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We Need To Talk About Colm (And Margaret. And Kazuo. And Ian.)

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Derek Flynn

At the heart of Tóibín’s comments lies – not only a snobbery – but a hypocrisy that is startling

There have been quite a few column inches expended on Colm Tóibín’s comments over the last few days. If you haven’t read them, here’s what he said:

“I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.”

Now his massive generalisation and dismissal of entire genres has already been discussed elsewhere at length so I’m not going to talk about that here. Okay, I am. Just a little bit.

When Stephen King was nominated as the recipient of the National Book Award, many in the literary world thought it was outrageous. The critic, Harold Bloom, called it “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind.”

King addressed these criticisms directly in his acceptance speech. This quote is one I find the most interesting:

“Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by … [popular writers]. What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?”

But what I really want to talk about here is the hypocrisy that is at the root of these comments. As Marian Keyes archly pointed out in a tweet referring to Tóibín’s comments: “Sez the lad who wrote a Maeve Binchy pastiche and managed to persuade people it was literary fiction.”

Booker Prize winner, John Banville, writes crime under the pseudonym, Benjamin Black, so you would think he might be sympathetic to the cause. However, when the first Black book was published, Banville’s agent was at pains to differentiate the two: “He doesn’t want people reading [Black] and looking for the same things they do in a Banville novel. With this, his main intent is to entertain.” As if crime fiction isn’t capable of anything beyond mere entertainment.

In the middle of all the discussion about Tóibín’s comments, a writer friend of mine sent me a message saying, “Try being a science fiction writer.” He was being sarcastic, but he’s right.

If genre fiction is the poor relation of the family, then science fiction is the runt underneath the kitchen table. This despite the fact that science fiction is one of the most innovative genres of fiction and always has been.

This despite the fact that the list of science-fiction writers includes such names as George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin, and Doris Lessing.

This despite the fact that “literary” writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, and Ian McEwan – all Booker Prize winners and in Ishiguro’s case a Nobel Prize winner – have written what could be classed as science fiction novels. But, of course, none of the above-mentioned writers see it that way.

While discussing his novel, The Broken Giant, with its many fantasy tropes, Ishiguro said to an interviewer, “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Ursula Le Guin responded in an article: “Well, yes, they probably will. Why not? It appears that the author takes the word for an insult. To me that is so insulting … Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality.”

Atwood too balked at the science-fiction label, calling her novels “speculative fiction”. Likewise, Ian McEwan dismissed science-fiction as books about “travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots”.

Now, I happen to be a fan of all three author’s books, but nonetheless it does grate that they seem happy to use the tropes of a certain genre but are horrified that they might be identified as a “genre writer”.  Many would argue (as Marian Keyes seems to) that in Brooklyn, Tóibín wrote a book that – if it were written by a woman – would be classed as genre fiction. Because he wrote it, it’s literary fiction.

In an excellent reply to Tóibín’s comments, author Shane Dunphy wrote: “This is the kind of snobbery I’ve faced my entire writing life, and I am done with it. I believe it speaks to a kind of narrow-mindedness, a reductionist world view that encourages uninformed decisions about the value of someone else’s work based on labels that are, quite frankly, simply tools publishers and book-sellers use to help sell product.”

And he’s right. Genres shouldn’t exist. They are merely “tools of publishers and book-sellers”. There should just be good books or bad books. But, unfortunately, they do exist. And as long as we have writers of literary fiction who look down their noses at genre fiction, that distinction will remain. And those same writers will continue to cherry pick the bits from genre fiction that they want to use, while keeping it at a distance with a peg on their nose.

And, of course, the irony in all this: literary fiction is a genre too.

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