For the first time, as I listened to a radio special on Harrogate Crime Festival*, I was actually glad I hadn’t attended this year. Not because of the rain and floods, but because of the “spat” (as some called it) between David Roberts and Mark Billingham. I don't think I could have handled myself as reasonably as Mark Billingham did.
David Roberts throws down the gauntlet at the beginning: “What could be more old-fashioned and artificial than that? I’ll tell you what. It’s the gritty, realistic, blood-soaked corrosive rubbish that you see spattered all over Waterstones every day.”
Mark counters: “Crime fiction is uniquely placed to tackle rather important issues that I know you find terribly distasteful David, but issues such as child abuse and hate crime and terrorism. We live in a very scary and violent world and fiction that completely puts its head in the sand and refuses to address this is hopelessly out of date.”
David replies: “What is sad is that crime fiction, which is supposed to be entertainment, should try and think it’s superior enough to take on these major, gritty, realistic, subjects like child abuse and they love to have a violent scene with perhaps some woman or child being tortured. Is that what we want to read? Yes, if you’re a serious novelist, by all means tackle big social subjects but not if you’re a crime writer.” He goes on to say, “What we do want to avoid is the pornography of violence that is so prevalent.”
What’s with this recent trend making carte blanche statements against “blood-soaked corrosive rubbish”? In particular, the way this statement is made makes it sound like anything that’s a bestseller qualifies, which is hardly true. Roberts asserts that these books are detailing things such as torture and dismemberments, and yet the overwhelming majority of crime fiction I read – which undoubtedly falls on his ‘corrosive rubbish’ pile, does not detail such things. The majority of any violent acts happens off the page.
I have to say that if someone’s setting the rules that crime fiction can only entertain and not address serious issues, it’s time for me to stop reading crime fiction. I enjoy being entertained as much as the next person, but not at the expense of reality.
I realize that I’ve also had my say on this to a large degree a few months back, when I talked about how insulting it was to dismiss the harsh realities of crime. How the hell can you write crime fiction – make your living off of criminal acts – and then insist the books stay civilized, bloodless, without any pain or discomfort to anyone? That’s bullshit, and incredibly offensive to anyone who knows what it’s like to have a loved one murdered, raped, assaulted, etc.
And that doesn’t mean that you have to spend the book dwelling on that. But you don’t gloss it over and keep crime oh-so-civilized. Crime wreaks havoc, it rips lives apart.
You do not have to be gruesome in order to display that either. I know a friend who works in a Waterstones store has told me they’re getting more and more Laura Lippman in and the books are selling well, and I’d hardly call her work “blood-soaked corrosive rubbish”.
The truth is, the crime fiction genre is big enough for all manner of stories. I may not be particularly wowed by the idea of cat mysteries or cross-stitch mysteries myself, but they’re there for the people who like them. And as much as they aren’t for me, attacking them (and their readership) if I was so inclined would be a waste of energy. The people who primarily like those types of books aren’t as likely to be interested in my type of work. In some respects, SC is the ‘lightest’ thing I’ve written. While I don’t consider it hard-boiled, my work is definitely moving in darker territory, and that’s where I prefer writing. The readership is distinctly different.
What’s really unfortunate is that I found the comments made so distasteful, erroneous and offensive that it’s put me off reading/watching anyone Mr. Roberts commended. The truth is, sometimes I enjoy something that isn’t so bleak, but I have a hard time reading anything that’s serving as a way of looking down on the rest of the genre. And that, to me, was what really got me. It was the sense of this snooty attitude, of being more evolved and enlightened as to have better taste than those just putting out carnage.
You want to know what I admire most about Mark Billingham’s work? How careful he is to develop the victims. You have a sense of what they’ve gone through, of the loss, the cost. They are not used as items of convenience and dismissed. I try now to pay more attention to my victims, and that’s with particular credit to Mark.
And for the most part, the books I enjoy most are about the journey of the main character(s). As they are confronted by things, they struggle to deal with them. Over the course of time the crimes they’re confronting take a toll, and that is realistic. The problem with bloodless crimes that nobody gets too worked up over, in my opinion, is that your character can’t really be affected by them. After all, you’re taking such care to make sure nobody else is disturbed, so seeing a bad crime scene isn’t going to prompt your protag to drink, or keep them awake at nights. Let’s just keep it all nice and civilized so that nobody’s too offended by the crime… so why should anyone care?
Thing for me is, if I don’t care, why read it?
“The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. They characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.” - Norman Cousins
Whatever else I’m guilty of, may I not be guilty of that.
And here’s another quote from Mr. Cousins:
"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."
Hence my interest in series characters and journeys. It doesn’t mean every book will end badly, or that there will never be moments of happiness. But that quote alone sums up what it is that captivates me about Jack Taylor. Its got nothing to do with any violence on the page – you either get it, or you try to find scapegoats to dismiss what you don’t understand.
Here’s to keeping it real, and those who do such a fine job not shirking from the realities of violence while also not glamorizing it.
* There will be a short lifespan on this link, as I expect come Wednesday it will be gone. That’s my guess, anyway, as I believe the ‘listen again’ feature is only good for a week.