Crime pays, from academia to bestseller lists

Trinity College Dublin founded the world’s first MPhil in Popular Literature while crime writers are at the cutting edge of fiction as well as topping the charts

Crime Scene Invigoration: In 2013 Trinity College Dublin and New York University held a very successful Irish crime fiction festival in Dublin, drawing large and engaged audiences

Crime Scene Invigoration: In 2013 Trinity College Dublin and New York University held a very successful Irish crime fiction festival in Dublin, drawing large and engaged audiences

 

Advocating for his former student – the lauded novelist Michael Collins – William O’Rourke asserts that Collins “asks too much of a reader” in a diminished literary culture. In contrast, for O’Rourke crime writing requires a “fatal lack of talent”. O’Rourke’s follow-up insists he meant that Collins suffers from not possessing this lack – he lacks a lack? – but he again derides “the mob of crime writers out there”, who unlike Collins are not “hampered by too much talent”. Such competitive division between modes of writing is neither necessary nor helpful.

The photo accompanying writers’ replies to O’Rourke illustrates that crime fiction has its deserved place in Trinity’s library, where the oldest books sit comfortably alongside the latest novels. Trinity’s School of English founded the world’s first MPhil in Popular Literature, now in its second decade, enabling students to study popular genres – romance, sci-fi, horror, crime fiction – across centuries, contexts and cultures.

Some of the most brilliant, insightful, challenging and exciting literature being written – and indeed which has ever been written – just happens to be crime fiction

These students work with a talented array of international crime writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Sara Paretsky and Stieg Larsson. Trinity also recently offered a specialised seminar on Irish crime fiction, building on Prof Ian Campbell Ross’s decades of courses establishing the subject in Ireland, and in 2013 Trinity and New York University held a very successful Irish crime fiction festival in Dublin, drawing large and engaged audiences.

Trinity – like many universities – has a deep commitment to working across the fullest possible range of literature and culture, including crime fiction. Dismissing such fiction out of hand means dismissing its readers too, an error the humanities would do well to avoid.

Ian Sansom, Trinity’s Professor of Creative Practice and a writer in several genres including crime, understands this: “Some of the most brilliant, insightful, challenging and exciting literature being written – and indeed which has ever been written – just happens to be crime fiction and science fiction. This is where some of the most interesting experiments take place. It’s also worth remembering that so-called ‘literary’ fiction is itself a genre, with its own peculiar history, rules and constraints.”

Working with constraints clearly does not mean that a genre is either rigid or simplistic. On the contrary, as Collins noted Wednesday and Jane Casey suggested Monday, crime fiction utilises those constraints to demand much of its readers, exploring moral questions as complex as the distinction between justice and vengeance, or the fraught relationship between the individual and the state.

John Connolly’s supernatural mysteries and Tana French’s gothic police procedurals model the genre’s insistent impurity, its ability to accommodate endless variation

Our students grapple with these questions as they read Dickens’s journalistic excursions into London’s underworld with early members of the Detective Branch, excursions that changed his reading public’s impression of the police. These same students follow Hammett through post-first World War San Francisco, where his wry gimlet eye helps them understand the fault lines in American society between the wars. Nor are these works’ merits solely thematic: Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd allows students to dissect the author’s defiant manipulation of the rules of form, while Himes’s A Rage in Harlem shows them the form’s ongoing adaptability.

This breadth is just as true of recent Irish crime fiction. John Connolly’s supernatural mysteries and Tana French’s gothic police procedurals model the genre’s insistent impurity, its ability to accommodate endless variation. Other Irish writers – Claire McGowan on the Irish crossroads of religion and sexuality, or Alan Glynn on international corruption, or Declan Hughes on returning to a changed Dublin in which one is now an outsider – similarly demonstrate the genre’s capacity for serious moral engagement on scales from the intimate to the global.

As well as decrying the allegedly talentless nature of crime writing, which (he implies) crowds better writers out of the room, O’Rourke’s initial essay claims a Dead White Male’s works are “anathema” to university curricula. This would surprise Trinity literature students whose four-year degree – as is also often true for our many visiting literature students from the States – includes a compulsory grounding in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Burke, Goldsmith, Wordsworth, Yeats and many others.

Worse in O’Rourke’s estimation, however, is the fate of the “Live White Male, not a demographic entity that is much in fashion these days”. Collins may well be correct in his assertion that a “litany of exceptions” hardly proves that literary fiction sells in large quantities. However, someone should nonetheless warn the New York Times Book Review of O’Rourke’s mooted “fashion”, despite which half of their current bestselling fiction list is by white men, including complex work such as George Saunders’s latest novel. Other critically and commercially successful Living White Males like Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers continue to define their art in part by skipping merrily past genre distinctions.

Whatever the limitations of bestseller charts, they suggest Living White Men are hardly an endangered species at bookstore registers. Nor is success reliant on “telling the culture something it wants to hear”, as O’Rourke claims in both columns. Even a cursory glance at American charts, with non-fiction like JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele sitting alongside fiction like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, confirms that readers there remain not only willing but eager to engage with challenging material.

Readers of course lament when favoured writers do not meet with the success we feel sure they deserve. Beyond that, all good teachers advocate for their students, and find real pleasure in their success, as O’Rourke deservedly does for Collins. However, while O’Rourke rightly notes that “If bestsellers were easy to write there would be more of them”, much of what follows reads like a misbegotten condescension to readers and writers of crime fiction, indeed to anyone who values what has been gained with a more diverse view of literature.

An informed assessment by an experienced writer like O’Rourke should have no need to dismiss entire genres as talentless (a point concisely made in these pages by a novelist no less cerebral than John Banville). Sweeping generalisations have their entertaining role in late-night pub debate – Beatles vs. Stones? (correct answer: The Kinks) – but they contribute little to sustained argument, and wouldn’t pass muster in a first-year undergraduate essay.
Dr Clare Clarke is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at Trinity College Dublin. Her book, Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock (Palgrave, 2015) won the HRF Keating Prize. Dr Brian Cliff, Assistant Professor of Irish Studies in the School of English at TCD (currently on leave), is currently completing his book Irish Crime Fiction: An Introduction, for Palgrave

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