Literary snobs are all het up after Jennifer Byrne invited four “bestselling authors” (quelle horreur!) to take part in a special edition of her monthly book show on ABC1, Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bestsellers & Blockbusters (aired 11/05/10). Lee Child, a British thriller writer (who no one worth their literary salt will admit to having heard of), has apparently reignited the popular-versus-literary debate.
After scorning the phenomenal success of Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, Child swiftly shot down ‘the critics’, then moved on to that most malevolent force, ‘literary authors’. Essentially, bestselling authors write books that readers enjoy; literary writers don’t. Bestselling authors could easily write literary fiction if they chose to, but literary writers couldn’t write bestsellers if they wanted. And they do want to. But they can’t.
Mr. Child was quick to point out that animosity between the two camps is entirely one-sided: “the rivalry does not come from us. Why would I care about Ian McEwan? The rivalry comes from them”. They’re jealous, you see!
Now, before you rush out and burn down the Crime/Thriller section of your local bookshop, take a moment to indulge in this conceited claptrap:
LEE CHILD: Yeah, Matthew’s point is another difference between literary and what we do, which is that in popular fiction we do the work and the reader enjoys the ride.
MATTHEW REILLY: That’s right.
LEE CHILD: And literary people seem to think the reader should do an awful lot of the work to try and puzzle it out and figure it out. And we don’t believe that. And actually, in my books, every word is polished, the reader doesn’t have to puzzle over it. The reader gets in the car, I’m driving the car. And the reader doesn’t have to do the work.
MATTHEW REILLY: I agree completely.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Yeah, so that’s a complete distinction, isn’t it? So it’s not your fault as a reader if you don’t enjoy the book.
LEE CHILD: No, and I think that’s something that we have to come out and say. You can’t blame the reader if they’re not enjoying the book. That’s our fault. And maybe popular writers are the only ones that admit that.
LEE CHILD: And it is not necessarily about the sales, it is not necessarily about the sales, it’s about something else. It’s about this. They know, in their heart, that we could write their books but they cannot write our books. That’s what it’s about.
JENNIFER BYRNE: And all nodding.
DI MORRISSEY: And they try.
LEE CHILD: And they have tried.
DI MORRISSEY: Under other names.
LEE CHILD: And they sometimes say “Oh well, I don’t want to,” and I say, “Well, why wouldn’t you? You could set yourself up for life.” You know, in the paper in Britain last week I deliberately said, I was trying to start a fight about it, I said “Oh, I could write a Martin Amis book. It would take me about three weeks, it would sell 3,000 copies like he sells.” And only because I’m with the same publisher as Ian McEwan, so I didn’t really want to pick on him particularly. That’s what it is, they know they can’t do what we do. And they are jealous of that skill.
JENNIFER BYRNE: But that absolutely assumes that they do want to do what you do.
LEE CHILD: Well, who wouldn’t? I mean, come on. If you were a literary author starving in a garret and you had the choice to turn out a Bryce Courtenay and make yourself a multi-millionaire so your family was looked after forever, why wouldn’t you do that? If you could do that. Of course you would.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Because I think some people feel so powerfully about their art that they wouldn’t, but maybe I’m wrong.
LEE CHILD: I think you are wrong.
BRYCE COURTENAY: OK, you’re 2% right.
MATTHEW REILLY: I was at a writers’ festival once on a panel for thriller writers and there was a poet who’d written a thriller. And they asked him “Why did you write a thriller?” and he said, “Well, I saw these thriller writers were making money, so I thought I’d, you know, develop an international intrigue story, put some sex, put a car chase in it, have someone get killed.” The book disappeared without a trace. And that goes all the way back to what we were talking about at the start.