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Posted on 4 Aug 2017 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 3 comments

The Godfather: Peter Corris on literary vs popular fiction #2

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From time to time discussion still arises about the difference between literary and popular fiction, and their respective merits. Those of us interested in the topic (and I imagine this would include many NRB readers) are often divided.

Michael Wilding made his position clear when he wrote somewhere that, ‘Crime fiction [and by extension other forms of genre fiction] is not literature; it’s entertainment.’ As a practitioner I am inclined to agree. While hoping to provide well-written stories with at least some serious matter to engage serious minds, my primary purpose has always been to entertain.

But the matter can’t rest there. I recently heard Ian Rankin, surely one of best crime writers, make a case for the genre. I don’t have the actual quote, but he said something like this: if you plan to go to another country and wish to inform yourself beforehand of the society’s hopes and fears, divisions and successes, read the local crime writers. They will give you a better understanding than voices from the commentariat.

That seems to lift the genre up a few notches and it’s remarkable how very many countries have a flourishing output of crime fiction. Rankin’s pronouncement could easily be put to the test.

As mentioned in a previous column, some while ago I watched Jennifer Byrne’s program, The Book Club, on ABC television. Two of the panellists were Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels, many of which I’ve read, and Matthew Riley, the author of techno-thrillers, none of which I’ve read, and one historical novel, which I gave up on, thinking it very bad. They both claimed that they could write literary fiction if they wanted to but had chosen not to for various reasons.

I find this a dubious claim. I feel there is a difference between the two kinds of writing and that one deserves more critical appraisal than the other. This feeling was reinforced by listening recently to the audio version of Ian McEwen’s Nutshell (2016). The conceit of this book is that an unborn foetus can hear everything through the uterine wall – voices, music, footsteps, the rustling of clothes, radio, television and podcasts. What’s more, he (the foetus) has fumblingly discovered his gender and can interpret this information to construct a world he has yet to see. He can intuit or guess at appearances, motives, terrors.

The audacity of this idea is matched by the brilliance, breadth and depth of the language; the range of reference; the subtlety of ideas encompassing such matters as climate change, nuclear annihilation, sexual politics and much more. There are passages – such as the foetus’s awareness of sensations when his mother’s lover is fucking her; his concern for the effect on him on another occasion when she swallows sperm, and when he attempts suicide by strangulation by the umbilical cord – that shocked me in a way I don’t think genre writing could do.

This, inescapably, is the craft of writing and the power of the imagination working together at high intensity to create something new (to me, anyway – I could never get through more than a few pages of Tristam Shandy) and challenging: literature.

Graham Greene clearly thought there was a difference between his two sorts of writing, designating some of his novels as ‘entertainments’. I’d be happy to resort to one of my favourite authors, Somerset Maugham, to sum up. Maugham described himself as being at the very front of the second rank. It’s all just writing when all’s said and done, and perhaps the leading genre writers such as James Ellroy, Val McDermid, Bernard Cornwell, Rose Tremain, Adrian McKinty and Ursula le Guin should be assigned an honourable place at the very front of the second rank.


  1. I think all art is entertaining in one way or another.
    Perhaps popular means it only wishes to be entertaining. And literary means it has other concerns too.
    And perhaps literary means an awareness of the rules of the form – and plays with them. Which can be just pretension I guess. P G Wodehouse is interesting in this regard – he highlighted and played with the conventions of farce, and was decidedly in the popular camp.

  2. Good argument, Peter, but I think there are some great Australian writers whose work is both beautifully written and moving, has a great range of reference and subtlety of ideas – and is thrilling, funny, page-turning and gives unsurpassed insights into how the worlds of the writers’ stories work – all within the thriller/genre framework. And at the same time the writers are kind enough to indulge and satisfy the readers’ eternal desire for entertainment.

    I would include Shane Maloney’s six Murray Whelan novels (when is he going to publish the promised seventh!?), Peter Temple’s various series, J H Green’s Dry, Rosalie Ham’s extraordinary books The Dressmaker, and Summer at Mount Hope – not to mention your own Peter Corris’s, at least while Sydney remained such a vibrant character evolving in every story.

    It’s sad that Sydney has got so completely out of hand with so-called development that it’s basically indescribable now. Though having said that, I am finding Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats an amazing evocation of parts of modern Sydney, seen from Parramatta.

    Germaine Greer said that she doesn’t have time in her reading life for “literature”, in the self-consciously literary sense, and I must admit I don’t either.

    However I can always find time for well-written thrillers, detective stories, “genre” stories that take me into an entertaining world.

    Bleak, or optimistic, it doesn’t matter. But what does matter to me – and to very many people – is that we are given the courtesy of a well-wrought plot, characters who actually do things, whether successfully or clumsily, and a sense of justice in an unjust world. This works for me, while much of so-called literature leaves me cold.

  3. Lovers of the written word will never cease their wrangling over this one. I love a sentence that can mesmerise me with the beauty of its very construction. I also like a good plot. I read to deepen my understanding of the human condition. One of the best distinctions I have read is that literary writing will convey the hearts and minds of its characters, and the unfurling of understanding, without having to plot it out for the reader. It is in in our recognising of emotions, understanding of motivation, that brings the reader to the place the author wants them. Kent Haruf and Marilynne Robinson are extraordinary in this.