Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Notes & Comments

Boundary Wars

Reclaiming the only distinction that matters.

Jonathan Clarke

THR illustration.

For the British writer Graham Greene, the distinction between what we now call literary novels and genre novels was self-evident. His “entertainments” were written quickly, with money their object and future film treatments in mind. (Indeed, many read like screenplays with easily imaginable camera setups.) His “novels” were longer in gestation, strove for greater psychological complexity, and often involved Greene’s familiar themes of sin and redemption. The Third Man (an entertainment) and The Heart of the Matter (a novel) are recognizable as the work of the same writer. Greene assumed, though, that his intentions made a crucial difference.

The Irish writer John Banville first honored, then abandoned, this same distinction. A flinty perfectionist, Banville is regarded as one of the premier living English-language novelists. When his novel The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, he remarked that it was “nice to see a work of art win” for a change. In the same year—when he was nearly sixty—Banville began writing brisk, elegant detective novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. The Black novels, which from the beginning were known to be Banville’s work, sold very well.

Then in 2020 Banville abandoned the pretense, publishing a new detective novel under his own name. Commercial motives probably played a role—Snow appeared as a Benjamin Black novel in Spain, where the Black name resonates better—as did, perhaps, the more relaxed stance of a writer who, at seventy-five, has very little left to prove. Banville is a noted iconoclast, but in this single instance he swam with the tide.

For two decades or more, the assumed superiority of the literary novel has increasingly been challenged—by genre writers resentful of their second-class citizenship, by readers seeking vindication for their sometimes dubious preferences, and by critical theorists for whom all hierarchies of value are suspect on political grounds. The traditionalists have pushed back, sometimes gently, sometimes not. Reviewing Tom Wolfe’s best-selling A Man in Full (1998), John Updike called it “entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.” In 2012, a New Yorker article by Arthur Krystal, written in modest defense of the “literary,” brought the argument to a head once again. Citing Edmund Wilson’s dyspeptic essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” as authority, Krystal said that the “pleasure we derive from [genre novels] is the knowledge that we could be reading something better.” On the other side, the science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin averred that “literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.” This argument runs along a broader cultural fault line dividing elitism and pluralism, authority and personality, the formal and the demotic.

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