Well, I have just about recovered from my first ever trip to Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writers Festival in Harrogate. All in all, it was quite an eye-opening experience. Firstly, I should say that I am still adjusting to the fact that my novel, The Vanity Game, is a crime novel. I didn’t write it intending it to be one, I saw it more of a black comedy which happened to have a bit of violence and a detective popping up in it. But my publishers, Blasted Heath, seem to think it is. So off I went to Harrogate to find out what crime writing was all about. Despite being left on occasions with the feeling that my taste in books is horribly pretentious (I fucking love Evelyn Waugh, I can’t help it) overall it was great to meet other people working within the genre and lots of passionate readers, and listen to many interesting panel discussions.
Of these discussions, the most interesting to me were, unsurprising, one on e-books and one on crime fiction and why it doesn’t get nominated for prizes like the Booker.
Firstly, e-books. This was a panel discussion featuring prolific e-book author and self-publishing entrepreneur Stephen Leather, the MD of Little Brown, author Steve Mosby, literary agent Philip Patterson and a book seller. The debate was fiery, with only Leather really gunning for the advantages of the e-book and everyone else, including most of the audience, being either really skeptical or fearing it like Christians feared Slayer records back in the 80s. To be honest, it was not long before the debate turned predictable: the same old arguments about piracy fears, quality fears and, I don’t know, the satanic messages that are contained in all e-books if you read them backwards. What really annoyed me, as an e-book author, was that some of the panel and some of those commenting from the audience seemed to think that if a book is only out as an e-book, it is therefore unedited crap. The Vanity Game was edited by my agent, an editor, and a copy editor. Why, therefore, should it be any less well edited than a traditionally published book? Does no-one remember Jonathan Franzen getting in a mega strop on News Night because there were loads of errors in the first printed copies of Freedom?!
Whilst I do have concerns about very low priced/ free e-books devaluing creativity, I can only commend Mr. Leather for exploiting the opportunities offered by the digital revolution and doing stuff like selling his short stories on Amazon. Most people think there is no money in short stories, so this is great. But I do think that authors who sell their novels very cheaply or give them away risk making readers think that all fiction should be free, thus making it even harder for writers to make any money from their work. The NUJ advises against freelance journalists contributing work for free, lest it pushes down freelance fees, and I think that argument is relevant for novelist too.
The panel on crime fiction and literary prizes featured authors Val McDermid, Laura Lippman, Simon Lelic and John Harvey. I think this panel really needed a full-on literary author on it to defend character-driven stories. At one point there was a discussion about prose style. Simon Lelic described how he had once written a beautiful sentence, but he hoped his readers would not linger on it thus slowing the pace of the novel down, and there was talk about how crime writers do not tend to develop an individual literary style, which is more the thing of the literary author, and prefer to concentrate on fast, tight plotting. I found it funny no one mentioned that some authors (yes, you, Larsson, Cole and Patterson) writing within the genre do have a style though: clunky and clichéd ridden. You could never write a character-driven novel about some big philosophical idea in the style of Stieg Larsson really, could you? Maybe it is big-selling authors like this that are letting the side down and giving crime fiction a bit of a bad rep amongst snooty lit types?
I’m not ashamed to admit I like literary fiction because it says something and I like sometimes lingering on sentences. Crime fiction, or romance, or thrillers are great if you want a bit of escapism, but often I want a bit more from a book, no disrespect at all to those who don’t.
I think literary fiction is its own genre and should have prizes and festivals to itself. Not least because it’s really in the doldrums at the moment and needs a bit of yearly promotion from the Booker. This debate, named ‘A donkey in the Grand National?’ sort of suggested that crime writers should aspire to get to nominated for the Booker prize, like literary fiction is ‘the best’, but someone like Anne Enright would never be considered for a Dagger award or Harrogate’s own Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award, so why should crime writers really expect to get nominated for a literary prize, unless they are writing literary fiction featuring crime elements? Within the crime writing community I’m sure a Golden Dagger is as, if not more, prestigious than a Booker prize.
I had a great time anyway, it was fabulous to catch up with old friends like soon-to-be-published Helen Cadbury, meet other writers such as David Belbin and K.A Laity, and even have a chat with best-selling author Peter Robinson, who is a very nice man indeed . Maybe see you all next year!