Friday, July 02, 2010

Donkey in a Horse Race

When crime fictionist Peter Temple’s 2005 novel, The Broken Shore, was longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, he thought someone had made a mistake. So when his current novel, Truth, actually won the Miles Franklin Award last week, he told The Guardian that he was “absolutely humbled.” From The Guardian:
Temple is the first crime novelist ever to win the Miles Franklin, setting him in a canon of former winners including Peter Carey, David Malouf and Patrick White.

“It is a very bold thing for the judges to do. They really are the custodians of Australia's oldest literary prize, they decide who should be admitted to the contemporary canon. So to admit a crime novelist, they've put their lives on the line,” said Temple. “It’s a fairly small panel [of previous winners] but the writers are all of quite extraordinary talent and quality ... I don’t know what on earth I'm doing there.”
This surprise victory has people on both sides of the pond talking. And not all of what they’re saying is good. One former Man Booker Prize chairman told The Guardian that he isn't expecting a work of crime fiction to win the Man Booker in the foreseeable future.
Back on this side of the world, no crime novel has ever won the Man Booker prize, and the former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland isn’t expecting it to happen any time soon.

“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.”
Scottish novelist Ian Rankin, however, says change may well be afoot:
“The old canards are that crime fiction is plot-driven, thin on character, populist: a lesser calling. But that no longer holds true. Kate Atkinson’s last three novels have been crime. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a crime story. William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller. Slowly, the barricades are tumbling. You can now study crime fiction in some universities and high schools. At least three Ph.D.s on my own work are currently under way. A St. Andrews lecturer has written a book about one of my novels. Thirty years back, ‘modern literature’ at St. Andrews meant Milton.”
Meanwhile, one of the Miles Franklin judges tries to define the distinction between Great Literature and the predominance of crime fiction:
“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.”
The author of Christine Falls and The Silver Swan concurs:
John Banville, who won the Booker for his novel The Sea, and who writes crime fiction as Benjamin Black, was absolutely in agreement, saying that “there is only one distinction, and that is between good writing and writing which is ... not good”.
The Guardian piece is lengthy and it’s here.


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