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Friday, April 16, 2004

Not bad for a genre novel 

After a week of glorious weather, it's raining here today and all is peaceful in Gloucestershire. I get up, have breakfast, check my email, visit Sarah's blog... no new posts. Then I realize, that's because you're meant to be writing it, you dummy! So first off, and as this is a one-off, I thought I'd air some views about genre.
Last year, someone asked me what it was that made my books crime fiction rather than literary. I suggested, only half-jokingly, that it was the cause of death. People get shot, must be a thriller, but it could easily be very different. My major themes are death and isolation, ground I could cover just as effectively by writing about a reclusive writer dying of cancer or AIDs. I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog why I choose to do it the other way, but it does make you wonder how superficial the "literary" mantle is.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to read Jim Winter's forthcoming debut, "Northcoast Shakedown". It's a great read in the classic noir tradition, but what would it have taken to get Jim into the literary lists? You make Nick Kepler a Professor of Ancient Greek, not an insurance investigator, the mystery involves a fake manuscript, not fake claims, and suddenly, Jim, you're Donna Tartt, and you're writing lit fic!
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting literary fiction is something to be aspired to. Most of the lit fic I see is unbelievably dull and lifeless, but it's clear that many crime writers do aspire to making that leap, to being "taken more seriously". In some part, I suspect the move from series to standalones (covered recently by Sarah) is often inspired by just such a desire. An understandable response because, sadly, crime still isn't taken seriously, and the problem lies with the newspapers.
Think of the film reviews that appear in your newspaper of choice. You read them every week, big releases covered in depth, minor releases given a paragraph each. Now imagine that movies deemed to be thrillers or crime films are not covered, but that instead, once a month, a separate column rounds them all up for those who are interested. Imagine, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, L.A. Confidential, Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction, all dismissed lightly as genre films, not given review space, not given serious consideration for prizes and awards. It would be ludicrous, so why should it be any different for books?
Sure, there are a lot of crime books published that are formulaic and uninspiring, but the same can be said for any category you care to choose. What we all know is that there are also crime books being published today that will be still around in a hundred years, still moving people, still keeping them on the edge of their seats - that might not be literary fiction but it is literature, and maybe it's about time the literary editors of the newspapers started reflecting that, allotting coverage to books on the grounds of overall quality rather than on the artistic pretensions of the author.

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