Do “Commercial” and “Popular” Automatically Equate with “Inferior” in Literature? I Think Not.

In today’s Irish Times, retired Notre Dame English professor William O’Rourke uses the occasion of an essay on the superb writer Michael Collins to insult both the writers and readers of crime fiction and — by inference — also the writers and readers of all “popular” literature in general.

O’Rourke comments that “Too much ability can be a burden of sorts” when it comes to writing crime or — one has to assume — other popular genre novels.

O’Rourke cites Collins as a case in point, saying: “Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader. America really doesn’t possess enough of a literary culture anymore to maintain a writer like Michael.”

O’Rourke rightly praises Collins’s first book, a collection of elegant short stories originally self-published in Ireland as The Meat Eaters, later picked up by Random House in the States and published as The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters (1992). But O’Rourke says that collection was doomed to be a commercial failure because it attracted a “discerning” and therefore “limited audience.”

The same rule evidently applied to The Keepers of the Truth, The Resurrectionists, and Lost Souls, all of which — though critically praised and deservedly so — failed to sell. Publishers lost interest. And O’Rourke knows why:

By the early 2000s American publishing had changed utterly. Large publishing had coalesced into the minor businesses of three or four giant conglomerates. And computers, technology, the internet, had done their insidious work. America no longer has a literate culture, but an oral-visual one, a media, platform culture, and the so-called serious writers remain out of luck, unless they are billeted at some stable university. Reading rich prose became as much of a specialty in the common culture as being able to play a musical instrument, not a universal ability.

For this reason, according to O’Rourke’s analysis, Collins chose to delve into the popular crime genre with Death of a Writer (2006), published in England as The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton. Like his other works, Collins’s Death of a Writer received well-earned favorable reviews, but also like those earlier works eluded the bestseller list. Why? Well of course — too well done! So says O’Rourke.

O’Rourke of course blames the culture for his own limited success as a novelist, as was the case with his 1996 offering:

Notts, which appeared in the States in 1996 … is set during the last great strike, the NUM strike of 1984–5, in and around London and Nottingham, where I spent time during the strike. The novel has never been published in England, or anywhere else but America, though when it appeared here in 1996, I discovered that though there was a long tradition of coal mining novels, there was no current interest.

Terry Eagleton, at the time, was visiting Notre Dame for a few months at great expense to the university and I gave him a copy, eventually copies, of the novel to no effect whatsoever. Not so long ago in the early 2000s I refreshed his memory of the book, saying it was the only novel that used the NUM strike as a subject. He said, no, I just reviewed a book about the strike recently, so I adjusted my remark to say, well, it was the first novel about the strike, published a decade earlier. I looked up his review of what I considered (of course) an inferior treatment of the strike (GB84 by David Peace).

Of O’Rourke’s book, Publishers Weekly commented: “Academia meets realpolitik, to no great effect, in O’Rourke’s latest (after The Meekness of Isaac) … O’Rourke invests … rehashed political musings with little dramatic interest, until an attenuated terrorist plot suddenly brings the novel to an artificial climax.”

Regarding Peace’s “inferior” book, here are just a few reviewer comments:

The Observer: “Haunting, seminal, bleak, iconic … It’s a necessary novel, vital even.”

The Guardian: “Superb… [Peace] has turned the whole episode into a gripping thriller … GB84 is a bold mixture of thriller, monologue, theatre script, chants, slogans, crime story, sexual subplot and documentary fiction… This is an epic novel … a crowded, ambitious, quick-moving novel, and as such is the literary equal of the epic events it commemorates.”

The Times: “A violently original novel.”

Times Literary Supplement: “Exhilarating … Compelling.”

In short: Just a damn good story well-told. Thus commercial, popular, and — in O’Rourke’s world — inferior.

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See also: Of Literary Jealousy and the “Impertinent Prosperity” of Bestselling Authors.

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