Some writers of popular and big-selling fiction claim that they would be able to write literary novels. I heard Lee Child and Matthew Reilly state this on Jennifer Byrne’s television program, and in a recent article on Bryce Courtenay in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine, the mega-selling author said he could write a ‘superlative literary novel’ if he wanted to.
There are plenty of examples of things going the other way – successful literary authors writing popular books. Think of Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’, poet Cecil Day Lewis’s detective stories and those of Julian Barnes. CP Snow’s Death Under Sail is pretty good, as are the mysteries written by Gore Vidal under the pseudonym Edgar Box. Martin Amis wrote a very good noir novella – Night Train.
But it’s hard to think of a popular writer making a mark in the literary world. Raymond Chandler tried it, writing a frothy novella called English Summer which is noteworthy for its artificiality and dullness.
Why do the wordsmith money-makers have this pretension? A desire for respectability? A wish to be invited more often to writers’ festivals? A yen to be taken seriously and have their voices heard in weighty political and social forums? Simple jealousy?
Bryce Courtenay focussed on Peter Carey. Courtenay believes that he is not taken seriously because he previously worked in advertising. It was pointed out to him that Carey did the same and is well regarded by the literary establishment. Courtenay had the answer: Carey, he said, took several years to write a book. He takes a much shorter time. If he took longer, he could write ‘a superlative literary novel’.
This, and the claims of the others, is nonsense. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, Ian McEwan’s Atonement and William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise are not the same things as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, Matthew Reilly’s techno-thrillers or anything by Bryce Courtenay. The point is not that one set of books is good and the other bad, but that they are different. I think that difference amounts to the degree of seriousness and the level of meaning involved.
All six authors tell good stories, but if you were asked what the books are about, with Child, Reilly and Courtenay you would be pretty much reduced to telling the story. With Faulks, McEwan and Boyd you would talk about the quirkiness of technique, the power of language and the suggestions, ideas and themes woven into and lying behind the stories. Recollected, the books of Child, Reilly and Courtenay blend, in each case, into one mass. Those of Faulks, McEwan and Boyd remain distinct in the imagination and memory.
The difference certainly does not equate to writing time taken, it is a matter of the difference in thinking and feeling.