Sunday, January 27, 2008

Art & Commerce

I'm not sure what Mark Lawson is trying to get at with his piece on crime writing vs. literary fiction. "There is little doubt that if PD James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and the late Michael Dibdin had not made the mistake of publishing sequences of fiction featuring the same policeman, they would have achieved at least a Man Booker shortlisting", he says. But oh yes, I think there is a little doubt. I've not read Dibdin, but as for the others, however good a particular book might be, they rarely stand alone as discreet works of art. James, for instance, is stylistically stodgy, however authentic her procedurals are; whilst Rankin's great creation, his Rebus, has his character (that important, but hard-to-define quality that James Woods wrote about in yesterday's Guardian) delineated not in a one book, but in a series, across a wide range of books. It would be hard, I think for any reader (or critic or judge) to come in at one point in that sequence and appreciate the overwhelming power of his creation. Perhaps its a matter of taste - like so many things. It's usually Le Carre who gets mentioned as being the great populist writer who should have been better loved by the critics, yet I've not managed to get past his brusque tone, and the cold war sensibilities of his subject matter. And yes, there are a number of writers - I'm thinking Pat Barker or Doris Lessing or Anthony Powell - who've received shortlistings for one book from a series, perhaps in recognition of the series rather than the book - but it does seem that here there's a different story arc. There's probably not a crime writer alive who's books don't follow a formula from book to book, which - read 2 or 3 in a row - the perceptive reader will be invited to recognise. The other side of the coin of course is the non-genre writer working on their next project. I saw Catherine O'Flynn read from "What was lost" in Manchester last year, just before it got so garlanded, and when asked the question of "what are you working on now?" she admitted (I paraphrase from memory): nothing, fragments, I don't know, something that might become a book; and that she thought it would be easier this time, but she guessed this was just the way she worked, starting with something that may or may not become a book. Rebus, would always have another case, and Rankin, now he's finished the sequence, what will he do next? That, I think, is the critical authorial question, and, though not denying the inventiveness that goes into creating a good thriller, the crime series provides the writer with a ready answher.

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