It almost seems as if the whole mystery community – in the UK anyway – has been stirred up by a stray comment made by John Banville when appearing on a panel at the Harrogate Crime Writing festival. So I thought I would add my own two pence worth!

The fracas was blown up when it was reported on the Guardian Books Blog at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jul/28/crime-low-literary-status . To sum up John Banville, who was appearing at the Festival under his mystery writing alias of Benjamin Black, said that the difference between ‘literary’ fiction and mysteries was that as Banville he could only manage about 100 words a day, whereas as Black he could manage a couple of thousand. The implication obviously being that mystery writing is easy and therefore of less value than the ‘harder’ literary fiction. Reginald Hill, greatest of living mystery writers, who happened to be on the same panel, delivered the following witty rejoinder…..

“When I get up in the morning,” he said dryly, “I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker prize winning novel, or another bestselling crime book. And we always come down on the side of the crime book.”

Which is very funny but of course also evades the issue Banville/Black raises, which seems to me to be two-fold – in the first place is writing mysteries ‘easier’ than writing literary fiction, and in the second place if it is does that make it of less value? There are then three main subsequent questions and issues which have emerged in some of the subsequent blogsphere commentary. But less us deal with Banville/Black first (and I should say that I have never read any of either his literary or mystery work; the general opinion of those I trust as far as the latter are concerned certainly does not inspire me to do so). Not being a writer I can offer no opinion on which is harder, but would have thought that it is a matter of fairly obvious common sense that this will vary from individual to individual. But in any case the whole question becomes irrelevant if the answer to the second question is no (ie: ease or otherwise of composition has nothing whatever to do with value or worth of the end product, whatever it may be). This is an issue which certainly does not bedevil only mystery writers. For some reason there is a prejudice – and it is certainly a historically recent, post-Romantic one – which suggests that facility of composition is something which is to be suspected. In fact in the 18thCthe attitude was almost exactly the opposite. It is this prejudice which has sometimes been held to account for the undervaluation of Trollope, who was very notoriously a writer who produced a tremendous number of words according to his own rigid daily schedule. Byron is another whom I suspect would have found the idea that excessive labour meant increased quality fantastic. It probably now needs hardly to be said that I am among those who find any equation between ease of composition and quality an absolute absurdity. Given this, the problem with Banville/Black’s statement is therefore not any degree or otherwise of truth about the comparative ease or otherwise of writing literary and mystery fiction, but the fact that underlying it is a premise which is mere sloppy thinking and unexamined prejudice.

Turning to the issues which seem to have arisen in the subsequent debate I identify three main ones…

  1. That it is a disgrace that mainstream critics/Prize Givers/commentators etc. undervalue mysteries in the way that they do. This is the main thrust of Stuart Evers’original Guardian blog, but seems to me almost wholly uninteresting. It is a perennial complaint which does nothing at all to damage the seemingly inexorable rise of mystery as the most popular genre. It is with this question that Hill’s pithy rejoinder really deals comprehensively.
  2. The fact that it seems to have confirmed in some minds the idea that Banville is ‘slumming’, as Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it, when he writes as Black. I think this may be a reaction to the increasing number of ‘literary’ writers who have dipped their toe in mystery waters over recent years (although it was also common in the Golden Age) and is perhaps mainly a writer’s reaction. After all if they produce decent mysteries why should the mystery reader object? Having said which, I would say that what is annoying is that in fact these writers often produce very inferior mysteries (Susan Hill is my particular bugbear in this regard) which are lauded by mainstream critics. As a mystery reader I am galled by this so I can imagine it is even more so to the mystery writer. (Although I try to never take any notice of any reviews which appear anywhere other than on mystery sites such as ReviewingtheEvidence, EuroCrime etc. -see left for Links).
  3. A question as to what are the separate natures of ‘literary fiction’ and ‘mysteries’. This is what is pursued byDeclan Burke in his blog on the issue at http://crimealwayspays.blogspot.com/2009/07/no-youre-snob-no-you.html . In many ways this goes way beyond any question which Banville/Black raised and demands a book at least rather than a couple of paragraphs! It is however much more interesting than any of the foregoing questions. I give an example of the depth and scope of this discussion by quoting Burke…>>Yes, there are superb stylists writing crime fiction, just as there are wonderful storytellers writing literary fiction; but – and it’s a broad generalisation, I know – crime fiction fans tend to favour character, plot and narrative over the inventive use of language. When was the last time you read of a crime fic fan recommending an author or novel on the basis of how well it’s written? And – for the record – how well a novel is written should ALWAYS be important, regardless of what kind of novel it is intended to be.<< This amused me as I have just written a review for ReviewingtheEvidence in which I was forced to condemn a book precisely on the basis of how badly it was written – depsite the fact that it had a more than half-way decent plot. I suppose it is true though that I would find it hard to recommend a mystery solely on the basis of how well it was written; I do however frequently call attention to the quality of the prose when reviewing, and a book will never attain my complete approval unless it is at least well-written.  However my bigger question is what kind of reader (of any kind of prose fiction) favours language over everything else (I see that you might have to broaden the categories beyond character, plot and narrative)? If ‘inventive use of language’ is what you are after then why the heck aren’t you reading poetry? But this is a discussion extending far beyond the capacities of a brief blog.

However I sense that underlying the discussion, and indeed Black/Banville’s remark to bring us back to where we started, is another belief – that writing plot (and here I mean specifically a mystery plot) is somehow, at least comparatively, easy. Having dealt with the issue of whether ease of composition bears any relation to value, I do also want to question this much more factual assertion. For me the ability to construct a good plot is the primary test of a mystery. This is not to say that there are a whole host of other values which the genre can cover, not to say that some of the greatest mysteries can be great without a brilliant plot; but fundamentally plotting is at the heart of the genre. Now I read a fair few mysteries every year – certainly well over 50 – and of these the number with really good plots is very small indeed – which does not indicate that it is an ‘easy’ skill. The ability to craft a plot which really takes your breath away is a very,very rare one. To put it another away; the greatest plotter – by a country mile – is Christie, who has sold, by general estimate, about two billion books. If it was really as easy as all that to create Christie-standard plots is it not likely that everyone would be doing it? Whether or not you hold plot in high regard – and there are lots of other excellent reasons to read mysteries – it seems to me absurd to believe that it is an easy skill. In many ways I wish it were as I would be reviewing many better books!

Not exactly relevant but vaguely related Addendum

I happened to be looking through some old List discussions which I had been meaning to put on the blog at some point and came across the following. As it is vaguely, possibly only very vaguely,  related to this topic I thought I would post it here. It arose out of a discussion about Austen’s Emma as a mystery story. I commented….

>>Ellen has already answered the proposition from what you could call Austen’s end. But it is equally absurd from the ‘mystery end’. I have seen myriad examples of this kind of thing among certain sections of what might be called the ‘mystery community’ (mystery fans, writers, critics) who seem to feel a need to somehow validate the genre by placing its roots in a wider literary tradition. Now sometimes these arguments are of great interest – a number of discussions which I heard at the 2006 St Hildas (see https://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/st-hildas-2006/ ) about the provenance of the family murder story reaching back to Cain and Abel/the Oedipal sagas for instance – but these are about how the genre can incorporate certain psychological/literary staples not a question of claiming those stories are in any sense ‘mysteries’. Claims are made of all kinds concerning the forerunner of the mystery story – Shakespeare, Dickens and now obviously Austen. They all appear to me nonsense, driven by this strange need for literary ‘respectability’. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that P.D.James would form a part of this chorus. And it is also a part of the reason why Sayers is so popular among a certain section of mystery fans – because they believe she supplies this ‘literary’ element.

 On the opposing wing there are mystery fans who take an exactly opposite view and regard any writer who introduces any ‘literary’ elements into their work with grave suspicion; for them any mystery novel worthy of the name has to comply with a set of generic ‘rules’ (and there are lists of these!). This position is, of course, equally absurd, but in some ways I have more sympathy with it.  The obvious fact about a mystery is that the book’s primary concern must be a mystery of some sort – this does not have to be, though usually is, whodunit?, it can also be whydunit? for instance. And there can be lots of other secondary elements (which may be more interesting – just as in many fictions secondary elements are more interesting than the central narrative) – romance, comedy, psychology,
sociology (my favourite :)). But to be a mystery the primary element must be a mystery!

It is worth adding that there is a certain type of English mystery-writing where the secondary interest is in fact literary. The greatest practitioner of this kind of literary mystery is Michael Innes, the nom de plume of the literary critic Professor J.I.M. Stewart. Some of Reginald Hill’s work is very much in this tradition, and he uses Austen obliquely in his great mystery Pictures of Perfection [1] ; he has used Virgil and Thomas Lovell Beddoes (the latter extensively ) among others. But at the heart of his books is always a mystery – even if in the case of Pictures of Perfection the ‘solution’ to the mystery is that there is no mystery. The great mystery writers may push at and expand the limits of the genre – but they cannot change the limits or, self-evidently, the genre ceases to be what it is.<<

This strikes me now as somewhat simplistic and bearing obvious signs of having been written for a ‘non-mystery’ audience. I think a more reasonable and proper formulation would be that “to be a mystery a primary element must be a mystery!” – to say ‘the’ is too prescriptive and over-stated. 

Further Addendum

Ruth Dudley Edwards has provided her own version of events which may be found at…..http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/banville-scored-an-own-goal-even-before-our-crime-fiction-spat-1855213.html

Notes

  1. This was obviously written before I had read Hill’s 2008 A Cure for All Diseases which uses Austen in the most direct manner possible (by taking as its basis the unfinished Sanditon).

 

 

            

 

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