Sunday, August 27, 2006

An award-winning lack of nerve

In The Times' literary pages, I read this below a headline: "George Pelecanos's hard-boiled crime thrillers have been compared to Balzac and Zola. He talks to Marcel Berlins". So I go to the article to see why someone who "writes the toughest, meanest, truest, most uncompromising novels in modern crime fiction" is compared to these two big names of Realism and Naturalism. I had to wait until the final paragraph for their names to be mentioned again. It seems that it's little more than the apparently rich portrait of a particular social world. Of course it's one with which most of his readers will have had little contact: "drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, conmen, grifters, shady businessmen, enforcers, petty gangsters and gunmen — and their victims". That string of adjectives describing his novels indicates not major fiction but middle-class romanticism; literary mitigation for Schadenfreude. If, using the same language, Pelecanos had written, say, about an architect sitting in the shade of a tree in Connecticut reflecting on the peace of his life, would it be less true and more compromised?

But I don't wish to pick on individuals. It's not the only example in this weekend's literary news of such soft-witted sentimentalism. The Guardian reports that James Meek has won yet another award for The People's Act of Love. The judges described it as:
"a novel of extraordinary ambition and imaginative compass". It was, they said, "a prodigious achievement" whose passion and complexity could be compared with the great Russian classics.
Yet again, it's taken for granted that we need to compare a 21st Century writer to acknowledged 19th Century greats in order to gain literary justification for what is effectively genre writing; that is, avowedly derivative fiction. Would Balzac, Zola, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky be remembered now if they had written 17th Century novels?

Notice too how these comparisons are always indirect - someone else has made the comparison. It's a neat way of side-stepping any awkward need to think. I've made this point before. It really is sore-thumb territory!

All in all, it reveals an artistic lack of nerve in judging panels, writers, publishers and literary journalists. I suspect if a writer comes to define our time (in the sense of representing it, not being a mere marketing or cultural phenomenon), he or she will be a stranger to prizes and culture-vulture comparisons. And quite possibly to publishing too.


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