Friday, September 18, 2009

Crime fiction is not literary fiction's poor cousin! But some countries treat it as such

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I'm firmly of the belief that crime and thriller fiction can be just as well (if not better) written than most literary fiction, and that literary fiction is just a specific style/type of writing (i.e. genre) in of itself; not a superior genre.

You'll also be aware that I think New Zealand is as yet even less supportive of our own crime/thriller writing than many overseas countries are of theirs - countries who seem to have no problem supporting, encouraging, praising and enjoying many different genres (e.g. in England there are the literary-focused Booker Prizes, but then the CWA Daggers are also held in fairly high-regard, publicised well, and seem to be considered prestigious awards too).

In a great article in the National Post as part of a weeklong series on the state of Canadian literature, the doyen of Canadian crime writing, William Deverell, lifted the lid on the pretentiousness found amongst much of the Canadian 'literary establishment'.

I highly recommend reading the whole article, but for the theme of this blog post I'm going to just include a couple of extracts here, because in many ways the books scene in New Zealand is similar to the books scene in Canada.
Because our local literary scene is much smaller (than our English-language overseas counterparts), certain decision-makers, gate-keepers, and commentators, seem happy to eschew embracing local popular fiction - perhaps thinking that our smaller resources should be focused on 'the great New Zealand novel' or what has been deemed 'literary fiction'... as if popular fiction couldn't also tell us something about ourselves, as well as providing entertainment and enjoyment for readers both here and overseas.

I think this comment from Deverell on the Canadian scene is equally applicable to New Zealand:

"This priggish attitude toward popular fiction is deeply imbedded within our cultural establishment. By establishment, I mean the literature departments of our universities, the book pages of our journals, institutions such as the Canada Council and provincial arts bodies, the CBC and the big publishing houses...The infection may have begun in our libraries, and it found a host in our historic inferiority complex, a belief that our culture was little, provincial, unknown. To cover up our shame, that condition has morphed into a national snobbery disorder."

I think that is a large part of the problem here in New Zealand - we too seem to have some strong 'cultural cringe' towards locally-written popular fiction. To be fair, we aren't a whole lot better at supporting any NZ fiction, but we are especially harsh on our own popular fiction. At the Auckland Writers Festival earlier this year (the major NZ literary event of the year), there was not one crime fiction session (apart from Ngaio Marsh biographer Dr Joanne Drayton), not one crime or thriller writer speaking, even though there were dozens and dozens of events held over four days.

It reminds me of what our film scene used to be like, pre-Peter Jackson - every NZ film had to be some quirky, dark little 'man alone' or other 'emotional' tale - we would never think of having a NZ thriller, heist movie, or Adam Sandler/Jim Carrey-esque comedy (even though we have some amazing and international award-winning local stand-up comedians who I'm sure could star in one).

Another great comment from Deverell, who I was fortunate enough to meet in person at a Crime Writers of Canada event in Vancouver last April, is that:

"'Popular fiction' has become a term of vulgar connotation, but it reeks of ironic paradox: obviously we sobersided Canadians ought to be reading unpopular fiction."

There's certainly some of that sentiment that seems to be widely-held in New Zealand, amongst the creative writing courses at universities, short story contests, national book awards, and the main writers festival. Which is a real shame, because I believe a mature books scene needs to embrace all types of writing. It's sad to see that every week the International Adult Fiction bestseller list here in New Zealand is dominated by crime and thriller fiction titles, but few if any local ones ever make the equivalent NZ Adult Fiction bestseller list. There's clearly a strong appetite for crime and thriller fiction amongst the book readers of New Zealand, but we aren't buying our own versions, even when they stand up very well against imported titles.

Part of that, I believe, is because here in New Zealand the focus on local literary fiction and lack of support for local popular writing has filtered through to many of our readers, who (even if they enjoy crime and thriller fiction from overseas) seem to have some 'cultural cringe' about local popular writing. Which is ironic, considering in many other realms, NZers punch far above their weight on the world stage, and we are all proud to accept, support, and even trumpet those successes (eg many sports) - but for some reason we don't seem to believe our popular fiction can be as good as stuff from overseas. News flash - I read dozens and dozens and dozens of crime novels from around the world every year, and New Zealand crime and thriller fiction can be just as good as much of the international stuff.

If we were to provide more support and encouragement (e.g. from publishers, booksellers, media, libraries, readers), perhaps we could grow our crime and thriller writing industry just like places like Scotland, which incidentally has a population of not much more than ours here in New Zealand. They just support their popular writing (misguided people like James Kelman excepted), and are proud to buy it, read it, and enjoy review

The two Canadian crime novels I bought while there last year (Deverell's APRIL FOOL and Mark Zuehlke's HANDS LIKE CLOUDS) were both enjoyable, and had some unique touches and a nice sense of setting in terms of life on the gulf islands in British Columbia. I sympathise with Mr Deverell and his Canadian cohorts in terms of their somewhat second (or third) class status in their local literary scene, but at least I guess they have their own Crime Writers association, and crime writing awards (New Zealand, as yet, doesn't even have that).

I'll leave you with another comment from Deverell, that unfortunately seems to apply just as equally to New Zealand as Canada: "Meanwhile, the Brits knight their genre writers, the Yanks lionize them, but the Canucks (or at least our persons of letters) continue to treat them like unwashed in-laws tracking mud into the parlour. So sad."

Thoughts? Comments? Am I off-base?


  1. I really enjoyed your post. I agree that in several countries, crime fiction and thrillers aren't seen as "literature" at all, especially by universities. At many schools, at least in the U.S., one still isn't taken seriously if one only writes popular fiction. Thanks for your perspective.

  2. I found you via Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I'm from Canada, and I read a lot of mysteries. I didn't know about this National Post series, so I will have to go take a look at it - thank you so much for writing about it. My mother has been a big fan of William Deverell for years, and has given me two of his books to read, so I was interested in what he had to say. If you didn't know, he is also a lawyer.

    Crime fiction over here is as he says - treated very poorly. Canadian literature is what the book snobs like to read - and I've tried some and it's boring. Awful. in fact, I dread most serious Canadian literature. However, Canadian mysteries are different from our literature - they are very interesting and some series are truly good - Canadian crime writers like Kathy Reichs, Louise Penny, Deverell, and L.R. Wright, Giles Blunt.....

    But mystery, and its genre cousins (fantasy, science fiction, and let's not talk about horror!) are not taken seriously. We have a Canadian award for mystery, but it doesn't have the cache that the Gold Dagger, or the Edgars and other mystery awards other countries give, even here in Canada we don't pay attention to which mystery wins the award that year!!!

    I'm not sure what the answer is, because I think this is a problem that every country has, how its writers of 'non-serious' literature is treated, how the books are judged and reviewed - even getting mysteries reviewed in our newspapers is almost impossible now! Is that the publisher's fault? Newspapers? Readers who look elsewhere to get there mystery news now? The Giller Awards people who never nominate a Canadian mystery for a major award? Maybe that's one of the problems, that mysteries aren't allowed to crossover into the general award system. Wouldn't that be fantastic if they could, for every country?

    Anyway, it's very late here, just some thoughts from across the sea. I like your site, and I'll be back. I haven't read many writers from New Zealand, and now I can use your blog to find some new mysteries to read! plus read some excellent posts...

  3. Gawd, where do I start?

    As a crime writer I am reminded constantly that genre fiction is not viewed as real literature here. The generalisation of this annoys me, because as far as I am concerned, excellent writing, whether literature, or genre fiction is excellent writing. There is writing that is considered to be literary that is damn average, and that's being kind, and there is also genre fiction that is damn average. BUT there is literary fiction that is excellent, just as there is genre fiction that is excellent. It is a great shame that they are not judged alike.

    I am often reminded that because of what I write I am highly unlikely to receive either awards or fellowships or grants. I think it unfair that I am pre-judged by what I write. Sure, if what I write, when examined on its merits, is not deemed to be of adequate quality, then fine, I do not deserve to receive awards, or fellowships or grants. BUT if a genre fiction author's writing is excellent, then it should be recognised as such.