I recently formed part of a panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I’m not sure that it was an entirely satisfactory experience for all concerned, to be honest. The panel was entitled “Unique Voices”, which might have been part of the problem as I couldn’t quite see what was unique about any of those involved in it. That probably sounds a lot more negative than it is meant to, as each of the writers involved (myself, I hope, included) had something to offer in terms of the quality of their work and their commitment to the genre. No, the problem, as I saw it, was in the description of us as ‘unique’, because we weren’t.
One of us was a lesbian and had a lesbian detective as the central character in a number of her novels. Unique? Um, possibly not. Maybe unusual, but hardly unique either because of her own sexuality or the sexuality of her character unless, of course, one had led a very sheltered existence and lesbians counted as a form of exotic life on a par with rare butterflies and near-extinct birds. Similarly, another panellist was Australian, and hence his unique status will probably have come as something of a surprise to a) other Australian crime writers and b) other Australians.
It was all rather strange. I tried to put my difficulty with the panel into some kind of coherent form, but I don’t think I succeeded very well (which led to the chairman, the wise and tolerant Marcel Berlins, to enquire, rather understandably, as to what I was “bitching” about). In a nutshell, though, I think it could be summarized thus: I felt that it reflected badly on the degree of experimentation in the genre that the rather modest variations that the various panellists were performing in the course of our work could somehow be regarded as ‘unique’. There, I wish I’d managed to put it that simply at the time.
I suppose I feel that, as crime fiction has become more and more a part of the literary mainstream, its popularity has not been matched by a great deal of experimentation. There is, I think, a reluctance to take chances, whether that takes the form of fusing genres to create new hybrids, or experimenting with form or language, or anything that deviates from the rather traditional narrative structures that seem to be the norm in the genre.
I’m not sure who, if anyone, is to blame for this state of affairs, assuming anyone agrees with me. The writers, perhaps, for not pushing themselves? The readers, for favoring sometimes bland mainstream work over more experimental work at the margins, for wanting to be entertained instead of challenged? The publishers, for seeking variations on familiar themes, for favoring the series over the stand-alone, for, to put it simply, giving readers what they want?
Then again, it may be the case that no blame should be ascribed to anyone. Writers write to be published. They want to be reasonably successful in order that they can continue to be published. Readers are a rare enough breed as it is (especially when one considers that a ‘high volume reader’, in trade parlance, is someone who buys five books a year) without criticizing them for wanting to pass their reading time in whatever way happens to please them most, and we should be grateful to those who buy any books at all. And publishers have a duty not only to art (and, cynicism aside, publishers generally feel better about publishing good books than bad books) but to the shareholders and to the bottom line financially. Publishers succeed by selling books, and the more books they sell the more successful they are.
Perhaps I was - and am - playing devil’s advocate to some degree, but there is a part of me that feels crime fiction thrives on a ‘more of the same’ ethos, and that there is a sneaking conservatism at work that is in part a product of the genre’s own ubiquity and success in recent years. (From a personal perspective, I have learned by now merely to shake my head in bemusement and move on when I read criticisms of my work that are based on a belief that even the slightest hint of the supernatural has no part in the mystery genre, as though it should have been preserved in aspic at some point between the birth of Sherlock Holmes and the death of Poirot. The mere fact of my existence seems to cause a great deal of irritation to critics of that stripe, and I have to say that pleases me no end, as I tend to have little time for poor critics who would prefer no experimentation at all to experiments with which they disagree.)
At the closing session of the Harrogate festival, I conducted a public interview with Jeff Deaver, in the course of which he spoke of his recent novel, Garden of Beasts. It is, I think, his best book, but it probably sold less than any book he has written since he found mainstream success, and it crashed and burned in the U.S. It wasn’t because it was a bad book, far from it, but it wasn’t like his other books. He deviated from his own formula, choosing to write a historical thriller set in Nazi Germany instead of a contemporary thriller set in America, and he suffered for it. During the interview, he admitted that the experience had probably made him more reluctant to experiment, and I felt that was a shame. I had enjoyed reading Garden of Beasts and seeing another side to Jeff’s writing. Perhaps, in time, he’’ll reconsider, for it’s important that writers with some commercial clout should take the odd chance, that they should try to introduce a little edge to the mainstream and foster an environment conducive to a little experimentation.
For if they don’t, then who will?
This week John read
The Harsh Cry of the Heron (uncorrected proof) by Lian Hearn
and listened to
All For Nothing, Nothing For All by The Replacements