By Russel D McLean
So here we go again. And before we start, let me state straight up that I am not about to pass judgement on any writer's output or value, but I am going to try and tear down an ongoing literary slanging match that is, in my opinion, becoming increasingly harmful to both sides.
For those who haven't been keeping up, it seems that bestselling thriller writer Lee Child has either made a horrific faux-pas or, worse, he genuinely believes that literary writers “know in their heart that we could write their books but they could not write our books.”
It’s the kind of quote that, even from its alleged context (a TV debate on literary vs genre, precisely the argument that's beginning to get me down) sounds childish, petulant and plain baiting.
Reading the full quote, things start out nicely. Child claims that since his and Ian McEwan’s books were released at the same time (Child's latest is 61 HOURS, Ian McEwan's is SOLAR), the media were trying to set up some kind of grudge match. Child asks “why should I be worried about Iain McEwan’s books?” which is a fair enough question. And, I assumed, was going to go down the “look, we’re aiming for two vastly different sectors of the market, like asking whether John Woo should be worried by the latest Judd Apatow flick” kind of response.
But no, he goes for the previously mentioned statement and proceeds to make crime and thriller writers sound particularly full of themselves in the worst possible way. In the same kind of way that many literary writers have sounded when claiming that thriller and crime writers don't need to work as hard at what they do and that we're all about formula.
It doesn't help that Child picked a peculiarly poor example when it came to McEwan because, let’s face facts, McEwan sells by the boatload even though his output is less frequent than Childs. McEwan also has five movies adaptions to Child’s zero. And yet Child makes the case – however indirectly – that McEwan should somehow be jealous of him?
Here are the publishers stats on Child (as reiterated across the proofs of 61 hours): one book by Child is sold in the world every second. But does this really mean anything? Do those sales make him better or more talented than McEwan?
Here’s the thing: I’m getting fed up of the literary/genre debate. From both sides. I do believe that certain literary types have stereotyped genre as being empty of brain and purpose (which is true in some cases) while some of us genre writers have come to regard literary as so much empty posturing with only the appearance of intelligence (again, true in some cases).
However, in amongst all this mud slinging we’re forgetting an important thing:
None of it matters.
No, seriously. Because we’re all in the same damn boat, us authors of fiction. Every kind of fiction is intended to have a different effect upon the audience. Hence, McEwan’s books are attempting to induce very different emotions and reactions than a Child thriller. But they share many common features, and come from a similar spring of inspiration and creation.
So why can’t the two co-exist? Literary and genre side by side, proud to be fictional?
Why do they have to be in competition at all?
And as to Child’s later assertion that why wouldn’t a starving literary writer write a “bestseller” in the vein of Child, or even just a crime novel, let me point out from experience that many crime writers are also starving and believe me, if we could hit on that magic and very lucky formula for bestsellerdom (which McEwan has as equally as Child, despite the protestations of Child) we would be doing it. Its not like we – or our literary equivalents – are saying, “Tell you what, we’re going to write an inadequate book that’s not going to sell”. Because all writing is about connecting with an audience, and the widest audience possible. Yes, literary writers may talk less about money and audience and more about art and theme, but when you think about what sales mean you’re connecting with an audience, so money and connection to readers are concepts which have to be linked.
I’m speaking here as a man more likely to pick up a crime thriller than a literary novel, but that’s not to say that literary novels are all without merit or that all crime novels are brilliant (in fact there are many, many shitty crime novels and some translucently wondrous literary novels as well as brilliance in nearly all genres). I think – I believe – that a good book is a good book, and one that connects with an audience will do so no matter who has written it or for what reason. Maybe I’m naïve, but I honestly wish any writer – yes, even James Patterson and Dan Brown – well in what they do because, even if I don’t approve of it, clearly their work is connecting with someone somewhere. And, frankly, getting bogged down in genre wars, in macho-bullshit posturing over whose work is more important or enduring, over whether or not a literary novel could be “written in three weeks” or any number of these petty arguments, distracts us from what’s really important: writing books for readers like ourselves, books that connect with readers, that slip into people's lives, that make them say, for whatever reason, "I am glad to have read that".
In the end, it doesn’t matter what you write. Or even how big your audience is. If we all wrote the same kind of books, then the world, believe me, would be a poorer place.