Sunday 18 August 2019

The long-standing debate around 'low art' and 'high art' rumbles on

Big screen: Colm Tóibín, who wrote Brooklyn (Saoirse Ronan in the movie version, above) sparked offence with his comments about genre fiction
Big screen: Colm Tóibín, who wrote Brooklyn (Saoirse Ronan in the movie version, above) sparked offence with his comments about genre fiction
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

The age old, tired debate about the merits of popular fiction versus literary fiction ignited once again this week as author Colm Tóibín declared he is not a fan of 'genre fiction books'.

Although he does not have an official presence on the often terrifyingly toxic social media platform that is Twitter (hardly surprising, since he admits to not even watching TV), he found himself at the centre of the proverbial Twitter storm as fellow authors and readers reacted to the comments which he had made in an interview with The Guardian.

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Asked by the publication which books he feels are "most overrated" he replied, "I can't do thrillers and I can't do spy novels. I can't do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don't find any rhythm in it. It's blank, it's nothing; it's like watching TV."

Whatever about Tóibín's personal taste when it comes to reading material, his apparent dismissal of crime thrillers and genre fiction in their entirety prompted a barrage of criticism from high profile writers from said genres. Among them was Irish writer Sheila O'Flanagan who said Tóibín was being 'snobbish', adding that much popular fiction boasts rhythmic prose. "There is plenty of rhythm in the prose of genre. Not in all, of course, just like not all literary fiction is a work of art. Le Carré writes great prose. As for TV - Chernobyl was full of rhythm."

Fellow Irish writer Marian Keyes also took a thinly-veiled swipe at Tóibín and his best-selling novel Brooklyn when she wrote, "Sez the lad who wrote a Maeve Binchy pastiche and managed to persuade people it was literary fiction". She accompanied her tweet with several laughing face emojis.

The lazy categorisation of bodies or work as either 'popular' or 'literary' with no room for shades of grey means the high art/low art debate is destined to rumble on. What is the inference of such an arbitrary divide? That work that is popular, consumed by the heaving masses, and hits the bestseller chart is low brow, and deemed lesser somehow than the less accessible, weightier prose that is perhaps more appealing to an elite, highbrow few?

Does this make Brooklyn, which topped the bestseller chart in Ireland upon its publication in 2009, and went on to become an Oscar-nominated movie, a genre novel? One leading bookseller, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Independent.ie at the time that although Tóibín was one of Ireland's most highbrow writers, Brooklyn is "basically a chicklit story". These days we'd call it genre fiction but at the time Tóibín had no issue with the 'chicklit' label.

"If women - or men - who read Marian Keyes or Maeve Binchy like this book, that would be wonderful because Marian and Maeve have millions of readers all over the world," Toibin said in an interview. "My last book, The Master, was a more complex novel about the life of the writer Henry James and that may have put some people off. Brooklyn is a simple story and that makes it more accessible. But I think that within simplicity one can get to deeper levels of truth. It's a matter of stripping away and revealing. The simplicity can be more interesting and more telling."

Rhythmic prose or lack thereof, the appetite for genre fiction and crime, in particular, is voracious. Such is its popularity in terms of adaptations that it is keeping many a TV, streaming and film production company in business. Is there a genre more in demand outside of comic book adaptations? Eleven of Le Carré's novels alone have been adapted for the big and small screen. The best crime writing is simply excellent writing, genre or not.

Perhaps a move away from rigid categorisation of work and indeed writers would alleviate some of the long-standing tension. Crime writer Laura Lippman summed up the issue with categorisation thus, "As a genre writer, it makes my heart sink to see 'just get bored with the prose' because genre doesn't require boring prose and the quality of writing varies widely within every genre. (Including 'literary'.) Yet he loves Agatha Christie so maybe some nuance was lost?"

John Banville, who writes crime novels under the alias of Benjamin Black, is not on Twitter and, as such, avoided the maelstrom of ire. However, he said he understood some of the points Tóibín made in regards to prose, as crime writing tends to focus more on character and plot than prose. Of those criticising the author, he added, "I think they should grow up, and suppress their inferiority complex because they have nothing to feel inferior about. Some of the finest writers of the 20th century wrote crime fiction," he said, citing Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon as examples. "For me there is just good writing and bad writing."

Irish Independent

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