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.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 1st, 2011 at 10:13 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


14 Responses to ““In a menacing world, we flee into thrillers…””

  1. Mike Cane Says:

    As I tweeted, I have one standard response to crap like that column:

    A Reader’s Manifesto

    When it’s said that “people don’t read anymore,” maybe it’s because those “people” have been confronted with crap like *that*, which is basically incomprehensible to anyone not in on the snobby joke.

    It’s also hilarious, how literature to most people means Dickens, Hugo, Twain, et al — and all these modern “litry” people with their pretentious crap think their work belongs in *that* lineage.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Steve, though I like your response very much, ultimately Philip Hensher is a troll in every sense of the word, and he wants to be fed. (Also, he’s clearly pissed at Dame Rimington for leaving him off the Booker longlist for his new novel KING OF THE BADGERS.)

    Unfortunately, though I get Mike’s sentiments in linking to the piece, B.R. Myers has also proved himself to be quite trollish in the ten years since writing “A Reader’s Manifesto”, too – instead of standing for readers, he really stands for taking potshots without the context of what he *really* stands for literarily.

  3. Luca Says:

    To be called a ‘moron’ for reading a particular genre, is a quite remarkable attack on a large audience of readers. In a time when bookstores are in serious threat, to complain about people not reading what *he* deems to be worthy, strikes me as quite moronic in itself. He should be pleased that people are still wanting to pick up a book and read. It shouldn’t matter what genre of book they enjoy.

    The whole article came across as snide and patronising.

    And Steve, any post which includes the word ‘tautologously’ is instantly 132 times better.

  4. Maxine Says:

    Crime fiction is popular fiction, not usually attempting to be “literary”, ie unpretentious. I read a great deal of it, not the serial killer/slasher/autopsy part of the genre, but the more psychological end (often translated fiction). Although many of these books are slightly spoilt by the perceived need for a plot resolution and/or a twist to surprise the reader, hence leading to some artificial conclusions, my overwhelming reaction to these books is that they tell good stories, and provide much insight into the human/societal condition and it is fascinating to read about various places of the world that one does not have time/ability to travel to. I used to read the Booker shortlist every year for many years, but eventually gave up, screaming with boredom. Maybe this says more about me, ie maybe I am one of PH’s morons, but I’ve had worse said about me .-)

  5. stevemosby Says:

    I don’t really know enough about him to say whether he’s a troll in every sense, but the article certainly has a whiff of trolling about it. It’s also interesting that he had a horse in the race that lost. Bit sneaky, really. King of the Badgers, indeed. Everyone knows that badgers have no King.

    More specifically – with regard to the moron comment – it’s just basic snobbery on his part. The reality is that reading is generally a luxury, and we all have our personal preferences as to how we choose to entertain ourselves as we while away our lives. He values a certain type of book; other people value others. At an individual level, that choice is entirely subjective. It would be troubling if society as a whole valued only one type of novel – but of course that’s not the case. And as John Cusack says in High Fidelity, how can it be bullshit to express a preference?

  6. Jon Jermey Says:

    The point that you and Hensher have both missed is that anyone who wants to read about reality in all its gritty complexity only has to pick up a paper or browse to a news website. Anyone who wants to read about weapons or computers or logical positivism only has to find the section in their library labelled ‘Non-fiction’, and they will see more books about reality there than most people manage to read in a lifetime. So please, let’s stop pretending that people read fiction in order to find out about ‘reality’ or ‘life’. If they really want to do that there are much better ways.

    No, what fiction is for — as you acknowledge — is entertainment. And how I choose to entertain myself has no more moral or intellectual implications than the colour of my socks or the length of my hair. I will happily pay good money to read Edgar Wallace. But you would need to pay me to read Zadie Smith, because frankly I would rather wade through wet cement. Hensher thinks it’s good for me? Well, they used to say that about cod liver oil, too, and look at what Mussolini did with it.

  7. Patrick Says:

    Hi there, Steven, and thanks for a brilliant, brilliant article. Hensher is an annoying little troll, as Sarah has pointed out, but it just so happens that his argument is one Academia in general accepts in its snobbery, and so this article is a welcome rebutal.

    I am no moron. I read much of Dickens at a young age. I’m fluently trilingual and am proud of my love of mysteries, and I’m fairly certain that anyone who reads my stuff will not call me a moron. Academics, don’t put someone down just because they have no desire to read some pretentious crap you’ve decided is Art with a capital A.

    The perfect reply (after this article) might be the introduction to “Encyclopedia Mysteriosa”, which, although it was written well over a decade ago, seems like a direct reply to these shallow claims:

    “The crime, you see, is just to set the stakes. The real message of the detective story is that even in the worst of circumstances, a man or woman can make things right using courage, tenacity, and brainpower. Even though writers depict protagonists who are corrupt or criminal, the characters are at least trying to do something about their lives. That’s especially appealing in these days when so much of so-called serious literature is plotless, hopeless, and, in the eyes of many, pointless.


    For a long time, there has been a school of criticism putting down mystery stories as ‘crossword puzzles in prose.’ This is nonsense, as the smallest familiarity with the genre will show. Mysteries range from light comedy to Grand Guignol, with every gradation in between, including that of (ahem) literary art. It happens rarely, to be sure, but it happens just as rarely in those rarefied circles of writing whose practitioners are shooting for art and nothing else. And in the mystery, the misses are still fun to read.

    But even if mysteries were crossword puzzled with plotlines, what of it? What kind of plotlines are we talking about? Good versus evil, order versus chaos, illusion versus reality, and the necessity of thought as a tool of survival. I’ll take that.”

    I’ll take that, too.

  8. David Hewson Says:

    All true Steve. But let’s not forget that the whole publishing world is riven with snobbery. Crime fans who think thrillers suck. And vice versa. People who like to read crime but only if it doesn’t get bloody or otherwise visceral. People who think that work in translation is per se better than anything else because…. oo doesn’t it make you look clever to have discovered someone no one else is reading (and then of course abandon then for ‘going downmarket’ if everyone else latches on’)

    Thank God this kind of pathetic nonsense afflicts only a tiny percentage of the population even if you can’t begin to think otherwise at book conventions. The average reader doesn’t give a bugger about genre or notions of literature. They just want a good, original read. Hensher really shot himself in the foot with that parting remark about morons. But don’t be fooled – there are people within the ‘genre’ (whatever that is) who think exactly the same way but from the opposite direction.

  9. David Hewson Says:

    Should have read ‘can begin to thin otherwise’ of course…. Sorry…

  10. Mike Cane Says:

    >>>That’s especially appealing in these days when so much of so-called serious literature is plotless, hopeless, and, in the eyes of many, pointless.

    Yes, that’s the word at bottom of all the “litry” stuff: POINTLESS.

  11. stevemosby Says:

    Jon – I take your point, but don’t wholly agree. I still think there is some value in distinguishing between fiction that is pure escapism and fiction that forces you to engage with the world – works that challenge your perceptions and, perhaps, make you see things differently. Those seem – to me – to be far more absolute and exclusive categories than others that might be used.

    Where I take issue with Hensher is his idea that a) crime fiction/thrillers are necessarily the former and b) that the latter is more inherently valuable on an individual, personal level (that people who only read escapist fiction are “morons”). Neither idea is true. Broadly speaking, though, I agree with you.

    Patrick – that’s a wonderful quote! Thank you for that. It sums everything up far better and more succinctly than I managed. Brilliant.

    David – 100% agree. The snobbery goes both ways, which I was alluding to, slightly, with the comment about Mieville’s novel. You see it all the time, in various guises: internally, with, say, the (mainly benign) derision heaped on cat mysteries; and externally, with the attacks on literary writers for being plotless, envying our sales, and so on. (Nick Mamatas skewers some of that very well here) Good books are good books. Like you say, I think most of us are above the squabbles, but our genre can be just as guilty of snobbery on occasion.

    Mike – I love the Myers essay, by the way (I read it every so often with popcorn). I have nothing to say about his overall motives or trollishness (I’m sure Sarah is right), but I love its confrontational edge and sheer balls. Though I’d hate to see him pick one of mine apart.

  12. stevemosby Says:

    In related news, the Guardian picks up the debate here. Hensher even comments, for what it’s worth. Go him.

    And Donna has a typically brilliant reply here.

  13. stevemosby Says:

    Sticking this on for comedy value:!/SacredFount/status/98497113771614210

  14. the left room» Blog Archive » new year update Says:

    […] we encountered here. He wrote a terrible review of a book, ages ago, which has been doing the rounds again today. […]

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