In defence of genre: Michael Collins on why he turned to crime
‘I saw, within the crime genre’s scope, a way to metaphorically and literally uncover who or what had killed American greatness’
Michael Collins: I write of crimes that go unacknowledged, unpunished, crimes which barely register. Photograph: Getty Images
I’m grateful to The Irish Times and to its books editor Martin Doyle for creating a robust forum where writers can further evaluate and discuss the varying opinions regarding the state of writing, including the thorny subjects of success or greatness and what genres embody such qualities.
I am grateful also to Prof O’Rourke for taking the time to assess our relationship and my own writing career. I owe him a debt of gratitude. Whatever one may think of his comments regarding crime writers as outlined in his essay, which he clarifies here, he steered me toward the short story form to contextualise my then anxieties as an immigrant scholarship athlete who, in the mid-eighties, feared ignominiously returning home to Ireland.
But to the issue at hand! Prof O’Rourke’s comments that “I have too much talent to succeed as a crime writer… [or that I don’t] possess the fatal lack of talent required… [or that] America really doesn’t possess enough of a literary culture anymore to maintain a writer like [me]” need contextualisation.
The psychological shift that I had to negotiate in moving from novels set in Ireland to America was just how central murder was to the American experience
I would start by defending Prof O’Rourke in his argument that much of the political invective that informed early 21st-century literature is no longer tolerated. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is perhaps the notable modern exception in the new millennium. The reality is, literary writing doesn’t sell well! It’s a generalised fact; please spare me the litany of exceptions. For every literary success, there are hundreds of novels in other genres that find a broad audience without the life-support of literary prizes to sustain these writers’ readership.
In so saying, am I claiming that the genres of romance, chick-lit, or crime are inferior or schlock? I’m not! I don’t assert that greatness is linked to lack of sales, or engage in the insipid lament that literary writers are unrecognised geniuses.
As a writer, and I say this having worked with all sorts of writers, I see all genres as equal, and believe that a writer can achieve greatness and an audience within the parameters of any genre.
However, I would be remiss in not stating that certain genres provide a more generalised formula for plotting and engaging a reader. Let me be clear, this is not saying that a writer can write in a fashion akin to painting by numbers and that genre writing is formulaic! Readers are sophisticated and attentive to what they want and how it is best presented, and it takes a deft writer to negotiate one’s own intentionality whilst balancing it with the requirements of genre.
In fact, I would argue that in relying on narrative tropes that require plot elements, genre writers can focus on more existential issues. It’s what drew me to the crime genre. I saw, within its scope, a way to metaphorically and literally uncover who or what had killed American greatness.
I won’t say it was easy to just take up the crime genre as some bricklayer’s tool and start slathering on the plot, but the genre’s essential commitment to structure proved essential in reworking a first-draft novel rife with political statements and little else.
Psychologically and procedurally, what I had to do was flip the philosophical with the literal and introduce a body! In so doing, attention to plot breathed a multi-dimensional quality into the work, furthering my own engagement and understanding of my characters. The novel was less a polemic and more an interplay of human drama.
My trilogy of Midwest novels, The Keepers of Truth, The Resurrectionists and Lost Souls, all focused on the socio-political fallout of the Rust Belt, lent themselves to a pastiche of white-trash characters who were capable of murder. The inclusion of murder didn’t over-determine the action. Life continued amidst the procedural investigation. In fact, the psychological shift that I had to negotiate in moving from novels set in Ireland to America was just how central murder was to the American experience.
In the intervening years, in eventually moving away from procedurals, in absolute terms of having a police investigation and a body, it was not that “I had too much talent to succeed as a crime writer” but rather, philosophically, I had changed. I lost faith in the procedural as a way of accessing Truth.
I contend that I still write crime novels, but of a different sort. The Death of All Things Seen investigates a loss, or death, but in so writing it, I disallowed my characters to fully realise loss, or engage in the act of recovery. The opening of the novel begins:
“Nobody jumped to their death in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 as they had in the Crash of 1929, and though the losses were equal, there was no run on the banks or the chaotic dissolution of so many lives.”
In following through on an open-ended thesis, I am cognisant that I risk alienating my readership. Disquiet, discontent and dissolution aren’t necessarily life-affirming feelings, but they are authentic to my sense of where we are societally.
I’ve never claimed I slummed it in coming to the crime genre, or that in subtly shifting to a more existential, post-modern open-endedness, I was too smart or talented to continue in the genre
My decisions are conscious. I don’t cry foul or make excuses that my readership has diminished because “I’ve grown older” or “I’m a white male”. I sought to write the books that I wanted to write, co-opting and borrowing from varying genres when they were most apropos to my subject.
I’ve never claimed that I slummed it in coming to the crime genre, or that in subtly shifting to a more existential, post-modern open-endedness, I was too smart or talented to continue in the genre. I make no quarrel with my fellow writers.
The Death of All Things Seen registers loss as an inability to see that is best described by Nate Feldman, who, in returning to America, in the sequester of a hotel room, laments how he:
“had lost a certain perspective, an ability to see in the way one loses a sense of depth perception on the tundra. The Eskimo compensated and learned to see the world through a slit in a piece of bone. He was doing it through the slit of blinds.”
I am interested in the liminal reaches of what is perhaps intuited, but cannot be defined. I write of crimes that go unacknowledged, unpunished, crimes which barely register. In so doing, I take my cue from Kafka’s masterful ambiguous crime novel, The Trial, which begins with the indictment:
“Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.”
Michael Collins is the author of 10 works of fiction. One, The Keepers of Truth, was shortlsted for the Man Booker Prize and the Impac Prize. His latest, The Death of all Things Seen, is just out in paperback from Head of Zeus