Crime writers mystified by Colm Tóibín’s criticism
Literary author’s dismissal of genre fiction provokes backlash
Colm Tóibín: “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.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Colm Tóibín aggravated a long-standing literary sore point last weekend when he told a Guardian interviewer: “I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels.”
Asked which books he felt were most overrated, he said: “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.”
He does not, in fact, watch television. “I don’t have a TV. Everyone talks about the golden age of American TV but it’s done nothing for me.”
The comment was published almost 10 years to the day since fellow Irish writer John Banville upset crime writers and readers at the Harrogate crime festival by revealing that while writing under his own name, he managed to write about 100 words a day; whereas writing crime fiction as Benjamin Black, he could knock out 2,000 – the implication being, in the words of crime author Ruth Dudley Edwards: “He’s slumming it. He says he isn’t, but he is.”
Tóibín’s criticism prompted an immediate backlash on social media from some high-profile fellow writers. Marian Keyes, in a veiled reference to his bestselling novel, Brooklyn, tweeted: “Sez the lad who wrote a Maeve Binchy pastiche and managed to persuade people it was literary fiction.” “How disappointing. His loss, however,” tweeted Liz Nugent.
Stephen Fry wrote: “I love you Colm, but really? Try @LeeChildReacher (and James Lee Burke as @PhilipPullman suggests). And John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Mick Herron and … Graham Greene? A major minor writer is usually so much more rewarding than a minor major one...”
Laura Lippman observed: “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?”
I invited several other writers to respond.
There are fantastic novels in all genres being written and read at the moment including, children’s fiction, YA fiction, science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction, and what booksellers call commercial fiction. One need only glance at the popularity of Margaret Atwood, David Walliams, Gail Honeyman, Val McDermid and JK Rowling to see the snobbery in Colm’s views. You can’t dismiss all genre writing as “nothing”. It’s the literary equivalent of hanging your arse out of a car window as it passes a crowd of strangers on the street – he thinks he’s being clever, but really he’s just showing his ass.
There’s an intellectual arrogance about someone who has decided that non-literary fiction is boring and blank “like TV” and that its prose has no rhythm. It’s Colm Tóibín’s loss that he has never managed to enjoy the characterisation and plots of someone like Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Connelly or Mick Herron, or that he’s never laughed aloud at Marian Keyes or Sophie Kinsella, or relaxed with a warm, empathic Maeve Binchy novel.
Designating a book worthy of your attention based only on an evaluation of how lyrical the prose may be surely restricts your reading to a very narrow field of writing. And dismissing all TV as “blank” is simply ridiculous – just as with books both literary and genre (as though literary was not a genre in itself), there are great and poor TV programmes. How can anyone dismiss as unworthy a series like The Young Pope or The Good Fight or Chernobyl when all of theme are brilliantly made, nuanced and multi-layered? It’s time for people like Colm to step outside the hallowed halls of academia and widen his horizons.
*Sighs* Are we still here? Okay, we’ll try again for the more obtuse down the back ... A particular style of prose, or the absence of same, is not specific to any genre, including the literary genre. Every writer tells their story in the way that best suits the needs of the story. Examples of contemporary thriller and spy novelists who choose to employ an interesting style of prose include, in no particular order, James Lee Burke, Aly Monroe, James Ellroy, John le Carré, Tana French, Eoin McNamee, Karin Fossum, David Peace and John Connolly.
The world of crime writing is so supportive and warm that it’s quite a shock to read negative generalisations about the genre, especially since Irish writers are increasingly accomplished and successful at it. Everyone is entitled to read the books they love but I’d venture to suggest Mr Tóibín has been reading the wrong thrillers rather than agree that thrillers have nothing to offer him. A world of enjoyable reading lies ahead of him if he asks a bookseller for some recommendations.
Colm Tóibín published his first novel when I was 12 years old. He’s been on my radar ever since, I’ve read all his work and as a fellow Wexford native, I’ve spent the bones of 30 years admiring and envying his talent. He’s an eloquent speaker, a gifted writer and a real ambassador for my beautiful county but his latest offerings have left a sour taste in many a mouth; mine included, seeing as I write the very books he’s so critical of.
Everyone, of course, is entitled to their own personal taste and preference. I’m not a huge fan of ballet, for example, or certain styles of contemporary dance but I do appreciate the skill, discipline and passion involved in the craft. That’s my opinion based on my personal taste.
The manner in which Colm Tóibín describes “genre fictions” goes beyond that of personal taste or preference and therein lies the issue. He did not express a personal opinion; it was a declaration about all writing other than what he classes as literary fiction. For anything, then, to be described as “blank”, “nothing”, without “rhythm” and essentially boring is just highlighting the already existing dismissiveness that surrounds genre fiction. When a comment purporting to be expressing personal taste and preference crosses the line into a generalised, sweeping narrative that borders on elitism and good old-fashioned snobbery, it needs to be called out as it’s not only dismissive of the writers who create the books but also of the readers who enjoy them so much.
There are any number of reasons to avoid entire genres, and no reader should be shamed for liking – or not – any particular one. In brief blanket statements like those Tóibín makes about genre fiction in this interview, though, what may be legitimate preferences can – especially from a writer as astute as he typically is – register instead as ill-informed opinions, and what aims for pithy mightn’t get past glib.
I’d like to think that this reflects the article’s concision and format more than a genuine narrowness on Tóibín’s part (though I doubt that he, as an experienced author with a canny eye for public reception, is surprised by the online response). Earlier in the article, for example, he enthuses about Agatha Christie, which suggests – as unfortunately offhand as is the tone – that as a reader he actually knows well the complex and varied capacities of the genres the article dismisses. Dr Brian Cliff is assistant professor, School of English, Trinity College Dublin and author of Irish Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan)
I’ll hit him with my rhythm stick.