You can set your watch by certain things in the publishing world: the bittersweet pain of a book coming out; the sad punchlines at the end of those bulky biannual royalty statements; the debates around violence in fiction, or self-publishing, or literary versus genre, or whatever. Today, we wearily turn our attention to the (penultimate) latter of the latter. Literary versus genre. Brace yourselves, because it is That Time again.
It all started with this article William O’Rourke penned about Michael Collins, a writer who may well have spent the intervening time cringing himself into a small point. O’Rourke’s article contained the following comment:
“Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader.”
This understandably caused some consternation in the crime fiction community, with several members responding here. I say “understandably”, but apparently Mr O’Rourke does not understand, because he has written a follow-up article. You can read that here. Do so, and then we will work our way through it, in much the same way that you might brush clumps of matted fur from a cat while wondering what in God’s name the creature has been rolling in.
We’ll start slightly above the article.
“Here he seeks to clarify his remarks.”
Well, let’s be clear: here he fails. It is an act of intellectual generosity to a reader to present your argument as clearly and concisely as possible, and a failure to do so tends to indicate either an inability to do so or an an attempt to obscure flaws in your argument. Or even, as in the word salad that O’Rourke has produced here, both.
“I am pleased that my “aside” prompted so many, in the main, thoughtful responses – and surprised that there are so many self-described “crime writers” at the ready. When I use the term I am, was, thinking of those formulaic, genre writers, who turn them out yearly, if not monthly. I worked in New York City publishing when I was in graduate school way back when and proof-read and copy-edited quite a few.”
Writing is possibly the only field in all of human endeavour where delivering something quickly is frowned on. It simply wouldn’t happen in any other line of work. “I want the figures on my desk within the hour – oh, you’ve done them already. That’s great. You’re excellent at your job.” But with books, there remains this pernicious idea that the longer you take, the better it must be (and, conversely, that writing accomplished in a short timescale must be hacked out and frivolous). Here’s a wild thought: why not judge the quality of the finished product rather than the time it took to complete it? Crazy, I know.
(Also, “yearly”. I mean, fucking honestly. I’m a slow writer, but come on).
Anyway, what he’s basically saying here is “I didn’t necessarily mean these crime writers, or even actual crime writers, more just some vague idea of a crime writer I had in my head.” Which is understandable. When John Banville disagrees with you on this particular issue you can be fairly sure you’ve lost the rest of the room too.
“My remark – “He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required” – is the sentence, actually the phrase, everyone seems to object to.”
Look, just say “phrase” in the first place. This isn’t a maths test, and you’re not getting any points for showing your working.
“Though, given the literate audience involved, I would have thought that such a description – “fatal lack of talent” – would alert the reader (since it is a mixture of direct statement and hyperbole) to the realisation that I might be aware of its provoking ambiguities.”
“This particular notion – fatal lack – is a perennial hobby-horse of mine, though I have never written about it.”
It’s not much of a hobby-horse, then, is it?
“As an old friend said to me long ago, the non-crime writer Irini Spanidou, “Genius is a gift and talent is a curse”.”
There are two obvious ways to interprate Spanidou’s comment.
The first is that genius and talent are entirely distinct: you can be incredibly talented and never reach the level of genius, because genius is something separate. Under this first interpretation, you could also be a genius while lacking any discernible talent whatsoever. Hmmm. That doesn’t make much sense, does it?
The second interpretation would be that talent and genius are on a scale: at zero, you’re basically nothing; at 5, say, you’re talented; at 10, you’re a genius (go you!).
Obviously, the second interpretation is better, although in that case “talent” really needs quantifying for the aphorism to make sense – talent alone clearly isn’t a curse, because genius requires it. The latter is a subset of the former: genius is the bull’s-eye on the talent target, if you like. Although this is better, I think it needs more work, but I digress.
“Michael Collins, if one reads the phrase in context, is the one bereft of the fatal lack of talent, saddled with the curse, in other words, hampered by too much talent. Not the mob of crime writers out there.”
Well … yes. And no? On the one hand, this is precisely what people were objecting to, isn’t it? Michael Collins is bereft of the fatal lack of talent, meaning he has a lot of talent, whereas crime writers possess the fatal lack of talent, meaning they have less talent. Fatally, for them. Under the second interpretation above, O’Rourke is saying that Collins is a genius, whereas crime writers lack the talent to be. They’re at 5; he’s at 10. More than that, the original statement implies Michael couldn’t write crime fiction because he was too talented. And yet Michael is also apparently “saddled with the curse”, not the gift, which suggests he has talent not genius, so…? Well, who knows.
(I return to my original comment about making arguments clear. I apologise, but we are where we are).
“Everyone is a crime writer, in the largest sense.”
Everyone is a literary writer, in the largest sense. Everyone is a chef, in the largest sense. Everyone is an elephant, in the largest sense.
“Shakespeare is a crime writer. I published a novel titled Criminal Tendencies; there is a crime in it. The novel I have just completed has a crime in it – adultery, though most people no longer consider adultery a crime.”
“Let us be reasonable here. I am too old and have published too much to be thought ignorant enough not to be aware of the objections put forward by the miffed 13.”
You aren’t, apparently. And you haven’t, apparently. But yeah, whatever.
“But, I contend, writers who publish are always writing at the top of their form. No one writes down. It’s difficult, almost impossible. Writers cursed with too much “talent” are unable to stoop to conquer.”
It’s natural to read “form” here as akin to “game” – as in the idea that no writer publishes below their best efforts; as in that they want to do the best they can – and so we nod along, because we can probably all agree with this. But let’s remember: O’Rourke’s argument is not that Collins can’t or won’t write below his ability, but that he is unable to write crime fiction because he is too talented. He can’t “stoop” to doing so. His genius simply won’t allow it.
Has O’Rourke presented any evidence to support his position that someone with an excess of talent would be unable to write crime fiction, whereas crime writers are forced to do so because of a lack of talent? No. He has not. Will he? Place your bets.
“The crime writers I was thinking of are the sort whose principal object is not to get the reader to stop in his or her tracks and ponder some remarkable aperçu, or paradox of the moment, be stunned to stop and think, but to keep turning the pages.”
Yeah – because any writer really wants their readers to stop and not read the whole thing.
Oh, but anyway: here we are, sort of. Standing in the dust of skirmishes past at the entrance to the arena of the philosophy of aesthetics. Why and how do we value art? As entertainment – a way to pass the time? Evoking emotion? Being beautiful in some way – perhaps a pretty little paragraph or two? Forcing us to see the world anew? Do we value poetry of prose over poetry of plot and theme and character? Is any “paradox of the moment” as impressive as it sounds at first? What even is that? And so on.
It’s all part of an interesting discussion, but note that O’Rourke makes no argument that any of these different approaches to art is more valid than others, and more importantly, makes no argument that crime fiction is incapable of doing any of them, or even that crime fiction is less capable of doing them than other modes of fiction. That’s because it isn’t true.
“At my university I am part of a College of Arts and Letters. Though in our age it is mainly Arts and Entertainment. I am not on the side that thinks awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan (né Zimmerman) is an appropriate thing, even though it is certainly of the moment and is the epitome of the mix of high and low culture that reigns, evidently, everywhere. But, as a Yank, in a jingoist mode, I certainly think his winning preferable to giving it to some author I’ve never heard of residing in one of the Baltic states.”
“The examples of writers of announced stature who write, allegedly, superior crime novels under pseudonyms, is a matter of judgment. In any case, there are a number of counter-examples. Here are three, all by happenstance female: Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates and JK Rowling. All published in different genres under pen names and those books went nowhere, until the actual celebrity author was revealed. And, in Oates’ case, it was revealed pre-publication.”
I confess: I’m not entirely sure what this means or what relevance it’s supposed to have to the overall argument that crime writers write crime because they lack the talent to do better. On that level, we hope in vain at this point.
“I am not bothered by the success of others. In fact, it’s one of my few good traits. But I am well aware of the limitations of writers and if one is addicted to metaphor, prose residing in the neighbourhood of belles lettres, it is difficult, if not impossible, to go cold turkey and write otherwise.”
Because crime writers don’t use metaphor, or rich language, or any of the other million techniques open to literary writers. Get in the sea.
“As one of the respondents (Barbara Nadel) pointed out, I, too, categorise writing as either fiction or nonfiction and, secondarily, whether it is good or bad.”
Yeah – that’s true, isn’t it. I’m not putting a question mark there, because it’s obvious. Good fiction can take many forms. It will be well-written, but the embellishment of the language might suit, and arguably even mirror, the subject matter. There might be metaphors in the sentences, but also more broadly in the themes and ideas. A good book rhymes – or deliberately doesn’t. A good book dances. A good book entertains you (there are numerous ways to be entertained). A good book will leave you thinking and feeling. A good book will leave you throwing it against the wall or desperately pressing it on to someone else.
Read what you want. Write what you want. Listen: you can list all the possible virtues of a good book, and not everyone will recognise them in the same text, but I guarantee you that the purported genre will have no bearing on this. Crime can do everything literary fiction can do, and it does, and writing the best of it takes every bit as much talent. (For “crime”, there, you can substitute any other genre and it’s just as fucking true). The end.
We’re not quite done, but the rest is all a bit “yeah, whatever”, so let’s skip straight to the finish.
“It proves the central point of my article on Michael that there is an active and vibrant and cohesive literary community across the pond, but not in the USA. Such a display of insults and ire would never happen in America, because I am not a celebrity. The chief reaction to perceived literary rebuke by an unfamous author in the States is not to be bothered. Neglect has always been the preferred weapon of choice here.”