What’s good fiction? Well, whatever you enjoy
It’s ridiculous to say the least, but there is always this divide between literary fiction and genre fiction, isn’t there? The literary establishment largely tends to be snooty about genre fiction – one of the reasons for which could be that genre fiction pulls in the masses, the really big money and the popularity.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, is judged – really judged, ought to be judged – not so much by which prize a book won but by how enduring it was, whether it became part of the canon, whether its writer earned an exalted place in posterity’s assessment book.
Me, I enjoy both – though I have to admit I read more, er, literary stuff than genre. (Well, if I’ve read more of VS Naipaul than of Stephen King, that should settle it.) But I do believe that given that enjoyment is a big reason for why we read, anything that we enjoy ought to qualify as good reading. And genre fiction very often does.
Robert Harris, a British political journalist turned multi-million selling and multi-million earning author, doesn’t quite write genre fiction. He writes political thrillers (he has been called the true descendant of John le Carre), a strange sort of crossover book that lies at the cusp of the two but hasn’t ever been seriously regarded as literary fiction.
Though he won’t admit to it, Harris probably cares (they all do, they do, whatever they say) at how serious critical praise has eluded him.
But he is impossible to ignore. As this interview of his points out: “Although the settings range from wartime England to late 20th-century Russia to ancient Rome, [his novels] have common features: detailed accuracy, exciting plots and unlikely heroes who save the day by the use of their brains rather than brawn.” His biggest book was his first: Fatherland, a what-if novel that charts the world if the Nazis had won World War II.
My favourite Harris is The Ghost – a novel about how the ghostwriter of a former British Prime Minister gets embroiled in circumstances that lead to the uncovering of a terrible secret. Read a review here.
I am now reading his latest, Imperium. Published in 2006, it is supposed to be the first of an intended trilogy and the career of the Roman statesman and politician, Cicero. In doing so, it becomes an audacious, white-knuckle ride through the violent, treacherous, malevolently ambitious corridors of Roman politics. It is historical fiction but it uses the device of the thriller.
As this excellent review by Tom Holland says: “Although there is detective work, there is no detective; although there are twists and turns, there is rarely any artificial ratcheting up of suspense. Instead, Harris trusts to the rhythm of the republic’s politics to generate his trademark readability, a rhythm that the Romans themselves enshrined in their literature as something relentlessly exciting: in short, a thriller. Genres ancient and modern have rarely been so skilfully synthesised.”
My copy of Imperium is an advance reading copy. A line in bold type on the back should tell you what Harris’s standing is with his publishers and his readers: when the book came out, it was backed by a £400,000 marketing and publicity campaign.