Sunday, 2 August 2009

Controversy, Assumptions and Benjamin Black

Controversy in the book trade is a clumsier, slightly grubbier cousin to its counterpart in the real world. It tends to come from something and nothing – a comment taken out of context, usually – and then obsessively rewritten, rehashed and replayed. Whipping up controversy is easy, but underneath there’s usually such a note of desperation that it tends to feel as manufactured as a five-piece boyband from Rotherham. This is where I find myself at the moment: in the midst of what has been described as “controversy”, but feels very little like it.

Last week I reported upon the Harrogate Crime Festival. There John Banville, aka Benjamin Black, explained the difference between writing his crime fiction and his literary work. From his comments, it was possible to infer that he perhaps didn’t take crime writing as seriously as his other work. I then quoted another writer who agreed with this viewpoint, claiming that Banville saw himself as slumming it in crime fiction.

In the wake of this, there have been comments, threads and other discussions about the piece I wrote, both on the Guardian and elsewhere. I should also point out that the piece was actually about how critics and awards need to take more of an interest in crime fiction, rather than sticking the knife into a writer I hugely admire. Either way, the level of articulate debate that mine and other people’s articles has provoked, was both entertaining and very informative.

But then John Banville waded in to set the record straight in the Guardian. Which is when I officially became part of a “controversy”. A rather small, tawdry and flat “controversy”, but one all the same.

In The Week in Books section of Saturday’s Guardian, Banville described Harrogate with the words of a man whose worst fears have recently been confirmed. “A sheep should not venture into a pen of wolves.” He began, clearly identifying himself as the victim of a savagery. It was hard, however, to tell what was so awful about people writing blogs discussing a bad joke he made about Benjamin Black's hopes of winning the Nobel prize. Then he went on to discuss my piece.

“Another blogger,” he wrote, “did a survey among attendees.”

Obviously I was a little bit put out that I was not mentioned by name, and simply referred to as “Another Blogger” – which I suspect means that I am held in the kind of contempt one usually reserves for ineffective cowpokes and cup-and-ball roadside charlatans. But it was Banville’s implication that I had somehow sought out controversy by door-stepping authors – presumably dressed like one of the tabloid pigs from Spitting Image – that really got my dukes up. Especially as I did no such thing.

Over the weekend, I asked a few authors and critics their opinion on his comments, sure; but I didn’t get my clipboard out and ask any passing writer if they had five minutes to share their opinions on downloading music, the extradition of Asperger’s-suffering computer hackers or the likely effects of Booker prize winners writing genre fiction. There was no survey, there never was, nor had I ever intended there to be, which makes Banville’s next sentence all the more needling.

“One of them, Ruth Dudley Edwards, a good writer who should have known better, allowed herself to be quoted as saying that I was slumming it as Benjamin Black.”

It’s the clause “a good writer who should have known better” that gets me. Presumably Banville means that Ruth should have known better than to consort with nefarious bloggers, desperate to find some kind of “controversy” for their next column. It even reads as though he’s forgiving her because she was somehow snared into making these comments. I wonder how Mr. Banville thought I got this marvellous, malevolent quote from Ruth. Perhaps I got her drunk? Maybe I flirted with her in some sort of attempted literary honeytrap? Or perhaps I simply goaded her into making a comment by pretending he’d called her a bad name?

It would have been far more glamorous had any of these been the case. In the end it was a lot easier than that: I simply attended an event called Emerald Noir.

Chaired by the aforementioned Ruth Dudley Edwards, Emerald Noir was a fascinating debate, one that explained how crime writing in Ireland has flourished over recent years and how a mixture of politics, financial meltdown and self deception conspired to make that possible.

During this discussion, Ruth Dudley Edwards turned to Declan Hughes – a crime novelist who once wrote a scathing review of Banville’s Black-branded novella The Lemur in the Irish Times – and somewhat impishly said, “John Banville is slumming it. He says he isn’t, but he is.” then asked him to comment. With the elegance of Chris Waddle in his Marseille-era pomp, Hughes effortlessly side-stepped the question. But it was still hanging in the air as a few hundred people filed out of the auditorium.

In defending his comments – which I have to say Banville has done magnificently well – he has nonetheless tried to make it sound like he was the victim of a targeted muck-raking; of a concerted effort to embroil him in a literary spat. This isn’t the case at all. Except now it is. Or would be if anyone really cared.

And that, to go back to my initial point, is what makes literary “controversy” so damn limp. Even when it’s got sex and suspicion – as the Oxford Professor of Poetry brouhaha earlier this year had in spades – there’s still a sense of so fucking what. I want real controversy. You know, Will Self calling Ian McEwan a talentless spastic. Jeanette Winterson changing her sexual orientation and obsessively stalking Jeremy Clarkson. Zadie Smith writing a wholly inappropriate erotic novel set in Belsen. That kind of thing. Scandal! Controversy! A side to take!
Until we get something like that, I suggest that we put literary controversy into dry dock and leave it there to rot.


  1. I'm not a big fan of the S word but can I echo Will Self's made up comments about Ian McEwan. Well said pretend Will Self. And I liked you in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

    Stuart, thanks for menting Chris Waddle in your blog, I trust you will do your best to shoehorn other Sheffield Wednesday legends into future postings: 'Sarah Waters writes about post war Britain with the grace of a Mel Sterland overlap'.

    As for your Banvilles; anyone who's read 'Christine Falls' will know that he is not slumming it as a crime writer.

  2. In fairness to Banville, I took his "a good writer who should know better" to mean that RDE should know better than to make silly assumptions such as suggesting that Banville thinks he's slumming it as a crime writer - not that she should know better than to consort with young men of your stamp.

    Anyway, I don't think Ruth Dudley Edwards is a good writer; or if she was, she'd write better novels than stuff like this, which with its "hilarious send-up of literary prize committees," shows that she's the one with the complex about 'slumming it' as a crime writer.

    That's when she's not passing judgement on other novelists in the Daily Mail.