So says Philip Hensher in this article. I’ll probably quote from it extensively, but – obviously – it’s best for you to go and read the whole thing for yourselves. By way of introduction, let’s just say that it’s an essay of a certain recognisable genre (the literary versus genre essay) and it deploys many of the familiar tropes you’d expect from such a work. Of its type, it’s an average example. Not as apparently intellectual as a Docx, say, or as playfully provocative as a Banville, but at least it’s not obviously snide.
Anyway. Let’s pick out a few of the points and see where they go.
“Evidence of the thriller’s rise to dominance is everywhere, and not just in the popular market. Last week, the judges of the Booker Prize produced a longlist in which a third of the books fell into the category.”
I might take issue with the present tense of the first sentence, as though thrillers haven’t always been enormously popular. A few of the authors of Booker longlisted novels might be equally surprised by the second sentence.
“Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised, since four of the five judges have themselves written thrillers in an amateur capacity – some quite good, some, such as Dame Stella Rimington’s faltering efforts, atrociously bad.”
All right, that is a bit snide.
“The genre has taken over elsewhere. These days, new television dramas are almost invariably thrillers of some sort, with an atrocity, a mystery, a maverick investigator and a solution.”
Is this the case? That’s the first question that occurs to me. I mean, there are lots of crime dramas on television, after all, but are new television dramas invariably so? Downton Abbey – which Hensher mentions – was pretty popular. Is that, as he suggests, because the audience fell on it “with demented gratitude”? It seems question-begging to assume so. Maybe it was just because it was good.
More interesting is the definition given of a thriller. It’s not actually the definition of a thriller, of course, as a slow-burn police procedural would hit the same beats, and many thrillers will miss some. It’s a false definition, and a tautologously belittling one. Leaving aside its inadequacy, the description – without that leading “maverick” – is mundane: “an atrocity, a mystery, an investigator, a solution.” That applies to most fucking fiction. Crime simply uses the most extreme example of atrocity – murder – upon which to build and explore its themes – but most fiction that involves any kind of conflict will conform to that pattern to some degree. Without the “maverick” cliche, it’s practically a definition of narrative.
But we should be grateful for definitions.
“But even as intelligent a practitioner of the art as Ian Rankin has complained about attitudes to crime fiction within our old friend, the “literary establishment”. Unsatisfied with the personal enthusiasm of tens of millions of readers, Rankin seems to want the acknowledgement that his work is of the highest literary quality, too.”
Ah yes – we know this move: the “genre people have sales and should be happy with them” gambit. But let’s ignore that. The important thing is that Hensher, here, does not offer a definition. What is the “literary quality” he implies Rankin does not meet? I think the phrase is a bit mealy-mouthed, so here are three interesting terms as I understand them.
1) Value. Value is subjective. If I say I enjoy John Locke’s novels more than George Orwell’s, there’s no way to argue with me. I clearly value certain attributes of a novel more than others, and I read accordingly. The end. That doesn’t mean, however, that society as a whole agrees. Value is measured differently when you move up to a wider, objective scale. While you, personally, may prefer John Locke to George Orwell, Locke will never be taught in schools the way Orwell is. That’s not snobbishness. It’s because we have ‘agreed’ over time that the value of some works should be accorded more respect and attention than the value of others. It’s about what the work does.
2) Literature. To me, this means any work – of any genre – that has a particular kind of value. Something that’s not valued purely as entertainment, but has something to say. Take Orwell. Animal Farm is obviously not really about animals, but it’s not even about a specific set of political circumstances. Having read it, you see the characters and situations everywhere. With good entertainment, you believe it, and you recognise the world in it, but literature works the other way around: you see the world differently after reading it. One you bring the world to, the other you bring to the world. That’s my basic definition. Since so much is subjective, it makes sense to try to explain why some stuff lasts and the some stuff doesn’t.
3) Literary fiction. A genre, really, defined almost entirely by what it isn’t.
And based on those definitions – which I don’t believe are particularly controversial – I take issue with Hensher’s unsupported use of the phrase “literary quality”. I mean, what does that mean? Obviously, Rankin writes within a particular genre – as do writers of literary fiction – but that doesn’t mean his works can’t mean the standard of literature. On the level of prose, a sentence needs to do what it needs to do. A sentence with poetic imagery may be artful and apposite in one work, but totally out of place in another, where a more functional formation is more appropriate. On a value level, it is not clear to me why elaborate prose, in itself, should be something to study or be impressed by. What is important is what the prose conveys and how. And Hensher makes no argument that Rankin has nothing to say with his books.
“… do we love [thrillers], as Rankin thinks, because they bring us close to the harshest and most urgent contemporary realities? Or might we like them because they contain horrors within a tight and redemptive framework of the highest artificiality? Do they, on the whole, reassure us that the nasty man gets his just deserts, and the clever policeman will stop it happening again (until the next volume in the series)? Do we, in short, like them because of the consolation they offer?”
This is a interesting question – and one I’ve wrestled with in the past. I’ve said before that I worry crime is a conservative genre, and I’m not sure how the apparent demand for increased realism fits comfortably with more traditional narrative demands. For example, effective realism within crime demands a certain kind of empathy – an understanding that the bad guy isn’t really bad, but has motives of his or her own. That’s mature, sensible, adult real life. But it’s discordant with the idea that a wrong must be righted, a bad guy must be punished, order must be restored, and so on. The crime fiction framework Hensher alludes to does not allow nuance.
Thankfully, noir came along – a fair while ago, to be honest, with traces of its attitude to be found way, way back – and, while many crime novels still carve to the comforting formula Hensher mentions, there are a good many that don’t. Others play around its edges. Regardless – so what? So what if a novel offers absolute closure and resolution? No, that’s not like the real world – but so what? Is it impossible that such a novel could be great, and could be regarded as literature by my definition above? I see no a priori reason. And there is nothing fundamentally wonderful about ambiguity – about the lack of resolution. That can be wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but it is not admirable in itself. Like every other aspect of writing, the resolution – or lack of one – must be judged against what the story requires.
Regardless, it’s enough to say that many crime novels don’t conform to Hensher’s formula. And when he says “The reason that we love [thrillers] is that they are not, fundamentally, going to surprise us” he displays a warped love of the genre at best.
“Ask yourself this: is anyone, even the grittiest of Scandinavians, ever going to write a thriller about this week’s murders in Norway? Of course not. It would be like a murder mystery set in Auschwitz.”
You could probably say the same thing about Columbine. Obvious and pertinent examples spring to mind – DBC Pierre, Lionel Shriver, etc – so surely the issue is one of tone. I see no reason why a thriller couldn’t have as much to say about such events as a “literary quality” novel.
“Even among literary genres, its prominence is a curious fact: the liveliness and extravagance of current genre writing in fantasy and science fiction, such as China Miéville’s remarkable novels, make the field a much more plausible candidate for literary exaltation than the rule-bound thriller.”
Well, again, “literary exaltation” – exaltation, this time! – and the idea (“plausible candidate”) that crime fiction is begging for inclusion. But look, there is something to what he’s saying. SF is certainly a genre more open to ideas and structures than crime, and which – perhaps – crosses over more easily into mainstream fiction (although not necessarily commercial fiction). It’s interesting he namechecks China Miéville though. You wonder what he made of The City & The City – a novel that is more crime than SF, and which plays with a number of crime conventions so successfully, uniquely and – for a crime fan – pleasingly that it surely refutes his whole fucking argument. (But then again, can we talk? There’s been a swell for Miéville to be acknowledged by the Booker, but, despite all the awards TC&TC garnered, it wasn’t even nominated for any of the crime fiction awards it should have walked away with. For shame, etc.)
“You would have to be a dull reader not to enjoy [thrillers] sometimes. But never to want something better, deeper, less resolved, you would have to be a moron.”
Yeah, well, on the evidence presented so far, someone is.