only allowed to submit two books on their own unless the judges call in specific books. With the submission list set so artificially low, why would a crime novel make it through from, say, Faber when there are a host of literary titles that won’t even get considered?
But the main one, which is that my “favorite” old saw is back in the news to court so-called controversy yet again. Maybe Banville’s choice of words wasn’t right for Harrogate, but this is hardly news; if anything, the sense I get is that he wishes he’d invented Benjamin Black years ago because he’s having much more fun writing those books than those under the John Banville brand – and make no mistake, literary novels are branded just as much as crime novels, just under different criteria of sentence structure, language, ideas, themes instead of plot, story structure, character development, ideas, themes.
If crime fiction wasn’t taken seriously, why all the ink of late for Donald Westlake? It can’t just be because he’s dead; it’s because his work endures, has the salient intangible qualities that talented writers of every stripe create, unwittingly or otherwise. Even John Banville knows this. Why do people keep coming back to Chandler and Hammett, whether to pay tribute, rip them off, or some such activity? Hell, why is Stuart Evers writing this piece when romance – which is only now getting some positive ink in the mainstream press, for real – barely merits mention at all from the critical class?
Granted, back in 2004 I said Westlake didn’t transcend genre, but I still pretty much agree with this ending paragraph:
Maybe the problem is that “transcending genre” implies going beyond a
group form, when writing is so very individual and comprises a volatile
mixture of craft, talent, technique and imagination. That last one,
imagination, is the most important thing of all. Some people’s ideas
are wide-ranging and barely tamed; others are smaller and require
stretching. No person is created equal, and hence no book is created
equal. Instead of saying one voice or style is inferior to another’s,
why not celebrate those who make the most of what they do while
encouraging others to challenge themselves further because they are
But old saws, even if their teeth are a little ragged and have dulled over time, still have the power to hurt and sting…especially if we’re still unclear as to what said saw really means.
UPDATE: Declan Burke does not mince words in response: “what’s all this nonsense about being offended because John Banville
writes Benjamin Black novels quicker than he writes John Banville
novels? Are crime writers and readers so insecure in their choice of
reading that they need to be flattered by the literary crew? Are they
so delicate in their reverse snobbery that they can’t accept criticism,
be it implied, perceived or otherwise? Are they so narrow-minded that
they can’t take on board a contrary point of view without resorting to
name-calling and pigtail-pulling?”