‘Untalented’ crime writers respond to their No 1 critic

13 thriller writers take William O’Rourke to task for dismissing them and their readers

High art or pulp fiction?: thriller writer John Connolly and Trinity College Dublin academic Brian Cliff, organisers of a crime writing festival there in 2013. Photograph: Alan Betson

High art or pulp fiction?: thriller writer John Connolly and Trinity College Dublin academic Brian Cliff, organisers of a crime writing festival there in 2013. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Last Friday, William O’Rourke, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, came to The Irish Times to praise his former protégé Michael Collins and, almost as an aside, to bury the entire crime fiction genre. Cause of death? “Fatal lack of talent.”

“Michael [Collins] has too much talent to succeed as a crime writer,” wrote O’Rourke. “He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. America really doesn’t possess enough of a literary culture anymore to maintain a writer like Michael.”

Retribution by crime writers on social media was swift. Think the denouement to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Ian Rankin, bestselling author of the Rebus series, tweeted: “One needs a ‘lack of talent’ to be a crime writer. Nice...” Melanie McGrath reacted: “WTAF? Had to read this twice before I could take it in. After which I just laughed like a drain. Claire McGowan’s response was perhaps the best: “Someone needs to produce an anthology called ‘A Fatal Lack of Talent’.”

A piece I saw recently, which described crime fiction as fast food in contrast to the nourishment provided by literary fiction, was similar: an unprovoked attack

The canard that crime fiction is inherently inferior to “serious literature” should be a dead duck by now. American literary critic Leslie Fiedler’s 1969 essay Cross the Border – Close the Gap was one of the first to challenge and fill in the perceived gap between “high art” and “popular art” or “pulp fiction”. But every now and then, an attempt like this is made to reopen the rift and sometimes 140 characters is not sufficient to tease out an issue. So I asked some of the finest Irish and international criminal minds, or crime writers at any rate, to respond in detail to O’Rourke’s dismissal of their genre, quoted here in full.

“Very few non-commercial writers know how to successfully advance their careers. Michael was no exception. He changed agents, publishers, gave up writing short stories – a critical mistake in this country, if you want to continue to be noticed as a literary writer – and attempted to jump into the crime genre to entice the vagrant reader. If bestsellers were easy to write there would be more of them. Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader.”

Sarah Hilary
While it’s easy to dismiss O’Rourke’s fatuously self-defeating argument about talent and success, there’s a serious lesson to be learnt here about the dangers of redrawing old battle lines between literary and genre fiction. This ground is so well-trodden it’s a wonder O’Rourke didn’t disappear down a rabbit hole (as opposed to vanishing up his own fundament). Anyone with a current eye on the publishing world – such as you might hope all professors of creative writing to have - knows that fiction is increasingly porous. The notion that talent can be extracted from the process at any point, or that talent alone should be enough to ensure success, is so out-of-date it needs a health warning. The best writers learn from one another, respect their readers and don’t perpetuate myths, especially those that bemoan the lot of “Live White Males” in an industry which so plainly favours the same.
Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015. Her latest is Quieter Than Killing

John Banville
Lack of talent? Georges Simenon; Margery Allingham; Raymond Chandler; Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark; James M Cain; Dashiell Hammett; Ngaio Marsh; Jim Thompson; Edmund Crispin . . . and that’s only a handful of the dead ones. I rest my case.
John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, is the author of the Quirke series. Prague Nights by Benjamin Black is out on June 1st

William Ryan
With regard to O’Rourke’s comments on crime fiction – every novel, no matter what genre it is perceived as being part of, is judged by each reader based on their own taste and perspective. There are excellent crime novels and there are bad ones, depending on one’s point of view – but that applies to every category into which we divide fiction, including literary fiction. The generalisations that O’Rourke perpetuates imply a prejudgement of quality based on how a novel is categorised rather than the quality of the novel itself, which is a little wrong-headed, in my opinion. Particularly given he doesn’t seem to know much about the crime category he so readily dismisses.

With regard to his comments on bestsellers – as a writer, I want to tell a story and, ideally, readers to engage with my story. If more than a certain number engage with a novel, does that make the novel necessarily bad? I’d disagree. But if O’Rourke were to look at a specific novel and was willing to debate its strengths and weaknesses, then we could have a discussion. Otherwise, he’s generalising – which means he’s probably wrong as much as he’s right.

Just to be clear, Michael Collins is a fine writer and William O’Rourke is to be admired for doing his best to introduce him to a wider audience. Except to the extent that he dismisses other writers and novels in his efforts to do so.
William Ryan’s latest novel is The Constant Soldier. His first, The Holy Thief, was shortlisted for a Crime Writer’s Association New Blood Dagger, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel

Meg Gardiner
I had a drop of talent once. I got rid of it. Sold it out of the boot of my car so I could write a crime novel.

The question’s worth a cheap joke, I think. The issue isn’t whether crime writers lack talent. It’s whether “talent” is what gives a writer worth.

A writer’s raw ability with words doesn’t guarantee brilliant work. And the idea that writing talent exists as an innate ability – you have it or you don’t – is pernicious.

There’s a damaging belief that talent is binary. You either have it – gifted by genetics, the Almighty, a lotto scratch card – or not. You’ve got it? Off you go to Hogwarts. You don’t? Muggle. Give up. Don’t waste our time.

But as a writer, a teacher, and above all as a parent, I’ve come to regard talent as a false god. An inborn facility with words (or for singing, or running with a rugby ball) can indeed be a gift. But it’s not what matters most. What counts is study. And practice. And the hard work that’s needed to develop skills. It’s doggedness, and the courage to open yourself up to new possibilities and divergent ways of thinking-because that unlocks the gates of creativity. What damage a piece of writing are superficiality, cliche and a lack of concern about emotional truth. Not a deficit of talent.

Desire, perseverance, and a commitment to excellence are what create wonderful writing - writing that surprises, delights, and nourishes both the reader and the writer. Forget talent. Listen to Samuel Beckett: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Edgar-winning novelist Meg Gardiner’s Evan Delaney series was described by Stephen King as “simply put, the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last 20 years”

For anybody who thinks producing crime novels is the lesser art of writing, I say this – write one. Go on. It’s as easy as you think it is. I’ll even give you the crimewriter’s playbook

Jo Spain
For anybody who thinks producing crime novels is the lesser art of writing, I say this – write one. Go on. It’s as easy as you think it is. I’ll even give you the crimewriter's playbook.

One condition. There are plenty of rubbish genre books, just as there are plenty of rubbish “literary” books. So, the challenge is, write a good crime novel.

This is all you have to do.

1. Come up with a startlingly new and captivating plot. Take the basic human emotions and complicate matters deliciously.

2. Produce an engaging, multi-layered cast of characters. If you’re not already a psychologist in training, understand this. Your players must have depth - histories, secrets, lust, sins, eccentricities, unpredictability, - basically, they must be human in all its glorious complexity.

3. Start putting together your story. Remember, if you’re writing a whodunit, you must have plausible red herrings galore. The reader wants to be taken this way and that, pulled one direction, then, completely rationally, dragged another. All the while, they must suspect a character who is one of your more deliberate, clever red herrings.

4. Keep the hooks coming. Your novel must be so good that your reader is still up at 3 a.m. when their alarm is set for 7, because they cannot put your book down and just need to know. One more chapter, just the one.

5. Keep your investigators credible while maintaining the length of the story. Know police procedure and the justice system inside out.

6. Understand and appreciate black humour, or you may end up with miserable drivel.

7. Bring it altogether. This is the crucial stage. A crime reader wants a book ending to be utterly convincing. They want a reveal that they did not see coming (and maybe an additional twist), they want to nod their heads sagely and say, yes, I see what the writer did there (while completely accepting they didn’t have a clue and the ending is brilliant) and they want to finish the last page needing to read the whole thing again to see the (now) obvious clues you dropped along the way. Most importantly, they want to go online and order every book you’ve ever written.

Now, pull all that off. If you still think it’s easy and crime writing is for the simpler of us creative artists, well, I guess I’ll just have to live with your contempt. Comfortably, in the knowledge that everybody wants to read my books, and I make lots of money.
Jo Spain is the author of the DI Tom Reynolds series, published by Quercus Books

I always find it strange when literary types associate popular success with lack of talent; it seems so insulting - not to the writers, but to the readers

Jane Casey
I always find it strange when literary types associate popular success with lack of talent; it seems so insulting - not to the writers, but to the readers. Reading is one of the most egalitarian of pursuits. You need no special qualifications to appreciate a good book. As a crime writer, I’m used to the genre being the subject of hot-eyed envy from other writers, because it is so popular and sales are consistently strong. In my experience the readers are dedicated and sophisticated (and by no means easy to please). I always suspect that those who dismiss crime as populist nonsense haven’t actually read a crime novel for a decade or two. At the moment we are blessed with very fine writers who produce compelling, well-written fiction that is as serious and inventive as any literary novel, with light-hearted themes such as the nature of good and evil. I’m not insulted by the suggestion that crime requires a ‘fatal lack of talent’ because it’s so ridiculous, and I think most of my colleagues are similarly bemused. But then it takes a lot to enrage a crime writer. We have the serenity that comes from knowing a hundred ways to despatch our enemies before breakfast.
Jane Casey’s latest Maeve Kerrigan novel is Let the Dead Speak

Barbara Nadel
Until recently the only two types of literature in Turkey were known as fiction and non-fiction. Turkish friends in the business didn’t understand what was meant by “genre fiction” or why it was, in some quarters, considered a lesser art form. To them, it all seemed like a lot of unnecessary snobbery. Clearly they were right and maybe we should all consider going back to a simple fiction/non-fiction form of categorisation. Such spiteful ignorance is unworthy of the person who said it and the people it targets.
Barbara Nadel’s latest Inspector Ikmen mystery is The House of Four

Claire McGowan
It’s an enduring myth that financial success and popularity in the arts must mean selling out or being less talented. I think this is a dangerous belief, and one that holds people back from pursuing their art as a career. It’s time we realised there are excellent writers working in many different styles and genres, and that having a wide appeal is not something to be derided.
Claire McGowan’s latest book in the Paula Maguire series is Blood Tide

Catherine Ryan Howard
All I can say is that I am grateful every day for the fatal lack of talent that enables me to write books for a living and not essays about other authors in which I make sweeping generalisations, contradict myself and hurl insults in the guise of literary criticism. Now, back to work…
Catherine Ryan Howard is the author of Distress Signals

Declan Hughes
Ross Macdonald made the case for crime fiction as a popular art form capable of a high kind of excellence; the musical analogy he cited at the time, and I think it is a good one, was with Duke Ellington. Now, I suppose you could compare Ellington to Ravel, say, and find the Duke wanting, but it seems like a strange thing to do. Although perhaps it was the cast of mind possessed by the judges who refused to award Ellington the Pulitzer all those years ago. Duke Ellington was not trying to be a classical composer and falling short; he was making distinctive art of his own. The problem with the idea that Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, George V. Higgins, Ruth Rendell, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Ian Rankin, Laura Lippmann and John Connolly (to take just a baker’s dozen) wrote, or write, crime fiction because of a ‘fatal lack of talent’ that would otherwise see them writing literary novels is not that it’s elitist (I’m elitist about crime fiction: the writers above were not picked at random), it’s that it’s a category error. It’s like the swanky sixties critic who compared Paul McCartney favorably to Schubert, then dismissed the rest of rock music as worthless. It’s like saying The Great Gatsby is better than The Maltese Falcon, or Shostakovich’s Eighth is better than Kind of Blue, or Amarcord is better than The Godfather. Better at what? Better as what? Artists’ careers are mysterious, and often follow no logical pattern; talent will not always out, virtue (dedication) is not rewarded, voices are found and then lost again; perhaps they are not best-served by well-meaning, garrulous advocates who wield imprecise, archaic generalisations to dubious purpose.
Declan Hughes’s latest work is All The Things You Are. He reviews crime fiction for The Irish Times

Raymond Chandler, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde on art, once declared that there are only two kinds of books: good and bad. That’s as true now as it was then

Declan Burke
The idea that any kind of writer requires a “fatal lack of talent” to be successful is preposterous. William O’Rourke’s article on Michael Collins suggests that O’Rourke is struggling with the literary equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, in that he appears to be both prisoner and product of a self-perpetuating system built on an artificially constructed hierarchy. It’s a little bit sad, really. I have an image in my head of William O’Rourke as the head foreman on the Tower of Babel, bellowing hoarsely into a megaphone while the great unwashed swarm the lower storeys below …

Raymond Chandler, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde on art, once declared that there are only two kinds of books: good and bad. That’s as true now as it was then. Any other differentiation between storytelling styles and modes, especially by denigrating one in order to boost another, is either a failure of the imagination or a lazy attempt to protect a sinecure.
Declan Burke’s latest novel is The Lost and the Blind. Anthologies he has edited include Trouble Is Our Business: Stories by Irish Crime Writers and, with John Connolly, Books to Die for: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels. He reviews crime fiction for The Irish Times

Andrea Carter
It’s like getting headbutted by a random stranger on your way home from a night out.

Professor O’Rourke’s comment is so thuggish, so mindlessly simplistic in its thinking that I don’t think we can be expected to seriously engage with it. But it is designed to insult.

A piece I saw recently, which described crime fiction as fast food in contrast to the nourishment provided by literary fiction, was similar: an unprovoked attack on a group of writers who generally don’t tend to insult other writers. So, why the resentment? Is it higher sales? Resentment towards readers who choose to read outside of “literary fiction”? Most people I know, myself included, read across the genres. But I cannot see this kind of comment, which insults both writers and readers, achieving anything positive for the cause of “literary fiction”.

It is nonsense to decide that simply because something falls within a particular classification that it is good or bad by definition. It hardly needs to be stated that what is important is good writing or bad writing, and that there is just as much unreadable, self-indulgent drivel present in literary fiction as there is in genre fiction. The labels are artificial, they are there to enable publishers to sell books. Authors and readers should ignore them.

If I was to take O’Rourke’s comments seriously (which I am not), I would say that they were made by someone not really engaged in the potential of story, someone who does not truly love books. And dismiss them accordingly.
Andrea Carter’s latest novel is Treacherous Strand

Steve Cavanagh
William O’Rourke’s comments that crime writers lack talent and that white males get a raw deal in publishing were a little surprising. I look forward to his next piece focusing on his experience being amongst the one-hundred-and-eleventy million people who attended Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Steve Cavanagh’s latest book is The Plea

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