Books that win prizes, genres that don’t

TruthThe Guardian on Friday 25 June
: “Literary awards have been one of the last bastions of high culture, but in the week when the crime writer Peter Temple took Australia’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin award, Alison Flood examines whether a detective novel could ever win the Booker.”

In the course of the article, John Sutherland, former chair of the Booker prize panel, is quoted making these arguments: 

“The twice I’ve been on the Booker panel they weren’t submitted,” he said. “There’s a feeling that it’s like putting a donkey into the Grand National.” According to Sutherland, the perception in the UK is that there are enough specialist awards for crime fiction. The barriers to genre writers are also higher. “They just don’t have quite the same class system in Australia, and perhaps they don’t have the same class distinctions in Australian letters,” he said. Sutherland also worries that awarding a mainstream literary prize to a work of genre fiction, particularly one which is part of a series, would devalue its reputation. “There is a dilution effect,” he said. “Series have tended to inhabit the lower reaches of literature.”

There are a few signs that times are changing: the Guardian piece mentions some – Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 was longlisted for the Booker in 2008; that year’s winner was Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which follows the story of a murderer; and Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising was shortlisted for this 
TToWyear’s Orange prize. Ion Trewin, another Booker insider, says that Sarah Waters, twice shortlisted in recent years, would have been dismissed as a genre writer a few years ago. I have also seen similar negative, “they’ve got their own prizes” arguments made about science fiction, another despised (among some) genre. Yet novelists such as H G Wells, Jules Verne, Angela Carter, John Wyndham, Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood have, rightly, endured.

For Morag Fraser, a Miles Franklin judge for the past six years, it is simply a question of quality. “Most crime novels that I have read (and I read one a week, often more) will never win the Miles Franklin or any other ‘literary’ prize because they do not work language hard enough, and they do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination,” she said. “They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.””In the case of Peter Temple’s Truth, the divide was so comprehensively crossed that we did not think much about the conventions of crime fiction except to note that Temple was able to observe them rather as a poet observes the 14-line convention of the sonnet or a musician the sonata form: as a useful disciplinary structure from which to expand, bend or depart.”

Other people quoted in the article who agree with the view that it is the quality of writing that counts, not the genre into which a novel is consigned, are Booker-winner John Banville (Benjamin Black), and Catharine Stimpson, a leading US academic and Pulitzer judge in the year when the winner was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007).

Today, would Crime and Punishment, Macbeth, Therese Raquin, Bleak House, The Woman in White, or Camus’s The Outsider, be considered ‘genre’ fiction because they are about crimes and their effects, or 
WWLwould they be considered to be about universal truths, and hence eligible for the Booker, Orange and Pulitzer prizes? I have read Booker and Pulitzer prize winners, and the odd Orange prize winner [this last category not my favourite!], that I have found tedious and plotless – and not always well-written. Is it the presence of a plot that makes a novel, in contemporary eyes, lowbrow? Many of these old prize-winners have been forgotten today, and do not stand up well. Some of my favourites of these “not formulaic” novels are The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (very Bronte); The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny (which won both the main Costa (formerly Whitbread) prize and the Theakston Old Peculier crime novel of the year prize); The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; and What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn. A recent delight is Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland. I am not saying that these books are “great literature”, who can know? But they are all well-written, thoughtful books – admittedly, each with a plot (which is what I call a beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that order). Much of crime fiction is not of a suitable standard for a literary prize. But this does not have to apply to all of “fiction in which a crime happens or may have done”.

The Guardian piece
ends with the observation that Quercus, Peter Temple’s UK publisher, will submit Truth for the Booker. I hope more publishers do the same with books that are, or are sold as, “crime” fiction, if for no other reason to break them out of their genre straightjacket and into the chance of a wider readership.

2 thoughts on “Books that win prizes, genres that don’t

  1. Maxine – Well-written, thoughtful post!! You’ve expressed my ideas exactly, and I, like you, hope that the signs of change that you’ve mentioned really are harbingers of wider readership for crime fiction. More importantly, I hope that labels of any sort will be less restrictive…

  2. No one will ever convince me that Peter Carey’s THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, which won the Booker a couple of years ago, is anything other than self-indulgent drivel and for that reason I eye prizes suspiciously. It’s probably impossible to be objective about art which is where the problems begin, but I guess the process of prize giving at least generates a few discussions.

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