Criminal Leanings #3: An open letter to Colm Toibin

“I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.” 
– Colm Toibin, from a tweet from the Irish Literary Times

Dear Colm,

We’ve met a couple of times (I interviewed you once on radio), but I doubt you remember me. I know for a fact you’ve never read anything I’ve written, and that’s fine. I know my books aren’t necessarily for everyone, and I can live with that.

But do you have to disrespect not just my work, but that of so many friends and fellow-authors I admire?

This is the kind of snobbery I’ve faced my entire writing life, and I am done with it. I believe it speaks to a kind of narrow-mindedness, a reductionist world view that encourages uninformed decisions about the value of someone else’s work based on labels that are, quite frankly, simply tools publishers and book-sellers use to help sell product.

Yet at the same time, Colm, I’m irritated by this tweet because you are a writer I have been socially conditioned to look up to. I grew up in Wexford, the county you are from, and you are one of the ‘big three’ authors we are all supposed to aspire to be like: you, Billy Roche and John Banville, the literary heavy-hitters from the South East.

I remember listening to an interview you gave on RTE Radio 1 many years ago, about Henry James. I was driving somewhere and you were still talking when I arrived and I stayed in the car and was late for my meeting because I was so taken by your articulacy and passion for Portrait of a Lady, a book I love. You inspired me to go back and read it again, and I found new levels to it, seeing it through your eyes.

And I’m grateful for that.

I know you’re not a bad bloke, Colm, but this statement about genre – it’s just plain pretentious. I’m sorry, but it is.

Please allow me to submit in response amazing, beautiful Irish writers like Liz NugentAndrea CarterVanessa Fox O’LoughlinCatherine Howard, John Connolly, Jane Casey, Andrea Mara, Jo Spain, Derek Flynn – and I could easily keep going, there are so many doing work that is thrilling, informative and, yes, entertaining – why the hell are we so afraid of that? Is it bad that a book is an easy read and might actually be fun?

Let’s cast our eyes outside of Ireland for a moment. Never mind what is happening right on your own doorstep, Colm, what about classic writers like Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald? Have you never, as a man who claims to love language, sat back and allowed the incredible prose of Dashiell Hammett wash over you? How can you not have pored over a page by Elmore Leonard and marveled at its economy, the fact that every single word is so perfectly chosen and each paragraph acts as a beat in a plot so tightly woven it is like a gorgeous medieval tapestry?

Do you genuinely dismiss a writer the calibre of John Le Carre? Is he unworthy of your respect? Take a look at a novel like The Night Manager (you mentioned you don’t much like TV either, and this was made into a cracking series a few years back – you probably missed it). If you want to see craftsmanship at work, this novel is an object lesson in layering of plot, character and dialogue: when Le Carre’s players speak, they are communicating on so many different levels of awareness and subterfuge, each conversation is like a duel between expert swordsmen. Thrilling to read. And it requires such skill to write like that.

Colm, people buy these books and recommend them to their friends because they are emotionally resonant, carefully crafted and just really bloody good. I am deeply proud to be small part of a community of authors who are making such a mark on the international stage. I tell anyone who will listen how great Irish crime is right now, and I loudly profess that, if you like books and enjoy reading, these writers deserve a place on your bookshelf.

And I would NEVER try and dissuade a reader from trying other genres – why can’t someone enjoy a literary novel and then a crime story, followed by a memoir or a historical horror? That’s what makes books great – the variety. There is room out there for us all.

I’m looking at my bookshelf as I type. In my line of vision right now is Full of Grace, by Orla Mcalinden (literary short stories); beside it is Kilbride House, by Sheila Forsey (original historic women’s fiction/memoir); The Girl Who Ate the Stars by Caroline Busher (YA horror fiction); Down Under by Bill Bryson (travel writing); A Thousand Roads Home by Carmel Harrington (original women’s fiction/social commentary); Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (I’m sure I don’t need to explain that one).

I like books. Genre be damned.

Colm, you’ve achieved great things, won big awards and been critically lauded. Your books have been made into films that are beloved and you will be remembered as one of the truly great Irish writers of your time.

I think it belittles you to write off others who are ploughing their own furrow and will also be remembered fondly by many. They may never win the Man Booker (it’s possible, I suppose, but unlikely), and they probably won’t end up on the Leaving Cert syllabus, but I expect they can live with that.

I wish you well, Colm. Before I sign off, please allow me to suggest something: once a month for the next six months, pick up one book from a genre you would never usually choose to read and give it a go. You might be surprised by what you will find.

Happy reading (and I do mean that),

Shane

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