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The Observer Discovers Crime Fiction

February 14, 2010

The Observer newspaper, Sunday sibling of The Guardian has discovered crime fiction. Again. Stephanie Merritt, one of its columnists, has written a crime novel (under a pseudonym, naturally) so now the landscape has changed and crime novels are acceptable. It’s certainly true that at universities crime fiction (and genre fiction in general) is still not taken as seriously as it might be. But outside the academy I’m not convinced about a sudden ‘acceptance’ of crime fiction among readers. It’s always been popular, hasn’t it? Merritt seems to suggest so in fact. Here’s some of what Merritt has to say in her novel’s press release article:

It was only when I came to apply to university that I discovered that the detective novels I loved were regarded as somehow second-rate. Crime novels, I was given to understand, would not impress in our ancient universities. If I wanted to be considered well read at my interview, I must replace my PD Jameses and Ruth Rendells with “literary” fiction. That which was popular, entertaining and sold well, I learned, had – almost by definition – little value as art.

This artificial division persisted in the literary world I came to work in after university. Crime and thrillers were dismissed as genre fiction, which was – in those days, at least – scorned by the literary establishment. There was no prestige, it seemed, in writing genre stuff; even when such respected “literary” authors as Julian Barnes and John Banville turned their hand to crime novels they did so under a pseudonym (Dan Kavanagh and Benjamin Black respectively). I always wondered if this was because they were slightly embarrassed about it.

Meanwhile, the public appetite for crime stories and thrillers, fuelled by the popularity of television murder mysteries and police procedurals, seems only to have grown in proportion: a successful ongoing series, with a central character who can engage readers’ sympathies sufficiently to create a desire for new episodes, is an attractive proposition for a publisher in such uncertain times.

Here’s the link.

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