Genre versus Literary – the Crime Fiction Edition

The old genre versus literary fiction debate has reared its ugly head again – and just when you thought that horse was well and truly dead.

This time around, the opening volley was fired by one William O’Rourke, emeritus professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. O’Rourke was actually trying to do a nice thing, namely praising his former student and protegé Michael Collins in the Irish Times.

The first half of the article is actually pretty good, a profile of Michael Collins, the multi-gifted student but perpetual outsider, written from the POV of his former professor. But then O’Roure goes off on a tangent or several, bemoaning the lack of literary culture in the US and what little there is of it is hopelessly fractured. He complains about Bookscan and how it can kill writing careers. O’Rourke even goes as far as to lament the sad fate of the straight white dude, because straight white dudes – a long as they’re still alive – are no longer fashionable.

To be fair, O’Rourke does have a point there, though putting it into blatantly offensive “Wah, won’t someone think of the poor widdle straight white dudes!” words doesn’t help him bring his point across at all. But the truth is that the US is focussed mainly on race, gender and sexual orientation (and to a lesser degree disability), but tends to ignore other axes of marginalisation such as ethnicity or socio-economic background. As a result, international writers are often lumped in with whatever their race happens to be in the US, which completely ignores the fact that their nationality will often act as a roadblock, even if they happen to be white. And though Michael Collins is white, he is not American but Irish (and was apparently rejected by the prestigious writing program of the University of Iowa for being “too Irish”) and of course writes from a different perspective than American-born writers. So yes, O’Rourke does have a point there, though he expresses it not just badly, but in a blatantly offensive way.

And of course, O’Rourke doesn’t do himself any favours either by comparing his own novel Notts to GB84 by David Peace, since both novels happens to be about the 1980s miners’ strike, and declaring GB84 inferior. Okay, so I understand that O’Rourke prefers his own interpretation of the events, but David Peace is pretty damn brilliant, so brilliant he made me read a novel about a miners’ strike of all things.*

But the kicker of O’Rourke’s article, the one bit everybody is talking about, is this one:

Very few non-commercial writers know how to successfully advance their careers. Michael was no exception. He changed agents, publishers, gave up writing short stories – a critical mistake in this country, if you want to continue to be noticed as a literary writer – and attempted to jump into the crime genre to entice the vagrant reader. If bestsellers were easy to write there would be more of them. Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader. America really doesn’t possess enough of a literary culture anymore to maintain a writer like Michael.

Ouch. That’s really nasty, especially since crime fiction is the most “respectable” of genre fiction. If O’Rourke accuses even crime writers of a having fatal lack of talent**, I don’t even want to imagine how he feels about science fiction and fantasy writers or – gasp – romance authors.

The response was swift, since plenty of primarily British and Irish crime writers felt compelled to call out William O’Rourke on his remarks. Also at the Irish Times (which seems to have a very good literature section), Martin Doyle collects responses by various Irish crime writers (including one authors I met years ago, before he was famous and before he wrote thrillers), which range from “We’re still having this discussion? Really?” via “If he thinks it’s so easy, then let’s see him try it” and “Talent is only a small part of it – perseverance is what matters” and “Hey, dude, look at the list of great classic writers you’re dismissing as untalented.” to “Duh, 90 percent of any genre is crud. Can we talk about specific books, please?” and “You’re just jealous, because crime writers have higher sales than you.”

Meg Gardiner has a lovely response:

I had a drop of talent once. I got rid of it. Sold it out of the boot of my car so I could write a crime novel.

As has Steve Cavanagh:

William O’Rourke’s comments that crime writers lack talent and that white males get a raw deal in publishing were a little surprising. I look forward to his next piece focusing on his experience being amongst the one-hundred-and-eleventy million people who attended Donald Trump’s inauguration.

I also liked this response by Barbara Nadel:

Until recently the only two types of literature in Turkey were known as fiction and non-fiction. Turkish friends in the business didn’t understand what was meant by “genre fiction” or why it was, in some quarters, considered a lesser art form. To them, it all seemed like a lot of unnecessary snobbery. Clearly they were right and maybe we should all consider going back to a simple fiction/non-fiction form of categorisation. Such spiteful ignorance is unworthy of the person who said it and the people it targets.

Now I’d have to talk to someone more familiar with Turkish bookstores than me to determine whether Turkish bookstores really recognised only two categories until fairly recently. Though in the many hours of my life I have spent browsing bookstores, I have seen all sorts of odd sorting systems. For example, well into the late 1990s, Foyle’s flagship store (then their only location) on London’s Charing Cross Road, categorised non-fiction by subject, but fiction by publisher, which made it nigh impossible to find anything. The many used book shops also found on Charing Cross Road back then (most of which are long gone now) generally consisted of a small street level shop and levels of mazelike catacombs accessed via a series of rickety stairs. Categorisation was extremely basic and the SF was usually located in the further corner of the deepest basement. How those places ever passed any fire inspection is still a mystery to me (not that my 23-year-old self would have cared). On the other hand, the crime fiction focussed bookstore Tatort Taraxacum in the East Friesian town of Leer divides up East Friesian set crime fiction (already a highly specialised category) according to whether the setting is an island or the mainland. Meanwhile, Bremen had (and still has, to my knowledge) an independent bookstore that basically consisted of stacks of books piled up everywhere with no apparent system. We have one bookstore located opposite the courthouse which specialises in law and tax books and has incredibly fine-grained categories for those books, but lumps all fiction together under a single header. The late lamented Wohlthat’s bookstore had huge tables full of discounted art and coffee table books in the centre and shelves full of fiction organised alphabetically along the walls. I bought a lot of art books there (and haven’t bought a single one, since Wohlthat’s closed), but no fiction at all. And of course, foreign language sections in German bookstores are usually divided only by language (with approx. 85% devoted to English language books, while the rest is a mix of French, Spanish and Turkish) and sorted into fiction and non-fiction. Only a handful of German bookstores divide their foreign language section by genre and even there, the categorisation can be messy or just plain wrong.

In general, I prefer bookstores to sort books by genre and/or subject, because otherwise browsing or just finding something becomes a chore. However, Barbara Nadel makes an important point, namely that genres, their definitions and the divisions between them are not fixed and may not even be the same from country to country. I have already touched on this regarding crime fiction, which is a far broader category in both Germany and the UK than the narrower mystery genre in the US (and indeed Michael Collins might well have fallen afoul of this). Subgenres are different as well and so US subgenres like “cozy mystery”, “hardboiled mystery”, “police procedural”, etc… don’t exist on our side of the pond, wheres both in Germany and the UK crime fiction is divided more according to the setting, though rarely with such fine-grained detail as at the Tatort Taraxacum store in Leer. Meanwhile, romance – if it has its own section at all, since many bookstores in both the UK and Germany don’t have a romance section and neither do Dutch bookstores – is combined with women’s fiction, chick lit and sometimes erotica. Historical fiction has its own section in Germany, but rarely in the US. Once solid genres such as the nurse novel or the gothic novel have been folded into romance, whereas men’s adventure fiction has been folded into the thriller genre.

But not just genre divisions are arbitrary, but the distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction are arbitrary as well (and far more problematic than mere genre divisions). Never mind that a lot of what is found on the “literature” or “general fiction” shelves is not literary at all, since anything that cannot be sorted into a specific section tends to end up there. For example, if a bookstore doesn’t have a separate romance section (and many bookstores in Europe don’t), the “literature” or “general fiction” section is full of romance. William O’Rourke would probably spontaneously explode in horror.

Of course, the responses by the various crime and thriller writers have thoroughly debunked O’Rourke’s ridiculous claim about the fatal lack of talent writing crime fiction requires. However, the person I’m really feeling sorry for here is Michael Collins, because not only was the profile of him completely derailed by a debate that has very little to do with Michael Collins or his work – no, his name will no also always be linked to “that guy who thought all crime writers had no talent”. Now I haven’t read Michael Collins’ fiction, but I’m pretty sure he deserves better than this.

*My personal views on the 1980s British miners’ strike were strongly coloured by the fact that in 1980s West Germany, every coal mine or steelwork in the Ruhr area that was at risk of closing down was deemed a national tragedy, whereas the dying shipyards of North Germany were completely ignored, because our states were smaller and had fewer voters than North Rhine bloody Westfalia. As a result, I developed a vehement and completely misplaced dislike for miners and steelworkers, which of course influenced how I viewed the 1980s British miners’ strike. Adult me of course knows that miners and steelworkers were not to blame for dying shipyards and that British miners absolutely were not to blame, but for me to voluntarily read a novel about the British miners’ strike is still a minor miracle.

**Come to think of it, O’Rourke’s rival David Peace writes crime fiction such as the brilliant Red Riding Quartet, which impressed me so much that it enticed me to read everything Peace had ever written.

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