The Dickensian Canard

June 23, 2010

Here in Australia the nation’s most prestigious literary award has just gone to Peter Temple’s Truth: a crime novel. James Bradley at city of tongues offers an intelligent and articulate response to the subsequent controversy:

Truth is basically a crime novel, and therefore a piece of genre fiction. That’s not to say it’s not an extremely good crime novel, but it’s still a crime novel, and operates within the conventions and constraints of the genre. And that, in turn, makes it an unusual choice for an award like the Miles Franklin, which has traditionally been reserved for literary fiction.

Less articulate is the response on offer at Crikey‘s Culture Mulcher blog, and particularly the responses to that response in the comments section of the blog. For example, Lucy Sussex:

I have been saying for ages that the best crime novels are about the only novels that depict modern society well–they are Dickensian in a way so-called literary novels are not. In fact, if I have a novel for review by someone I have never heard of, it is most likely to be good if it is crime. The percentage of quality is just higher.

Of course! “Dickensian” — that’s how novels are supposed to be, isn’t it? “Depict modern society well” — that’s what novels are supposed to do, isn’t it? I mean: if you crave an accurate and multifaceted depiction of modern society in all its complexity and intricacy, what better place to find it than in a work of imaginative fiction?

Sussex writes book reviews for The Age: short, slight, and invariably superficial in their treatment of whatever book happens to be at hand. It’s no surprise, really, that she should say something like this; but, even so, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing, especially when the tenor of the replies to her comment looks something like this:

Dear Lucy, well, as a book reviewer, you would know!

Perhaps the best comment of the bunch, however, comes from dirt armature. “The dichotomy between genre and literary fiction,” he or she protests, “relies on concepts of literary value that few people share.” At least dirt armature tries to be perceptive. Still, he or she is wrong. The dichotomy between genre and literary fiction doesn’t rely on any such concepts. This has been outlined elsewhere, and in greater detail than I have the stamina to summon tonight.

MORNING UPDATE: My thoughts on the dichotomy between genre fiction and literary fiction.

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