Sunday, November 25, 2007

Across the Great Divide

I commented last weekend about the substantial coverage given by The Guardian and Observer newspapers to various writers of crime fiction.  But the debate about the supposed abyss between genre and 'literary' fiction (last aired here in relation to Clive James's provocative New Yorker piece) still rumbles on.  The current edition of the UK Prospect magazine carries a piece by Tom Chatfield called 'The Genre Divide'  (only available on-line to subscribers, unfortunately, though you can read the start of it here). 

It's a largely balanced, if slightly odd, article which concludes that genre writing 'is one of the great pleasures and enablers of fiction'.  Mind you, the positive tone is perhaps a little undermined by  the accompanying photograph of John 'Benjamin Black' Banville captioned 'Banville: slumming it'.   Not a phrase that occurs, as far as I can see, anywhere in the article itself. 

Interestingly, though, Chatfield's view is that 'genre fiction is difficult to do right' and that the Black novels are 'decent...but unsatisfying...less than thrilling'.  I can't comment, because Christine Falls is still sitting there, reproachfully, on my 'to be read' shelves.  On the other hand, the latest posting on Declan Burke's consistently entertaining Crime Always Pays blog suggests that the caption on that photo might carry a small ring of truth, after all...


1. Maxine said...

I've just bought Christine Falls now it is out in PB but haven't read it yet either ;-)
My husband has just read another "literary/occasional foray into crime fic" author Kate Atkinson (Case Histories) and says he thought it excellent.
My view is that there are no real boundaries -- there are some books that are firmly marketed as crime fic, and others that seem to be marketed as general fiction (eg Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penny)but have a few bodies. I think we do get too hung up on categorising fiction (often in bookshops you see the same book in the crime and the general shelves): to me, a good plot, writing and characterisation are what matter, and in my experience you tend to get that most reliably in "crime fiction" books than in many "literary fiction" books, some of which can be rather pretentious, or slow, or both.

2. Michael Walters said...

Yes, I agree entirely, Maxine. One of the weaknesses of the Prospect article was that it seemed to assume a polarisation, with 'literary' novels at one extreme and 'genre' novels at the other. I think it's much more of a continuum - possibly with some tosh at both ends. It's interesting that a number of supposedly 'literary' novelists (Banville, Atkinson, Susan Hill, Andrew Martin) have begin to move into crime fiction, but equally a number of crime authors (Ruth Rendell, Peter Temple, David Peace, Henning Mankell, Thomas H Cook - and numerous others) are producing work which is easily a match for the 'literaries'. It's maybe also worth adding that the notion that 'literary worth' can somehow be divorced from popularity is perhaps a rather recent one - and would have seemed a little odd to Shakespeare.

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