Sunday, July 16, 2006

A dagger to the heart: Ian Rankin and literature

Ian Rankin's appearance this morning as Sue Lawley's guest on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs revealed a variant on the usual misconception of literature.

Rankin said that he wasn't a fan of crime fiction before he wrote his first Inspector Rebus novel. He thought he was writing a dark Gothic tale about Edinburgh in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson. "So" Lawley interrupted "are you writing ... literature?" (The pause gave the coming word the gravity of a quotation). "Well, popular literature", Rankin replied. "Nothing wrong with being popular" he added, rather begging the question. Lawley pursued the question. (I paraphrase): "So crime fiction can also tell us something about the world, what the writer thinks about what's happening in the world?" "Yes, crime fiction has grown up" Rankin declared. "There's still an audience for the Agatha Christie type novels but now people are writing about what's happening in our society, except people don't notice it because it's contained within a rollercoaster storyline."

Until now I've understood - from what the genre fans have said - that the distinction between literary and genre fiction is the type of literary language used. Where genre fiction generally adopts utilitarian prose in order to foreground the characters and plot, literary fiction is overtly "poetic" and often devoid of plot; above all, it contains "beautiful" writing (the quotation marks are deliberate). Of course the two overlap, creating wrongheaded indignation when genre writers who write beautifully are overlooked for the most prestigous literary prizes. Now we have another overlap. So I can understand the indignation. The Condition of England novel is indeed a favourite of the halfwits who invaribly judge big prizes. Who wouldn't be grateful for a rollercoaster storyline to sugar the pill?

To his credit, Rankin didn't complain about not receiving the Booker. He joked about receiving, aged 45, a Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement from the Crime Writers' Association. This made me wonder what the criteria is for receiving an award for crime fiction. The site says "The award is made purely on merit without reference to age, gender or nationality" without defining "merit". One wonders how pure that merit is, i.e. how much it is due to high sales? Perhaps the members think there's something wrong with being unpopular. Or maybe one just needs to be a member of the CWA.

If not, wouldn't a novel by a Booker regular - such as Ian McEwan, one that features a crime - count as a crime novel? (Saturday has one or two doesn't it?). Is it snobbery that has stopped McEwan from receiving a Dagger?

Well, I guess we all know what a crime novel is and Saturday, I'm sure we'd all agree, isn't one of them. But it isn't quite a literary novel either. (John Banville outlines why with a different sort of dagger).

Yet if we remove beauty, craft and social commentary as necessary components of the literary novel, what's left? Well that, I would say, is a question a literary novel might address. The heart of that question, asked each time we read (by our hearts if not our heads) is: how does this invisible world relate to the visible? That is, how does death relate to life?

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