Ms Weinman and the Literary Saloon are revisiting that perennial subject in crime fiction—How come we get no respect from the lit establishment? And more specifically, How come crime novels are never considered for the Man Booker?
It’s a subject that’s both divisive and immensely tiresome. The Saloon has a nicely functional explanation for the Booker question: It’s because of the way prizes are set up—each publisher can only submit 2 books, and there’s no way they’re going to send in, say, an Ian Rankin thriller when he doesn’t need the sales boost; they’ll send in a lit novel that needs more attention/sales.
At my old blog I made some forays into this general subject, with mixed results. My impression, though, is that the Booker committee, as well as judges for most literary prizes, view art not utterly differently from myself. That is, there’s good art, and bad art, and art that confuses, but in the end can be judged in some way.
Of course, there’s subjectivity in this. So much so that people like to say the quality of art can’t be judged at all. But I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a real divide between entertainment, which is wonderful on its own terms, and truly fine art, which has entertainment as its first principal, but then achieves so much more.
In crime fiction it gets muddy. Because you have entertainment mixed with social commentary. And that’s good. Those are two things that look a lot like literature. But there are more things—language, for instance. The actual writing in the book. Words, sentences, paragraphs, the music of language and the toughness of it. That is, the poetry of it.
And there’s character. Not the easy characters built of catchphrases and visual tics. Characters with so much depth that they leap off the page and introduce themselves to you. And not just the main character, but, like with Flaubert, all of them.
I just don’t feel like most crime fiction achieves all of this, and that’s why it’s not even considered. Not because its writers don’t have the ability, but because of many other things. Time, for instance. The book-a-year treadmill is tough to maintain, and a lot of writers—I’m one of these—could do with a 6-month break after the “final draft” to go through and make another final draft. But I can’t. I need the paychecks. I need to eat, and I eat a lot.
If I look at my published books honestly—the three that are out—I know they don’t measure up to a Booker or any other substantial literary prize out there. They’re good, and I’m very proud of them, but another year of editing would have helped them all.
In the end, though, I don’t see any reason to fret about the lit prizes. Let them go to people whose books don’t have a built-in market, who spend 4 years laboring in the dark, who could use the extra food.
The only reason to dwell on the situation, in my opinion, is to look again at what we’re writing, and ask what it deserves. If it doesn’t deserve a Booker, maybe it’s time to hunker down and work on it until it is that good. We’ll know we’ve done our jobs well when the winners of the Edgar or the Daggers are just as powerful and transformative as the winners of the Booker—the really good ones, at least.
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)