Some of you may have caught up with last night’s announcement that Peter Temple has won the 2010 Miles Franklin Award for his novel, Truth.
I want to post something about the award and its profile later this week, but for now I think it’s worth saying I think it’s an interesting decision. There’s no doubt Temple’s a truly gifted writer, and while I suspect his last novel, The Broken Shore, is probably marginally better, Truth is a very impressive piece of work (to my mind the unrelenting darkness is a bit overwhelming, and the highly stylized language actually gets in the way of Temple’s real strength, which is his uncanny ear not just for the Australian vernacular, but for the darkness below the surface of Australian society).
But simultaneously, Truth is, at its heart, a piece of genre fiction. Now before you all leap down my throat, let me point out that I don’t mean that as criticism, and neither am I suggesting that there’s a hierarchy at the pinnacle of which sits the literary novel. What I am saying is that it’s possible to recognise and define forms of writing that operate within particular conventions, and which are, to a greater or lesser extent, judged by their success within those conventions. Crime fiction is one such genre, as is SF. I’m generally resistant to the notion that literary fiction constitutes another but I recognise many people believe it does. These genres aren’t better or worse than literary fiction, nor are they absolute (in fact they’re actually highly fluid). Nor, despite the tendency to dismiss them as such, are they mere marketing devices. What they are is a kind of critical shorthand, a system that provides ways of understanding and appraising the success or otherwise of different kinds of novels.
Understood like this, I hope no-one will take it askance if I say that whatever else it is, Truth is basically a crime novel, and therefore a piece of genre fiction. That’s not to say it’s not an extremely good crime novel, but it’s still a crime novel, and operates within the conventions and constraints of the genre. And that, in turn, makes it an unusual choice for an award like the Miles Franklin, which has traditionally been reserved for literary fiction.
I suspect the decision is actually a good one, since it goes some way towards breaking down the apartheid between genre and literary fiction, but I also think it’s one that may turn out to be more problematic than the judges realise. That’s partly because it demands they begin making quite difficult choices between different sets of criteria. After all, the quality of a piece of genre fiction is at least partly a function of its success at fulfilling the expectations that define the genre, but is a book that meets those expectations as “good” as a literary novel that meets the expectations we place upon literary fiction by successfully taking risks with language and structure, or challenging the expectations of its readers in interesting ways?
My point isn’t that one’s more significant, or more important than the other, simply that they’re very different sorts of questions, and balancing them is likely to present real challenges. After all, it’s not snobbery that’s seen the development of awards designed specifically for crime novels, but a recognition that crime fiction is a recognisable form, and deserves to be celebrated on its own terms.
But more deeply, opening the door to crime fiction also raises the question of why the judges haven’t opened the door to other genres. Does this decision mean they’ll be reading Greg Egan’s new novel, Zendegi, for next year’s award (assuming, of course, it features an Australian character)? Or Margo Lanagan’s new one (assuming the same thing)? Because surely if they’re prepared to admit crime novels they should be admitting SF and Fantasy? Or indeed Horror, and Romance.
One answer might be that Truth is just a really good novel, and stands comparison with the literary fiction that also made the shortlist. Certainly the judges are at pains to emphasise they think it possesses “all the ambiguity and moral sophistication of the most memorable literature”. And while I think that’s true, it might just as easily be read as an admission the judges are a little uneasy about the basis of their decision. And, more problematically, isn’t this assertion a way of tacitly suggesting “genre” sits somewhere lower on the hierarchy of quality than “literary” fiction, because what you’re really saying is that Truth isn’t just a crime novel (with the emphasis very much upon the “just”)?
As I said above, my point here isn’t to detract from Temple’s win, or to suggest Truth isn’t a worthy winner. But I do think it’s worth registering that it’s a decision that throws up some difficult questions the judges will need to work through in years to come, and one that emphasises the way our criteria for literary quality, and the categories they give shape to, are changing. Is that a good thing? Probably. But it’s definitely a thing, and one that deserves to be recognised, and not hidden away behind shifty notions about Truth being more than “just” a crime novel.
Update: I’ve just noticed that in the time it’s taken me to write this post, Culture Mulcher’s whipped up something on exactly the same point. It’s the quick and the dead, obviously.
1 Just for the record I think Truth fulfils both these criteria.
2 More deeply, you’re also denying the fact that unlike the novels of a writer such as Richard Price, which really do exceed the genre we tacitly group them within, much of Truth’s power derives from its success as a crime novel, so to pretend its generic elements are irrelevant is to place a good part of what makes it a success beyond scrutiny.