"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Discussion Starter: Derek Hand and Ken Bruen

Last night, while hiding out in my bedroom at the cabin, which is the only room with AC in it, trying not to die of humidity poisoning, I opened my iPad to Ken Bruen’s Sanctuary.  I’d seen the title in a few of the articles I’d been perusing for my Irish Noir syllabus that I’m in the midst of creating, but I’d never read it.  To my delight and irritation, I finished it in one sitting.  This morning, I’ve got my pot of Earl Grey to ward off the grayness of the rainy morning, and Tana French’s Faithful Place is staring up at me from the coffee table.  Nope.  I have to read Eoin Flannery’s book on postcolonial Ireland and Mark Allister’s book on nature writing and autobiography.

The book is set in Galway, which may be one of the reasons I wanted to read Bruen as much as I do, because as we all know, Galway is very important to me.  (Those who know me will remember that my cat’s name is Galway…)  So reading Bruen’s landmarks was as much fun for me as one who knows those places as it was for the story.  The plot surrounds PI Jack Taylor, who’s been sent a cryptic note, a shopping list of victims.  The first has already been killed, a hit-and-run.  Taylor slips off the wagon in this novel (and I did enjoy the tour of various Galway pubs, incluing The Quays, which he describes as a tourist haunt) and spends most of the book either drunk or on some sort of drug (Xanax is a favorite).  The sad truth is that when I closed the back cover (metaphorically, since I was reading it on my iPad), I was hugely disappointed.  I felt like it should have been a first draft, with an editor going back and marking through it with notes like “Develop this further!” and “This is not earned.”  Some major stuff happens to Jack in these pages, and yes, it’s true, he’s on Xanax for most of it, but there are two major revelations here—one that involves the murderer and one that involves a past trauma in his own life—and Jack’s reactions were not believable to me. 

But—and this is a huge but—yesterday I finished Derek Hand’s book on the history of the Irish novel and this might be only the second time I’ve finished a book of criticism with a smile (the first would be Mark Tredinnick’s The Land’s Wild Music).  Dang.  Really, really good stuff.  Hand’s style is very readable and the points that he makes about how the novel developed in Ireland is right on, as far as I can tell.  (Remember, I’m a nonfiction writer first…)  I appreciated the attention that Hand paid to the role of place and landscape, even though that dimension was surprising to me.  I also appreciated that the book is new enough to cover some of the books that are on my focus list.  And for the most part, I agreed with him for most of his book.

Except for the section where he addressed genre fiction.  In that section, I strongly disagree.  I haven’t completely articulated my position yet, but this is a movement towards a position—and I absolutely welcome any discussion any of my dear readers might have.  I have no problems with people disagreeing with me either.    

Hand’s admiration of John Banville—which I share—is evident throughout those sections of his book and it makes me want to dive back into those books (which I can’t, not right now, dang it).  When he transitions into Benjamin Black, this is what Hand has to say:

“For Banville himself, who in his fiction often employed the figure of the double and the twin to manifest his sense of rupture, the obligation to artistic selfhood and authorship was itself exploded when he began to write in the thriller genre under the pseudonym Benjamin Black with Christine Falls (2006) and The Silver Swan (2007).  While his decision to enter this thriller marketplace could be argued to be a materialization of a crisis in identity that is so central to his ever-doubling heroes, it has more to do, one imagines, with a desire to connect with a lucrative wider readership” (263).

As a creative writer myself—and this is actually something I’d love to ask Banville himself—I disagree that the choice to write in a different genre is motivated by the desire for money.  I’ve a novel that I’m working on, of the serious literary variety, but I also would very much like to write a thriller set in Fargo during a flood.  Were I to finish both of these novels, I would not feel like I’m selling out.  I mentioned briefly in a previous post that there are questions and ideas that literary fiction makes difficult to discuss.  Genre fiction—which has long been eschewed by capital-L Literature—can and often is as well written as any Literary fiction.  One might point to the historical romance author Eloisa James, who in addition to having a PhD in English (and she teaches Shakespeare at Fordham University), she also comes from the impressive literary lineage of Robert and Carol Bly (which makes me want to claim her as a Minnesotan.)  And the contemporary chick lit author Jennifer Crusie (though I really hate that term, chick lit) also has a PhD in English.  And if the point of genre fiction is to address issues and questions in a format that Literary Fiction is not willing to do—if it can do so at all—then it fills a niche that is needed.  But since the critical study of crime literature is very thin, I can understand the position that Hand is working through here.

Hand writes of “chick lit” that it “is concerned only with the immediate moment in terms of theme and also in terms of reader response” (275).  And of thriller fiction, “And the increasing proficiency in the thriller genre by Irish writers, for instance, suggests a means for middlebrow authors…to connect with like-minded middlebrow readers beyond Ireland” (281).  And later, “Whereas a previous generation of Irish novelists might have aspired to self-expression through art, the situation is now altered and the writerly self is subsumed into the conformities of plot and the necessities of the literary marketplace that accentuates cold and calculating conformity.  Even those widely celebrated novels and novelists that apparently play with form and offer seemingly endless challenges to traditional narratives become tiresomely jaded and orthodox rather rapidly” (281).

I strenuously disagree, to the point of waving my hands to punctuate the tone of my voice.  If our purpose in reading (and our purpose as writers in writing) is to understand something of the world that we didn’t—and couldn’t—before, to add to our understanding of the world’s complexity, then genre fiction is not lesser than literary fiction.  It simply fills a different purpose.  (I also suspect that the censors and the publishing of literature in Ireland has something to do with why genre fiction is late in coming to the game, but that’s a supposition I can’t support with facts.)  Some of the thriller writers I like best write better sentences than some of the Literary writers I read.  The highest compliment I can give a book is “S/He sure knows how to put a sentence together!”  And I believe that the role of genre fiction—particularly crime literature—is to draw society’s attention to issues that we would not have been able to talk about any other way. 

For instance.  In Bruen’s Sanctuary, things come up that seem innocuous on the surface but could be excellent starting points for discussions on current topics—inside and outside of a classroom.  (I don’t think I can teach Sanctuary, but the point still works.)  We could talk about drug use.  We could talk about gays and gay rights in Ireland.  We could talk about the obesity epidemic that came with the Celtic Tiger (it’s just a tiny moment with Ben, but still an important moment).  We can talk about corruption.  On a writerly level, we can talk about the role of Galway in the plot (and if I do end up teaching Bruen, you can bet we will.  A lot.)  We can talk about how Bruen’s Jack Taylor fits into the pantheon of hard-boiled PI’s and the noir genre, right down to the femme fatale.  (That was a plot twist I didn’t see coming, though it came way too early in the story for me.)  I read Declan Hughes’s The City of Lost Girls—and we could talk about violence against women and violence against women used for entertainment value.  Since I’m working on Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, and that can be considered a murder mystery, we can talk about the failure of systems, class, race issues.  Genres and subgenres are not mutually exclusive.  And thank God for it.

It’s entirely possible that Hand and I are talking apples and oranges here.  He’s concerned with the originality of plot and the form that takes in the history of the Irish novel.  By its very nature, genre fiction is largely formulaic.  But that doesn’t mean crime literature doesn’t have its own history and its own genealogy, the same sort of history that Hand is tracing in his book.  If you read any crime fiction scholarship, it’s clear that there is a progression and a reason for that progression.  Each generation of crime writers fits their work into the particular time and place and issues it’s facing.  Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are fitting into a very specific time and place, working against the corruption of the legal system and the moral corruption of the city.  And that’s just one example.  I could go on.  And on.

Is the explosion of crime literature in Ireland a symptom of literature being devalued?  I don’t think so.  But then, a lot of the crime literature I’m reading is extremely well written, extremely well plotted.  The innovations that crime literature brings to the table may not be in terms of plot, but of content and the way that they offer up for public consumption a more realistic view of what is happening in the contemporary world.


  1. Interesting stuff! I agree with you. My students who desperately want to write genre want to write it because they are genre-heads themselves, and that is their only motivation. I know very few writers who are not genre-heads who would write genre for money; in fact, they'd pretentiously deem it as a step down (many of them at least).

  2. I should add that I don't let them write genre until the third time they've taken creative writing (very few reach this point) b/c I do believe you have to master the general rules of fiction before diving into the genre game.

  3. Yup, and I agree with you there too. There are definitely differences between those who approach the work genre-first and those who approach it writer-first. Your idea for how to get them to learn the rules before they modify/break them is a good one. At the college level I don't get to see them that many times, so I might have to think of a way around that.