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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Trading blows over the ‘Genre Snob’ debate

If you haven’t yet heard, there’s a fight going on out there over South African crime fiction and the genre’s relation to ‘respectable’ literary fiction.

The first punch was thrown by Lynda Gilfillan, Margie Orford’s editor and reformed genre snob, in a Boxing Day review of Gallows Hill on the Stellenbosch (University) Literary Project blog, SLipNet. She opens her review with an intriguing confession and soon academics, commentators, snobs and earnest defenders of the ‘krimi’ were roused out of their post-Christmas day languor to comment and respond:

This is for the genre snobs. I used to be one of those, too – scornful of literature that does not begin with a capital L. Until May 2007, that is, when Margie Orford approached me to re-edit her first crime novel, Like Clockwork. “Crime thrillers aren’t really my thing, you know”, I snootily said, but she trusted me, and soon afterwards my qualms faded.

Find the full article here.

The comments came in and then turned on each other. There were jabs, uppercuts and knees to the groin and, eventually, when everyone was panting, locked in wrestling holds, Lucy Graham took everyone back to the start and quoted some deliciously gruesome paragraphs from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Next, Leon de Kock, academic and author of Bad Sex, entered the ring through a trap door in the floor on 9 January with a review of Roger Smith’s Dust Devils which turned into a look at local crime fiction and the emerging debate. I liked one particular point which I think is a very useful approach in talking about genre. De Kock says:

Yes, it is “genre” [...] but it’s also more. It’s the “more” that we should perhaps be interested in, and how that margin of “more” is performing some of what one might call the “uses” of literature in reading bewilderingly changed political out-theres.

Find the full article here.

Another thing I found particularly interesting about de Kock’s article is that, in the URL, the title is actually: “Crime Fiction – The New Political Novel. I think a discussion of to what extent and how South Africa’s crime fiction can be seen as our new political novel would be a more fruitful and interesting discussion than the way the debate is going in some areas.

The next brave soul to drop his robe and tap his gloves was Jonathan Amid in another review of Gallows Hill which you can find here.

I think it’s fantastic that so much debate has been aroused by Gallow’s Hill and other South African crime fiction which has caused us readers to rethink the genre and the ways it depicts our country, its people and its history. I think a positive thing to come out of this debate is that we are going back and rereading, giving more time and attention to the novels. The negative bits for me (which I skip over) are the comments that make sweeping generalizations about the genre without any reference to specific books and authors. This is just my taste for debate but, at that point, it all gets too highfalutin and open to theoretical whimsy.

So, if you’re interested in weighing in to the debates, you can now get involved in the fray through the links above. Chiara has also posted a helpful overview of the debate here.

For me, it’s most interesting to ask what the genre can and can’t do – what it allows authors to do with a story and where it inhibits stories. In what ways a story becomes “more” (to use de Kock’s phrasing) than the expectations we had of the crime novel when we first picked up the book.

Books mentioned in the debate:

Gallows Hill

Book details

Young Blood

Black Heart



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