Thursday, 10 March 2011

"Sherlock Holmes is an arrogant cokehead"

On Monday my lovely friend 27 (aka Kieran) and I went to see Allan Guthrie, Denise Mina and Louise Welsh in an event at Aye Write. The topic of the discussion was heroes and villains in Scottish crime fiction.

The moderator of the session - Glasgow University's Dr Matt McGuire - referred the panel to a TV programme which Sebastian Faulks had been on, where he had said that there are no heroes in literary fiction and he asked the panellists what they thought.

Denise Mina had seen the programme but she said that he did not define his term for 'hero' and was also not swayed by Faulks' absolute conviction that there is a distinction between 'high art and low art'. Louise Welsh said that when she thinks of a hero she thinks of someone like Bruce Willis, and is not really able to come up with a straightforward, uncomplicated 'hero' in fiction at all. Allan Guthrie noted that Sebastian Faulks wrote at least one James Bond novel and Bond is actually not a very nice character. Sam Spade is not particularly heroic and his motivations are dubious, similarly Mike Hammer. Al also said that the prevalent idea in publishing is that a book should have a character who is brave and good, but that readers are more sophisticated than publishers give them credit for. (Totally agree - I prefer my protagonists flawed, complicated, and often downright evil). He then called Sherlock Holmes an "arrogant coke head". At least, I think it was coke...

Denise Mina wondered whether Faulks meant a 2D character - she noted that if you don't read a lot of crime fiction, then you might think that crime fiction heroes are going to be 2D.

Louise Welsh added that a lot of crime fiction is a quest, and the reader is going on that journey with the protagonist.

Dr McGuire asked what crime fiction allowed the panellists to do as writers. Denise Mina said that crime fiction allows her to do anything she wants. She also added that books should be entertainment, no matter how highfalutin the book is.

Louise Welsh said that people perceive crime fiction as being about good and bad and the righting of wrongs, and she said this is untrue. Crime fiction is full of compromised characters and the challenge for the reader is how far you are going to go along with them (she gave the example of Ripley).

Al said that readers tend to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist/narrator. In commercial publishing it's seen as very difficult to sell books with anti-heroes and he noted that both his books and his book sales reflect that! He said that it's much easier for readers to associate themselves with the detective. If you empathise with that character and then that character does something abhorrent, then you may push the reader away.

Denise noted that the attraction of a character like Ripley is the power they have.

Dr McGuire asked whether the idea of heroism has changed/is changing. Denise mentioned that the first hero was actually a woman - from the Goddess Hera. She said that what she finds heroic are communitarian ideas, and people making heroic decisions in their own lives.

Louise noted that, politically/culturally we appear to be going back to the 80s. What makes a central character interesting is the problems he or she faces and women face a lot of problems. Dr McGuire added that if male heroism is asserted through violence, women have to assert themselves in a different way. Al said that this was not necessarily the case and sometimes it's the other way round (Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox, for example).

Denise said that people assume that a book with a masculine author name will be gender neutral, and that books with a female name on the front are going to be all about flower arranging. I have to say that I don't altogether agree with this. The sex of an author is never something that I take note of when trying a new to me author. If I'm browsing in a bookstore the first thing that makes me pluck a book off the shelf of books which are equally unknown to me is probably something about the title or the cover. And this might be something totally inconsequential. If the title is the same as the title or lyrics of a punk or indie song then I'm certain to pick it up. If it's a bizarre title then I'll probably pick it up - ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN, or NIGHT OF THE AVENGING BLOWFISH for example. On the other hand, any puns involving food, flowers or pets will cause me to move on hurriedly. As will a cover with a syringe on the front. Or the word 'code' or 'conspiracy' in the title. After I've picked it up then I'll read the back cover. If it still appeals then I'll read the first paragraph. And that's it. What about you, dear Reader? What draws you to a book that you know nothing about?)

Anyway, back to the event. There were then some questions from the audience. I couldn't hear all of them but I got the responses.

Denise noted that the character who is most like her in all the books she has written is Lachie in SANCTUM. She said that the book wasn't much liked in the UK so when she meets someone who says they liked it, she says she feels like you would if someone kissed your ugly child.

Al said that things were changing in publishing and that with the explosion of ebooks, it's a great time to be a writer and a reader, but maybe not to be a publisher. When asked if he had figures to back this up he said that he had sold more ebooks in two months than he had sold print books in seven years. He said ebooks provide a lot of variety for readers and also a break for writers who might be bored with what they are writing. He said that the 'Big Book' now has to be very big indeed and a lot of publishers will only take something on if they feel it is going to sell fifty thousand copies.

An audience member asked if we need a fictional hero right now, given what is happening in the world.

Denise said that she is currently writing a book loosely based on the Tommy Sheridan story. She said that she always thought she would go into politics, but then she discovered that she had a really bad temper. Louise said that she would love to believe in heroes but finds that she can't. She said that you shouldn't invest too much in any single individual and that people are flawed. Her last hero was David Bowie and then she found out he had said all sorts of terrible things.

Al said that he tends to write the books he wants to read and that he can't buy into the hero type - there's something unrealistic about it. You know that faced with the fight or flight decision they're going to fight. Al's personal recommendation was that instead of going to self-defence classes, people should learn how to sprint :o)

One questioner asked whether the days of Miss Marple had gone forever. Denise said that people read and watch TV or many different reasons. She, herself, loves the magazine Take A Break, as well as the sorts of books that you're embarrassed to be seen reading. She also loves true crime.

Al said that according to statistics by publishers John Blake, of all the books they supplied to Waterstones,17.5% of true crime books were stolen, while only 1.5% of every other category were stolen.

They were asked whether they would ever write true crime. Al said that fiction is his forte and he always got marked down at school for using fiction where he should be using fact. However, a lot of true crime triggers his fiction. Louise said that when she was at university a history lecturer once said "I always like your essays because you always leave a wee cliffhanger."

The panellists were then asked who their own literary heroes are. Louise said that she is always wary of heroes because that anyone who looks too good to be true probably is - citing Ted Bundy as an example. She said that Jane Eyre is a brave character - she has no advantages and yet she goes out into the world, as is Allan Breck Stewart. Denise said that her literary heroes were George Orwell (because of his political writings) and Mikhail Bulgakov (because of the humourous way he writes about being a writer). Al cited Dashiell Hammett as being ahead of his time, and David Goodis, who gave a voice to losers - there are no heroes in any of his books.

And there we go. A great time was had by all.


  1. Donna - Glad you had such a great time! Interesting question, too, about what makes me pick up a book by a new-to-me author. I start with title, too and at least a bit about what the book's about. Then I flip through to see what I think of the writing style. And like you, there are certain things that are sure to turn me in the opposite direction. I have to admit, I'm not much of one for truly gory novels, so a gory cover is enough to make me look elsewhere.

  2. Good work, Donna, giving me big regrets I didn't get off my big fat ass and drive up to Glasgow for the evening.

  3. Oh and on the gender thing I heard Val McD say something similar-ish at Harrogate. Her thoughts were that men don't buy books by women.

    I can't speak for my entire gender but I go by word of mouth or I do the cover/ back page/ 1st page thing and go on that. The author's gender just doesn't impact on this process.

  4. Thanks so much for recapping this event, Donna. Lots of food for thought here. For what it's worth I don't pay much attention to an author's gender either, but bizarre titles have the opposite effect on me that they do on you. I always figure they're trying too hard.

  5. Great post, Donna. I enjoyed Sanctum, which I read when it came out after the superb Garnethill trilogy. I was surprised at the time that it did not get better reviews, as I thought it very good.

    On the male/female authors, it must be hard to generalise as so many use initials, pseudonyms or gender neutral names (eg Ben someone's Lumen just got published by Bitter Lemon Press, and it turns out that "Ben" is a woman, and the "Ben" a contraction of her full first name (which I forget). ) Val McDermid could be a man or a woman if one only knew her as an author's name on a book. Be that as it may, you simply can't generalise, there are plenty of gruesome books by both sexes and I am sure the odd man has written a book on interior design or fashion ;-)

    On Sebastian Faulks and the hero thing, I don't know -- virtually all, if not all, of the crime fiction I've read I would classify as "popular" not "literary" fiction. I've also read a lot of literary fiction and have not enjoyed all of it, but have enjoyed some. Again, it seems very hard to generalise - take an author like Ian McEwan who most people would say is both popular and literary. Some of his books are a lot better than others, hero/heroine-wise or otherwise.

  6. Donna, thank you for this wonderful post about the Aye Write panel; as another poster says, so much food for thought here!

    Like you, I might be drawn to something with a quirky title (including those you mention), then I'd read the book jacket to see where it's going, and once in a great while if an author I totally admire like Mina, or Reed Farrel Coleman, or Woodrell, blurbs it, that might help too. I seldom believe much of the blurbs or cover prose, but sometimes I do, in special cases...and even then I probably would not buy it, would go home, investigate it, think about it, then finally go back and buy. :-) I seldom buy on impulse, but I do buy! :-) If I haven't heard of the book, I'll be drawn to quirky, neat covers, etc., or a title that intrigues.

    Now, about gender, gawd I get tired of this! Some women write good male characters and vice versa, and no not all women protags talk about flowers and cuddly kittens! I go for the story, for the plot and setting, and the main protag's gender has little to do with whether I choose a book, and little to do with how I judge a book.

    Have I ever liked a hero or main character who was not really stand-up good? Oh yes. In fact, one of the main ones, from years back, is by Denise Mina, in the Garnethill series. Loved those books, and though I wouldn't have been friends with Maureen, I did admire what she did with what she had. Some of Woodrell's characters have flaws but are worthy..and he writes a female protag, often. For me, it's not about the gender, but about the goodness of the story and setting and I guess I just don't have preconceived notions of 'how women act' and 'how men act', it's more about the story and what happens and how each individual deals with it. If a writer writes well, there really aren't rules nor certain ways of doing things. After all, I'm a female, with a male name, and no one has ever been able to predict or judge me on my gender, I always was unpredictable.

    Regarding titles, sometimes I do feel that an author is 'trying too hard' with some quirky title...but some, like ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN, or CURSE OF THE POGO STICK or GO TO HELENA HANDBASKET, do draw me because it's more than just trying to be cutesy imo, there's something there. So I'll at least look at it. :-)

    Ok, that's it, for today. GREAT blog, Donna; and great comments everyone.


  7. Did you just out my identity on your blog? I hope I can still walk down the street without being harassed for autographs and photographs. Who'm I kidding, I never walk anywhere.

    PS Thanks for the 'lovely'. You're a sweetheart.

  8. Margot - isn't it interesting how and what we choose?

    Michael - you should have done - a good time was had by all!

    Vince - I agree - it's only some bizarre titles I like! Others really put me off. Weird, eh?

    Maxine - great comments! And, of course, there's Fred Vargas.

    Bobbie - good point about blurbs - once in a while I pick up a book because of them too. And you are so right on the gender thing!

    27 - Do you want me to put you back in the closet? :o)