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A Donkey in the Grand National

Aug 27, 2010 in Books

Congratulations must go to crime novelist Peter Temple who last month won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s oldest literary prize. But before we seal and send that particular “well done, mate” package, let’s just drop a sharply delivered head slap in there, too. Because as much as Mr. Temple obviously deserves his accolade, he’s also prompted an additional round of Booker bleating.

For those of you not in the know, I’ll keep it brief — the Man Booker Prize is a cash award (originally £5k, now a whopping £20k) for the best novel written in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen, and published in the UK. It’s arguably the most prestigious literary award in Blighty, and for some reason crime writers want in on the act. The difficulty is, of course, that publishers have a limited number of entries, and according to former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland, if publishers were to nominate a crime novel, “There’s a feeling that it would be like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”

Which, y’know, if you want the press to go pestering Ian Rankin and Val McDermid for their already well-recorded thoughts on the matter, then that’s a fine way of going about it. The problem is crime novels have consistently made the Booker shortlist, along with other genres. In the past ten years alone we’ve seen Margaret Atwood’s 2000 winner The Blind Assassin (crime), Peter Carey’s 2001 winner The True History of the Kelly Gang (crime), Tim Winton’s Dirt Music (thriller), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (sci-fi), Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (thriller), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (sci-fi), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (sci-fi), Aravind Adiga’s 2008 winner The White Tiger (crime), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (horror).

Now, yes, maybe I’m playing fast and loose with genre definitions there, but I still believe that whatever line there is between literary and genre, it’s easily blurred by quality. Case in point, and homework for you if you want it: compare and contrast the work of Richard Price and George Pelecanos with a particular reference to genre bias. Price’s first novel was a coming-of-age story about gang warfare; Pelecanos’s, a considered contemporary spin on the PI novel. Both have written extensively for The Wire, and both have had their most recent books branded with The Wire graphics, at least in the UK. Price’s novels frequently have cop protagonists and some kind of street-level mystery to be solved; Pelecanos has written variously of cops, PIs, and music-store clerks and tends to eschew mystery, especially in his later novels. So the question is, why does Richard Price have the popular literary label, while Pelecanos remains apparently stuck as a crime writer? Quality isn’t a factor — both are accomplished novelists. Is it a stylistic issue? Are Price’s prose pyrotechnics what make him literary? Do we still attribute being prolific with being poor? Pelecanos has written almost a book a year since his debut in 1992; Price has written four books since that time. Or is it simply geographical snobbery, where New York is seen as more artistically credible than Washington? Or is there an artistic glass ceiling, a real “us and them” situation? Because I have to say, I’m beginning to think it’s more just an “us and us” situation.

Case in point, the sequel: Lee Child goes on Australian television and jokily suggests that he could write a literary novel in three weeks, and — slightly less jokily — that the only reason all these literary folks don’t write thrillers is because they don’t have the talent. Forget for a moment that Ian McEwan, the author he’s supposed to be in a “grudge match” with, has essentially already won — his sales are more than adequate, his reviews are plentiful and positive, and I count seven movie adaptations (the last one Oscar-nominated) to Child’s zero. Also forget that the entire segment was set up as an exercise in equating the mighty buck with quality, and ends up implying that thriller readers are so mentally slow that they can’t get past C in the alphabet (sorry, Mr. Deaver). What comes through the most in that conversation is the question, “Why would I, Mr Popular Author Who Sells Bucketloads of Books, care about Ian McEwan?”

Well, because he provides you and all the others with an excellent hook for your current marketing push, as well as yet another opportunity to hijack what was originally elitism on behalf of the literary crowd and turn it into something far more ridiculous — a kind of anti-intellectual snobbery that placates readers who don’t want to be challenged, while furthering the case for novel as commodity as opposed to art. The bottom line is that the likes of Amis and McEwan don’t bemoan their sales figures, nor do they particularly care about the Daggers, the Edgars, or what the popular authors say about them. The sense of inferiority and all its incumbent neuroses belong entirely to the crime and thriller writers who, because they don’t want to be seen kowtowing to the literary establishment, choose to act like ASBO Olivers, kicking over tables and demanding more as their right: “I sell loads, therefore I’ve got to be good, so give us all yer prizes!”

The weird thing is, this kind of display does seem genuinely confined to the crime writers. You don’t tend to see it from writers in other genres, or at least it isn’t as shrill. Perhaps it’s because there’s more money involved in crime and thriller fiction than any other genre. I’ll be honest; I haven’t the foggiest. All I know is that I’m quite happy working in a genre that affords me myriad subgenres to play with and which can boast some of the finest writers of the past fifty years. And that I’m convinced that there are already plenty of crime fiction awards open to British writers out there — the Agatha, the Anthony, the Barry, the Dagger (of which there are a few), the Macavity, the Martin Beck, the Edgar, the Shamus, the Theakstons Old Peculier, to name but a few.

So, surely, the question shouldn’t be why crime writers aren’t being nominated for the Booker, but why they would ever want to be?

Ray Banks is the author of the Cal Innes novels, the last of which, Beast of Burden, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011. He’s also written a bunch of short stories that have been anthologized in such places as Dublin Noir, Damn Near Dead, Expletive Deleted, and Shattered. When he’s not mouthing off over here, he can be found mouthing off over at his website, www.thesaturdayboy.com.

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8 Responses »

  1. Nicely done, and reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s similar argument in an essay he wrote about the pretensions of “literary” writers and their devoted (and bloated) readers.

  2. In the end, the fight’s not worth having. It wasn’t worth having in high school when it was the popular kids versus the brainiacs (or whatever they call it these days) — this is the same fight. Emotionally and intellectually, the argument still boils down to who gets to be one of the cool kids.

    I’m with you, Ray. I’m content to write the best stories I can and then cross my fingers and hope to find readers who give a damn. Everything else is the circus.

  3. Excellent piece, Ray. Totally agree. It’s all a question of perception, I think. If you’re a rock musician and you write an opera, you’re seen as getting above yourself. If you’re a classical composer writing a three minute pop or rock song, you’re slumming it, working beneath yourself. Why? It’s still music. Notes arranged to get an intellectual and emotional response from the listener. One is as valid, in its own way, as the other. And as a crime writer, I’m more than happy at rock concerts. You have a better time.

  4. A good piece. Personally, I think it comes down to class. I remember, years ago, first coming across the work of David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich and being astonished at the quality of the writing and the depth of the themes covered. It started a long love affair with crime fiction.

    I could still enjoy the campus novels of David Lodge et al and could tolerate the likes of AN Wilson, McEwen and Julian Barnes, but increasingly, I got fed up with the unrelenting middle classness of literary fiction.

    Modern crime writers like Pelecanos and Price write of a world which, although alien to the likes of me, resonates far more the world depicted by the literary establishment. And now we have the likes of Ray Banks himself and a whole slew of Scottish and Irish mavericks who say a hell a lot more about the world in which we live than almost anyone who makes the booker shortlist.

  5. It’s an argument that’s been worn thin on both sides of a very ragged coin and the only ones who seem to care about the argument is the person attempting to further it. Great piece, Ray.

  6. Spot on, Ray. I think as long as you’re trying to write the best book you can, as long as you damn the dross and champion the gold – WHATEVER type of novel it may be – you can sleep easy in your bed.

  7. Too true. The amount of unfinished well-respected & well-reviewed ‘booker type’ books that I see on people’s bookshelves is FAR greater than unfinished crime novels. Apart from Ellroy.

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