Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Just give the Booker to Lilian Jackson Braun and we can all go home.

Fight, fight, fight, fight!

We're at it again.  Is crime fiction literature?  Are thrillers crime?  Is literature fiction?  Is reading entertainment?  Is that a wasp? 

Sorry, got distracted there.

And then sooner or later someone will say "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing [insert example of low-brow genre chosen for its shock value]"and we all have to turn off Twitter, spin three times and spit.

Philip Hensher started it this time with an article I hesitate to paraphrase in case I make it worse but here goes:

Thrillers have infiltrated the Booker.  Thrillers are conservative and comforting in that they offer . . . Well, I've never heard it put better then what Jill Paton Walsh said once (about crime novels, strictly speaking) . . . they offer "a dream of justice".  Science fiction is doing better, more interesting things than thrillers.  It's disappointing that people's tastes are sometimes so narrow. 

I agree with that last point in large shovelfuls.  It's a shame that anyone can spend a lifetime reading and not at least even try a murder, a western, a romance, a spot of magic realism, a saga, a Victorian doorstop like Middlemarch, a graphic novel, Anita Brookner, Brad Thor . . . I wonder if Anita Brookner's ever read Brad Thor. 

More seriously, it seems to me that when readers move from looking for something interesting to read into the realms of looking for (eg) a crime novel, urban, procedural, plenty violence, not too pat an ending or a murder, no swearing, not too much gore, rural setting . . . something had been lost.  One of the most depressing Amazon reviews I've ever seen began with "A new author is always a risk . . .".

Okay, not strictly true.  All of the most depressing Amazon reviews begin "This is the worst book ever writen.  So boooooring I literelly had to gouge out my eyes . . ." and are about The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird.
But readers' narrow tastes (which make them morons, in Hensher's view) also make for some enormously entertaining cultural moments.  Like the Dan Brown effect a few years back, when people who never normally read thrillers read The Da Vinci Code to see what the fuss was about and then sneered at the short chapters, the metronomic cliffhangers, the dull characters.  It was like someone going to their first opera and leaving at half-time because everyone just stood there singing.

Anyway, I do have a point.  I have two points.  I just chose a slow build to get there.  Hey, this is a quality literary blog.  If you want slam-dunk action go and read a different one.

1. You can write a thriller/mystery/crime novel with terrible prose, flat characters, a sketchy setting and nothing to say about the human condition and have it published.  It might even be a bestseller.

2. (This isn't the second point; maybe best call it 1.b.) You can write a literary novel with no story, flat characters, a sketchy setting and nothing to say about the human condition and have it published.  It might even win a prize.

1.c. But a crime novel with no story or a literary novel with terrible* prose are going nowhere.

1.d  A beautifully written novel, with a cracking story, rich characters and a lush setting that tells you true things about life is better and all genres - including Literary Fiction - will try to claim it as one of their own.  If the story is about a crime, the CWA, MWA, ITW, SinC and Malice will lick it so's no one else gets it.  (You can still tell I'm a kid from a big family, eh?)

*where "terrible" means hasty, thoughtless, pedestrian and tin-eared.  There are plenty of literary novels with over-wrought, intrusive, show-offy terrible prose.  Children's pastry, I call it.  Lots of fun for them to make but you wouldn't want to eat it when it's done.

So maybe literariness is just a kind of longevity - no more than the plain fact that you can only read a story once for the story itself, but you can want to read that bit where Lizzie Bennet smacks down Lady Catherine in the garden again and again (and punch the air every time).  Beautifully written Austen smack-downs are more lasting than aha! moments at the end of crime novels.

Doesn't seem like an oppurtunity for sneering, though.

And so to Point 2.  I chose LJB for the title of this blog because she's no longer with us and because she wrote about cats who solve murders.  She wrote sharp, funny, bonkers stories with a character - Qwilleran - to love, about cats who solve murders.  And there's nothing more reminiscent of a dahlia grower sneering at a crysanthemum grower in the flower tent at the village show than a crime novelist whining that they should be taken seriously for writing what they write and then in the next breath sneering at writers like Lilian Jackson Braun.

Newsflash: cats don't solve ingenious murders and neither do private dicks, feisty attorneys, maverick cops, or jaded reporters.  It's just pretend.


  1. This blog made me want to punch the air! Awesome post, Catriona!