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Sunday 9 August 2009

Banville scored an own goal even before our crime fiction spat

Ruth Dudley Edwards says she never accused John Banville of slumming it when writing crime, but he has called it cheap fiction

I published my first crime novel in 1981 and was short-listed for the British Crime Writers' Association's Best First Novel Award. Since then I've published another 10, I've performed at innumerable crime conventions and crime bookshops in Britain, Ireland and the US, I've been on the committee of the Crime Writers' Association, I love the good-natured, egalitarian crime-fiction world and have great friends among writers and readers.

I am, if anything, more proud of my Last Laugh Award than of the James Tait Black memorial prize for biography.

Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, John Banville published his first crime novel in 2006. At the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, which we both attended last month, he annoyed most of his audience, yet he had the brass neck to patronise me in The Guardian.

This is the quote that caused me to stamp my foot: "Another blogger did a survey among attendees. One of them, Ruth Dudley Edwards, a good writer who should have known better, allowed herself to be quoted as saying that I was slumming it as Benjamin Black. The inevitable implication of this is that Dudley Edwards considers crime writers to be slum dwellers." He then proceeded condescendingly to defend crime-writing against me and people like me.

How bloody dare he? I know he's a literary novelist, and they are, as one of my crime-novelist friends put it delicately, inclined to be up themselves, which is why I avoid them, but he might have done five minutes' homework before traducing me. He wouldn't have had to go beyond my website, where among other paeans to crime fiction, he'd have found a favourable review of his first two Black books, which I said I preferred to Banville.

Here's the story. Harrogate had hundreds of readers who paid substantial sums of money to listen to and mingle with writers. John Banville and Reginald Hill, a wonderful novelist who happens to write about crime, and who would have won the Booker had the judges not been snobs about what is dismissed as generic fiction, were interviewed by the broadcaster Mark Lawson. "We had a large and attentive audience, consisting mostly of fans of Reg, I suspect," wrote Banville. Well, John, if they weren't fans of his to start with, they were definitely on his side by the end.

Banville, we learned, did well to produce 200 words in a day, while Black, he explained, was a "cheap slut [who] sits down and writes 2,000".

Unlike Banville, who goes through stylistic agonies, Black simply "cannot get interested in a sentence", but then he's a craftsman, not an artist. Reg Hill, who is a master stylist, watched with amusement as Banville dug himself ever deeper and remarked that when he got up in the morning, he asked his wife whether he should write a Booker-winning novel or another bestselling crime book. "But you know, it's funny. We always come down on the side of the crime book." The 800-strong audience adored that.

The following morning, I was the moderator of a panel called Emerald Noir, which displayed the considerable talents of four Irish crime writers including our very own Gene Kerrigan, whose brilliant Dark Times in the City will educate you eye-poppingly about the gang culture of post-Celtic Tiger Dublin. We had been discussing why crime fiction takes on issues that literary novelists won't get round to for years, if ever, and I asked Declan Hughes, whose pacy thrillers cast a sardonic eye on Irish society, whether he thought Banville was denying that he felt he was slumming it as Black, although he really believed he was. Dec had the sense to dodge the question.

A few days later, in the Daily Telegraph, one Jake Kerridge got the wrong end of the stick by saying: "The writer Ruth Dudley Edwards commented at one event that 'he [Black] may insist he's not slumming it, but he's slumming it'." On the Guardian books blog this became: "'He's slumming it,' author Ruth Dudley Edwards said the following day. 'He says he isn't, but he is'." Banville's Guardian article last weekend was trailed on the front of the Review section as John Banville: "I'm not 'slumming it'" and was built around the opposite of what I'd said.

Of course if Black or Banville had joined the hundreds who came to our panel, we could have had it out. But strangely, although he was a literary editor for years, and might have been expected to have a passing interest in the explosion of crime writing talent in Ireland, he wasn't there.

I wrote about this on crimealwayspaysblogspot. com, which is run by another talented Declan -- Burke, this time -- who commented: "At the risk of getting splinters up my fundament, I genuinely think what's happening here is a misunderstanding. Mind you, I've no problem with a good old-fashioned literary spat, either, especially when crime writers are pretty much universally nice people. I mean, seriously, crime writing festivals can get a bit Stepford at times, no?"

I sent this to Reg Hill whose response was: "Nice one! As a spectator sport it's hard to beat an Irish debate. It's a bit like hurling, hard to follow, fast and furious with all the players waving big sticks that they don't actually hit anyone with, except, one suspects, if an Englishman were foolish enough to step on the field of play. I feel the clue lies in Declan's remark that a gathering of crime writers was always a bit Stepford wifeish. Surely only an Irishman could object to the company of pleasant amiable people! Anyway, more power to your hurley!"

I don't need my hurley. Banville has scored the goal for me. In 2008 he told an interviewer that: "I took the pseudonym to indicate that the venture was not an elaborate, post-modernist, literary joke. It is straightforward. I simply discovered I had this facility for cheap fiction."

Thanks, John. And you wonder why Harrogate didn't warm to you?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards