Sunday Salon: Useful (and not) reading guides

TSSbadge3 The Guardian and The Observer are running one of those perennially popular lists, this time "1,000 books you must read". First they did love, and today they have got onto crime – so I thought I'd better read it (thanks to Karen for the heads-up of which day to watch out for). From the introduction:

"It's obvious which genres the Agatha Christie whodunnit and the 007 spy novel belong to, but between them are sub-genres — courtroom duel, psychological thriller, suspense novel, crime caper, criminal-centred fiction — not so easily classified. Part two of this seven-part series tries to reflect as much of the crime spectrum as possible, as well as the regularity with which literary novelists have made evildoers their theme. The difference? The latter break genre rules, typically eliminating the hero who solves or prevents crime. And they usually write more stylishly; but the recent rise of the literary crime fiction epitomised by PD James has made that distinction less clear."

And, er, that is basically it. I found the paragraph above (the extent of the "introduction") rather lazy, in that it makes a proposition of the difference between genre and literary crime, then states that this proposition does not always hold. (As it indeed does not: a "genre" example is given but one could equally give literary examples that stick to the "rules", for example Stef Penny and Diane Setterfield.)

What follows is an alphabetical listing of brief paragraphs about a slew of "crime" books, written by many different contributors: part 1, part 2 and part 3. Each entry carries a link to the Guardian bookshop, so you can readily buy the book even if you don't get any context or other reason for why it was included in the list. For example, Ian McEwan's Enduring Love is followed by Henning Mankell's Sidetracked. Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson comes immediately before Barbara Vine's A Fatal Inversion.

A messy exercise in marketing, is my conclusion. Try it if you want to go from Algren (The Man with the Golden Arm) to Zola (Terese Raquin) in a jerky series of disconnected paragraphs, but if you prefer some more thoughtful reasoning, try reading some proper book reviews, which can be found in abundance on the Internet, often collected in sites like Euro Crime, Reviewing the Evidence, CrimeTime, ShotsmagTangled Web, Mystery Readers Journal, Crimesquad  and so on. You might prefer an analysis in book form, in which case I recommend Barry Forshaw's Rough Guide to Crime Fiction – or for an online "quick read", there have been plenty of similar articles in other newspapers, for example The Times's attempt to capture the "best 50 crime writers". One might disagree with some of the choices made in these compilations, but at least there is a reasoning provided for the selection, instead of a hodge-podge of mini-adverts.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Useful (and not) reading guides

  1. It probably is a marketing exercise, but I always enjoy reading these lists, if only to see whether they’ve chosen things I’ve read in the past and to perhaps alert me to books I might like to read in the future.
    I think you’ll find the rules for inclusion were very flexible — and my understanding is that 1,000 books were named and then they were broken up into “genres” rather than them selecting the genres and trying to find books to fit them. Which, when you think about it, isn’t all that clear cut, because some books cross over. I was surprised, for instance, to see The New York Trilogy included in today’s list, because I would not class that as a strict crime novel.
    What does appeal to me about this exercise is the lack of pretension: it’s not exclusively high-brow books but a good mix from various decades/centuries and includes a lot of popular stuff as well as the more “cultured” literary titles.

  2. Yes, I’m enjoying this series and have commented on it in my post! I enjoyed yesterday’s part on ‘Love’ as much and am amazed at the number of books I still haven’t read….

  3. I skimmed online and skimmed the paper edition earlier. I am disappointed that there isn’t a higher proportion of more contemporary authors on the list. They appear to have been more interested in blurring the lines between the genre and literary fiction like a semi-permeable membrane to enable a gorging on the classics. Have we really been so crime fiction-poor since the 70s and 80s? Just my initial thought…

  4. I think I’m out of touch. Kim and Seachanges above like the Observer/Guardian style, and so do Rap Sheet (Ali Karim) and Shots (Ayo). As mentioned at Friend Feed, I think that the list is just far too general – To Kill a Mockingbird? Of Mice and Men?

  5. We can but differ, which is why all such lists prove to be controversial. But in these days the lists are openly controversial due to the internet and the ease of reply in various formats. Personally, I have more time for the Telegraph’s (was it?) top 50 after seeing this list.
    And to put it into context, on one occasion when I met Barry Forshaw last year, I told him that I had just received his Rough Guide as a gift. His initial response? “And now, no doubt, you’ll be telling me who I missed?” Delivered with humour and no bitterness at all, I hasten to add.

  6. If you are out of touch, Maxine, then I am in good company. Great weariness comes over me when I see people have been up to the list game again, chiefly because, where crime fiction is concerned, it never gets us any further forrader. I think it is in part a marketing exercise, as other such have been, accompanied by the usual false premisses, dodgy definitions, and tenuous conclusions. Half the blame for this rests with those who inhabit the world of literary fiction.

  7. What is the definition of crime fiction, I wonder. Is there one? Yes, I was really surprised at some of ‘the choices too. I wouldn’t have included ‘Of Mice and Men’ (or ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ or ‘Enduring Love’, either). Excellent books, but I didn’t think the main point of the books was the crime – which is how I think I’d define crime fiction. The crime in these cases was incidental – and mostly there to show a nuance of human nature.

  8. I commented on the list on my blog and I agree with you that the Guardian’s standards for crime fiction are so broad as to be meaningless. Anyone ranking “Jurassic Park” as one of the all-time greatest crime novels either is pulling people’s legs or experiences serious cognitive trouble. Also, if you are to seek Great Ancestors among nineteenth-century great writers, why ignore Balzac and Dickens? And quid of “Jane Eyre”?

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