Friday, July 16, 2010

British poet and author slams anti-crime snobbery

There was an interesting Reuters interview earlier this week with bestselling British writer Sophie Hannah (pictured right), who has published several books of poetry, children’s literature, a collection of short stories, and psychological suspense novels.

I currently have Hannah’s A ROOM SWEPT WHITE near the top of my TBR pile, but as yet I haven’t read any of her work. In the interview with Martin Roberts of Reuters, conducted during the Semana Negra (Noir Week) crime writing festival in Spain, one of the biggest literary fairs in Europe, Hannah admits she doesn’t mind being labelled a crime writer, but flat-out rejects the value judgments some place on that label.

“I don't agree with what a lot of people think which is that somehow crime and mystery fiction is a lesser species, because I just don't think it is,” says Hannah, who has also been elected a fellow of Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge, which organises the Woman’s Word literary festival every year.

“The crime novel can be a brilliant novel,” continues Hannah. “The snobbery aspect of it of it I think is ridiculous, but I think it has a lot to do with people wanting to seem clever. People who are insecure about their own cleverness say, "I read crime fiction but only Scandinavian," because that sounds more high-brow, and they want to be seen reading literary novels because it makes them look clever. I personally, I know I'm clever and I like reading mysteries and don't think that it makes me any less clever.”

I completely agree with Hannah, and it’s a point I’ve made to others here in New Zealand. From my personal standpoint, I have two university degrees, have studied Shakespeare at university, have worked as a lawyer and now as a writer/journalist, and even way back in the day topped the entire country in a high school English exam - so it’s not like I prefer crime fiction because I’m not smart enough to read literary fiction. And it really annoys me when people place such value judgments on crime and thriller writing - the best of which is truly superb writing, as well as good storytelling.
While there may be some conventions in crime, that doesn’t mean there is less creativity, or literary merit (well, it doesn’t mean that automatically - there is plenty of shoddily written crime out there, just like there is plenty of shoddily written romance, sci-fi, fantasy, action, literary fiction, poetry, short stories, and any other type of writing). It’s the creativity within the convention, like with music, or Shakespearean sonnets. And, as I believe Neil Cross said to me in an interview last year, literary fiction itself is in fact a genre, a type of writing. It's not an inherently superior form of writing (although there is of course some great literary fiction, just like there is some great crime writing).

As I said in a comment elsewhere on the web this week, it reminds me a lot of those who fawn over art-house films and automatically deride anything remotely ‘commercial’ when it comes to movies - there’s a sneering superiority there at times, which seems to me more to do with the people involved wanting to feel better about themselves. You see it in some critics and reviewers too (God, I hope I don’t come across that way sometimes...). Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be that sense of superiority or pretentiousness amongst the dozens of crime writers, New Zealand and international, that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and interview in the past 18 months. From unknowns to those who have sold tens of millions of books, I’ve found them all to be genuine, down-to-earth, grateful and generous people.

You can read the full Reuters interview with Hannah here.

What do you think of the literary fiction vs crime fiction debate? Does crime writing have literary merit? Do labels matter? I’d love to read your thoughts.


  1. Craig - Thanks for sharing this interview with Sophie Hannah. I found it very interesting. I actually did a post about this very crime fiction/literary fiction question not too long ago, so I won't blather on here. Suffice it to say that I think it's perfectly possible for crime fiction to have great literary merit (James Lee Burke and Adrian Hyland, anyone?), and for literary fiction to "count" as crime fiction (Rebecca, anyone?). Sometimes, those categories lines get awfully blurred...

  2. "I read crime fiction but only Scandinavian," because that sounds more high-brow, and they want to be seen reading literary novels because it makes them look clever.


    I read a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction, and often in the original language! I must be high high brow :D

    What a fine interview, and of course there is much crime fiction which is not very literary - but then there are also many ´literary´ novels that are mediocre.

  3. When I read a book I want to be entertained, to have my mind excercised, to be absolutely drawn into someone else's fantasy (ie. the writer's, to experience the emotions of suspense and thrills. For me, crime fiction satisfies all these criteria.

    As for 'literary' works - too many are a case of "emperor's new clothes" I think! Perhaps that's where the 'snob factor' arises. I seem to hear more people picking literary fiction to pieces and going into deep discussions about what the writer was feeling at the time and all that tosh.

    Give me crime fiction any day - just raw emotion without the fancy language!

  4. It's hard when you come up against that kind of view that 'literary' fiction is superior. As you say, there is great literary fiction and crap literary fiction, just like there is great crime fiction and crap fiction. Those that limit themselves to what they view as literature are missing out on some incredible writing, but hey, that's their choice.

    Where it is very frustrating is when the writers awards will not even look at anything they view as genre fiction. Good writing is good writing, no matter what the label.

    Speaking of which, congrats on being listed as one of the top 50 crime fiction blogs for 2010 - thoroughly deserved, you do a terrific job.