The writer Tony Parsons has provoked a tsunami of online comment with an interview to promote his new book, The Murder Bag. As well as coming out as a potential UKIP voter (okaaaay…), Parsons was also asked why he had switched to crime for his latest novel:
The thing is, he explains, he wanted to write a thriller ‘with a heart.’ He loves crime fiction, ‘but what it tends to lack is the emotional power of a book like Man and Boy.’
(In case you didn’t know it already – and you can probably guess where I’m going with this – the author of Man and Boy is – Tony Parsons.)
Now. There’s a lot we could talk about regarding this short extract. But I want to concentrate on the bit about what crime fiction ‘tends to lack.’ The bit that provokes in me many more questions. Like: if you love crime fiction so much, what have you been reading, Tony? Even accepting Steve Mosby’s point (in his utterly fair blog post on the subject) that everyone’s idea of ‘a heart’ or ‘emotional power‘ is different, I find it very hard to believe that Parsons has found nothing in the genre capable of setting his breast aflutter.
But okay – this is an interview, rather than a directly authored piece, and it’s possible that Parsons may have been quoted out of context. Even so, it’s not the first time in recent months that a ‘serious’ author has felt they can criticise genre fiction in general, and crime fiction in particular. In February, the novelist Isabel Allende – promoting her own first foray into crime writing, Ripper – weighed in with her own comments. She referred to the genre as ‘too gruesome, too violent, too dark… and the characters are just awful.‘ What is more, she saw her own contribution to the genre as ‘a joke… The book is tongue in cheek, it’s very ironic.‘ Well, thanks for stopping by Isabel. Isn’t it time you were going?
What annoys me about Allende’s and Parsons’ comments is that they seem to suggest they are in some way doing the crime genre a favour – saving it from itself, and showing established authors the error of their ways. ‘If only they’d written a book like mine,’ they seem to be suggesting, ‘then the genre would be taken much more seriously.’
Well, actually, the genre is already taken seriously, by myself for one, and many, many others. And it irritates me to have to continually fight back against this kind of elitist, patrician bullshit. Writing off a whole class of books is as ridiculous as writing off an author based on their sexuality, or the colour of their skin. There are just books, and there are writers. Some of them are good, and some of them bad – and you should distinguish between them on the basis of individual works, not by lumping them all together.
I’m going to leave the last word to Iain Banks, a writer who I’d trade for several dozen Parsonses or Allendes, and who is much more eloquent on these matters than I could ever possibly be. I was deeply saddened by his early death last year, and the thought of him and his books – which have been with me since my teens – still pull at my heart. The following quote is from a wonderful article he wrote for the Guardian back in 2011 – he’s writing specifically in defence of Science Fiction, but his words hold true for any genre. If I had anything to say directly to either Tony Parsons or Isabel Allende, it would be this:
‘In the end, writing about what you know – that hoary and potentially limiting, even stultifying piece of advice – might be best seen as applying to the type of story you’re thinking of writing… a better precept might be to write about what you love, rather than what you have a degree of contempt for but will deign to lower yourself to, just to show the rest of us how it’s done.‘