Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A storm-roiled teacup

The context is the announcement of the Booker long-list, a third of which consists of books that could, stretching only a little, be called mysteries or thrillers, and the endless battle between litfic and genre readers, now splintering into skirmishes between the SF and thriller camps. And a further context is critic/novelist Philip Hensher's long-expressed contempt for Dame Stella Rimington's thrillers -- she's the former head of MI-5 ("M" if you will) as well as the head of the Booker panel this year, which has just failed to nominate Hensher's new novel, which was touted as a clear favorite.

Anyway, in the Telegraph, Hensher puts forward an unremarkable, if well-expressed, theory about the comforts of thriller reading:

But do we love them, as Rankin thinks, because they bring us close to the harshest and most urgent contemporary realities? Or might we like them because they contain horrors within a tight and redemptive framework of the highest artificiality? etc. etc. etc. blah, blah...
But then he reaches Tulkinghornian heights of snark, God love him, which I love to see in print:
....there is something overdone about the extent of the thriller’s grasp on us. Even among literary genres, its prominence is a curious fact: the liveliness and extravagance of current genre writing in fantasy and science fiction, such as China MiĆ©ville’s remarkable novels, make the field a much more plausible candidate for literary exaltation than the rule-bound thriller.
The best thrillers are rattling good yarns in ways which Middlemarch or Buddenbrooks never aspire to be. We turn away from the unspeakable, inexplicable horrors of the newspapers, events with no resolution, into a world where a single running policeman can put everything right. You would have to be a dull reader not to enjoy that sometimes. But never to want something better, deeper, less resolved, you would have to be a moron.


David Chute said...

Telegraph commenters got there first:

Jeffrey Sweet
08/03/2011 04:04 PM
This strikes me as a very simplistic view of an unruly genre. A lot of contemporary thrillers -- on page or screen -- hardly end on a world put right. CHINATOWN ends with crimes covered up, for instance. And many stories end with a crime solved but the victims so traumatized that the resolution brings no consolation or relief. These works are hardly designed to comfort or provide escape. We are a long way away from the dominance of the cozy world in which a murder is solved in time for a restorative cup of tea.

Jon Jermey
08/02/2011 04:37 AM
If people find more entertainment in China Mieville or Jane Austen -- which is, after all, the reason they were written -- than Agatha Christie, that's great. But why pretend they are morally superior for doing so?

Arnold Vere Ward
08/01/2011 07:07 AM
Ross Macdonald's 19 PI tales of Southern California where greed outstrips conscience and innocence is ravaged by corruption have stood the test of time. I enjoyed rereading their complex, lucid, satisfying and plausibly resolved plots again recently. Macdonald elevated the PI yarn to a high literary level.

Tulkinghorn said...

Odd that you picked the unlikely name of "Arnold Vere Ward" to bang the drum for Ross McDonald...

Wouldn't have expected the phrase "PI yarn" from you, though.

David Chute said...

I still say that "Dame Stella Rimington" should be a character in the kind of inexpensive film that contains a lot of spanking.