Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Face It, Book Snobs, Crime Fiction Is Real Literature - And Ian Rankin Proves It

Allan Massie, the distinguished journalist and author, offers a piece at the British newspaper the Telegraph on crime writer Ian Rankin and crime fiction.

I first met Ian Rankin in 1983 when I held a fellowship in creative writing at Edinburgh University. He was working on a PhD thesis on Muriel Spark and supporting himself with a part-time job as a clerk in the Inland Revenue. He used to bring short stories for me to read, criticise and advise on.

They were sensitive and perceptive stories mostly about childhood in the old mining communities of Fife. Some years later, he turned, sensibly, to crime, and after he had published one novel, I recommended him to my then editor, Euan Cameron at the Bodley Head.

Euan took him on, and Ian has never looked back. He became the most successful crime novelist Scotland has ever produced. He made respectable Edinburgh dangerous, beautiful Edinburgh sinister. There are more than 20 novels featuring his policeman John Rebus. They have been adapted for television and a tourist industry has grown up around them.
When I knew him first, he was a thin boy who dressed as most students of the Eighties did. He is middle-aged now, but looks much the same to me, and still dresses as a student and the rock music fan he has always been. But of course, though you mightn’t think so to look at him – or even to hear him speak – he has, as they say, gone up in the world. You can’t be that successful and not do so. This week he has become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which means that he has been received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment. I am pretty sure it won’t change him.

There are still people who look down on the crime novel. No crime writer has won the Man Booker Prize. For many, despite the example of PD James and Ruth Rendell, as well as Rankin, crime fiction is still seen as genre fiction, and therefore inferior to the straight novel. It is still viewed with the sort of condescension that irritated Raymond Chandler 70 years ago when he complained of “that snobbism which makes a fourth-rate serious novelist, without style or any real talent, superior by definition to a mystery writer who might have helped recreate a whole literature” – which is, of course, what Chandler knew he had done himself. Some of that snobbism has actually withered, partly because the “straight” or “literary” novel is generally less highly regarded. Nevertheless, there is still a foolish feeling that the crime novel is somehow an inferior genre.

This is palpable nonsense. Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work. Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian is a crime novel. Bleak House is a crime novel. So, of course, is Oliver Twist. Dickens indeed was fascinated, even obsessed, by crime and the criminal mind, as were Balzac and Dostoevsky. In the Thirties, AndrĂ© Gide, future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, declared (though he found it difficult to tell a story himself) that Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret and author of scores of dark novels, was the greatest living novelist writing in the French language. That fine novelist Nicolas Freeling even claimed that “in prose fiction, crime is the pre-eminent, and often predominant, theme”. This may be an exaggeration, but not much of one.

You can read the rest of the piece via the below link: 

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