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In Defence of Crime Fiction – a rant @EdBookFest

June 27, 2019

I have had enough. Barely a month goes by these days without someone having a pop at crime fiction. Now that’s fair enough. It is the most popular genre and as such it’s not unreasonable for critics to have a shot at analysing and critiquing its inner workings. But that tends not to be what happens. No, rather these critics of the genre assume that because it is the most read genre, it is somehow of and in itself less worthy.

The trope goes that if everyone can read it, then by default it is too accessible; not up to the lofty standards of literary fiction- whatever that is.

Yet how many people have read the novels of Sarah Hilary – the books that shine a light on our society and its evils; that consider knife crime and violence in inner London and posits that against moral choices and a more civilised approach?

Have these critics read Finnish author Antti Tuomainen, recently described by The Times Marcel Berlins as ‘the funniest writer in Europe’?

The most recent attack on the genre came in an article to The Times. “Slashers v snobs in literary bloodbath at Edinburgh book festival” roared the headline. All good clickbait stuff, you might think. But articles like these undermine a genre where the writing has never been better; where what is happening in our lives is portrayed, debated and takes no prisoners in its desire to tell the story of the inequities our children, and the poorest in our society are facing.

The Director of the excellent Summerhall Festival was quoted as saying that the Edinburgh International Book Festival has “somewhat lost its way” and has put Festival Director, Nick Barley under fire for ‘pandering to popular tastes when he supposedly should be trying to elevate them’.

Anyone who has read Doug Johnstone’s most recent novel, Breakers cannot fail to be moved by the plight of a young carer faced with the heart-breaking task of looking after his family in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived schemes. This is literature and literary fiction of the highest order. But it is also crime fiction and all the better for it.

In the same article, Bridget Lawless, creator of the ill-conceived Staunch prize, said “if you start listing what each of those books are about, you start seeing a really alarming pattern.” Has she read much contemporary crime fiction, I wonder?

For my money, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the top Literature Festivals in the world. It earns my esteem precisely because it aims for inclusivity and marries that with real quality. From its exceptional children’s programme, to its outreach events throughout the year, to its innovative ‘pay what you can afford’ scheme this year, it is trying as hard as it can to be as inclusive as possible.

Literature festivals are not always clearly signposted as accessible. For a reader whose books are avidly devoured through libraries, setting foot across the threshold of a tented village can be a daunting experience. What price then, the education of a young reader who first sets a tentative foot on that path because they want to see a treasured author, be it Ian Rankin, Val McDermid or Denzil Meyrick?

Last year I went to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I went mainly for the crime fiction authors whose books I enjoy and I loved listening to the Ambrose Parry team of Chris Brookmyre and Marissa Haetzman talking about how they work together to produce their historical crime fiction novels. I really enjoyed hearing Kjell Ola Dahl talk about politics and corruption in Norway so ably explored through his crime fiction translated novels. I revelled in Thomas Enger’s sometimes bleak but always captivating writing in which a journalist goes on a heart-breaking quest to find out who was responsible for the fire that killed his six year old son.

I laughed at Denzil Meyrick’s atmospheric portrayal of small town life in the fictional Kinloch and have revelled subsequently in reading his police procedural books from the beginning.

I also took the opportunity to find new writers such as Hawa Jande Golakai from Liberia talking with the Icelandic writer, Lilja Sigurdardottir about diverse writing and about their decision to turn to crime writing as a way of  portraying women in their contemporary societies.

While I was there, I managed to fit in Helen Bellany, whose book The Restless Wave, is an account of her life with artist John Bellany. Rose McGowan was inspirational and Gina Miller brought the house to its feet in applause. Alan Spence was eloquent and Louis de Bernieres charming.

All these experiences added to the sum of my literary experiences last year and none of them would have been possible without the Edinburgh International Book Festival enticing me through its doors.

When all is said and done, what is crime fiction, if not a way of illuminating our own experiences and casting fresh light on our society?

Dickens wrote Great Expectations, Bleak House, and David Copperfield – all crime books at heart. Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre are both rooted in their crimes.

It is the integral relationship of life to justice, crime and reparation that lies at the heart of many great novels and surely what matters is the strength and quality of the writing, not the genre that they are classified under?

One of my favourite writers, Louise Beech, writes books that cross genres, as many good writers also do, but should we consider her latest book, Call Me Star Girl, at heart based upon a crime, less good because it clearly belongs to the psychological thriller genre.

Isn’t it time we all stopped being quite so stand-offish about the books that the majority of the public want to read and start welcoming authors who open our eyes to the best of what literature has to offer?

For my part, I am delighted that the Edinburgh International Book Festival has chosen to be inclusive and welcoming to all writers of quality fiction and non-fiction. It will be a sad day if that ever changes.

10 Comments
  1. Literary fiction snobs are the worst. What makes your fancy books so much better than something with a little magic, science, or crime? *eye roll*

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  2. Literary fiction snobs are the worst. What make your book so much better than a book with a little magic, science, or crime? *eye roll*

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  3. I completely agree. My local book festival had no genre fiction writers this year. Lots of celebrities, tv personalities, musicians, and people who hadn’t written books. So disappointing. I didn’t buy a ticket.

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  4. Great piece Mary.

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  5. I have heard of one book festival that is actually PROUD of the fact they invite no crime writers. A very narrow minded view plus talk about cutting out your audience.

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  6. Ha – if you think crime fiction gets a snobby press, you should look at the derision chucked at romance writers!

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  7. Well said – what is wrong with a book festival including books that many people enjoy?Having said that, I always think that the Edinburgh Book Festival doesn’t have enough popular/contemporary/romantic/women’s fiction – delete as appropriate!

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  8. I’ve had to defend crime fiction a few times. People saying things like they read crime when they want a “palate cleanser” or “don’t want to think too hard” etc etc. I can’t even begin to image the skill involved in crafting a mystery that keeps the reader hooked, creating clues, but not revealing the mystery until the end of the book!

    Like

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