Sunday’s Observer newspaper carried a mildly provocative piece by the oddly-named Edward Docx in which he seems to argue, or at least assert, that even the best genre fiction is intrinsically inferior to ‘literary’ fiction. I say ‘seems’ because, having just re-read the piece, I’m not sure he actually says anything so coherent. He says that ‘we need urgently to remind ourselves of – for want of better terminology – the difference between literary and genre fiction’, talks about ‘the fallacies of relativism’, and quotes approvingly of ‘some fine contemporary novelists’ (‘Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proulx, Ishiguro, Roth’, if you’re interested). But it’s not clear to me quite what he means or what he’s comparing when he talks about – for want of better terminology, remember – ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction.
He begins with the not unduly controversial view that the books of Dan Brown and Steig Larsson aren’t well-written, quoting an admittedly spectacularly dull piece of writing from Larsson and the usual tin-eared cliche from Brown. Fish, barrel, boom. Somehow, though, he then segues from his view that Brown and Larsson are ‘mesmerisingly bad’ (while acknowledging in passing that some other thriller writers, such as Robert Harris, are actually rather good at their ‘highly skilled craft’) into a general denunciation of genre fiction. His core argument is that ‘even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material.’ He goes on: ‘If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made. So it follows that genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology.’ It’s still not easy, he acknowledges. But it’s easier. Well, thanks for that.
In some respects, this position is so fatuous that it barely merits engagement. But it interests me because I’ve always felt that one of the distinctive pleasures of crime fiction (I can’t talk with any authority about other genres, but the same may apply) lies in its awareness of its own traditions and conventions. Most crime writers are also enthusiasts for the genre. We know, to a greater or lesser extent (even if we can’t all be Martin Edwards), its history, its variants, its unwritten rules and standards. Part of the pleasure of writing and reading crime fiction, alongside the familiar delights of narration and characterisation, lies precisely in the way it works within and against those disciplines. Of course, a lazy writer may simply follow conventions, with ‘lots of decisions…already made’. But the vast majority of half-decent crime writers are looking to subvert the reader’s expectations, to use the established frameworks to explore new territories or themes. Sometimes this may be playful – one thinks of the late Colin Watson or of L C Tyler today. More often, the intentions are very serious, if not necessarily earnest – writers like Reginald Hill, Jo Nesbo or Peter Temple have their feet firmly in the crime tradition, but explore issues and material that the majority of ‘literary’ novelists don’t even approach. Docx suggests that genre books rely on a ‘simpler reader psychology’. It may be true that readers of crime fiction bring a set of expectations or assumptions about what they’re reading. But the most skilful crime writers take advantage of that, undermining those expectations not just for effect but to provoke readers into questioning their own views. Gene Kerrigan’s splendid The Midnight Choir did that for me a couple of years ago, playing with the familiar trope of the ‘cop who bends the rules’ to raise important questions about the nature of ethics and policing.
Docx presents genre writing as both easy (sorry, easier) and more limiting than ‘literary’ writing, as if its writers were living in some kind of institution where we have nice warm plots provided but aren’t allowed out to play with the big boys in the literary playground. It’s at least arguable that the opposite is true – that working in a literary genre is like choosing to adopt any established literary form. It brings disciplines, it brings challenges, it brings a weight of reader expectation. But the most skilful writers turn those demands to their advantage, rubbing against the boundaries to generate their creative sparks. Let me finish with Jo Nesbo again, partly because he’s at the forefront of my mind at the moment (I’ve just finished The Leopard, of which more soon) and partly because he’s such a masterful exploiter of the possibilities of crime fiction. He’s clearly steeped in crime-writing tradition and, on the surface, his books display many of the ‘cliches’ of the genre – ingenious Christie-esque plotting, exotic murders, a dysfunctional middle-aged cop. But Nesbo has thrown out much of the rule-book. He kills off apparently central characters in the middle of books, he introduces over-arching plot developments which transcend (and sometimes subvert) the resolution of individual books, he constantly undermines our assumptions about characters and their motivations. He plays games with the author’s and the reader’s perspective, leading us up a beguiling maze of garden paths. He introduces false endings which toy with our expectations of resolution as we realise that there’s a big chunk of the book still to go, before suddenly he’s off again, leading us into even darker territory. He doesn’t shy away from the implications of his subject-matter – he takes what, in other hands, might be a stock situation or issue (Harry Hole’s alcoholism, for example) and makes it real. He balances the satisfactions of narrative resolution against a backdrop where everything important is left hanging – relationships, careers, the future. And, most of all, he writes about the here and now – about corruption, finance, globalisation, war, exploitation, politics – all the untidy stuff that too much contemporary writing shies away from.
I don’t know whether that constitutes ‘literature’. I can’t for the life of me think why it shouldn’t, even though I imagine Docx would have Nesbo firmly catergorised elsewhere, if only because his books sell in the millions. But I can’t conceive that what Nesbo does is easy, or even easier, when compared with the work of the novelists that Docx cites with such approval.