The Wrong Hensher

Philip Hensher is no fan of "thrillers":

Thrillers are, at root, escapist and consolatory ... There is nothing wrong with being entertained by that from time to time, just as there is nothing wrong in reading about overcoming obstacles to find your great dark man in novels of romance. But there is something overdone about the extent of the thriller's grasp on us," he writes in the Telegraph. "The best thrillers are rattling good yarns in ways which Middlemarch or Buddenbrooks never aspire to be. We turn away from the unspeakable, inexplicable horrors of the newspapers, events with no resolution, into a world where a single running policeman can put everything right. You would have to be a dull reader not to enjoy that sometimes. But never to want something better, deeper, less resolved, you would have to be a moron.

He also thinks that:

the liveliness and extravagance of current genre-writing in fantasy and science fiction, such as China Miéville's remarkable novels, make the field a much more plausible candidate for literary exaltation than the rule-bound thriller.

I agree with Mr. Hensher that academism is rampant in today's crime fiction. I also agree that anything written by George Eliot or Thomas Mann, is definetely not a rattling good yarn. 

Where we part is his condemnation of "thrillers" as being the literary equivalent of comfort food (It's not; besides, what's wrong with entertaining and consolating and why would it necessarily be antagonistic to "literary" greatness?)  and being unable of any kind of innovation or originality  because of their adherence to a set of rules (One wonders what Hensher thinks of classical poetry, or the Oulipo)

As to his categorization as "morons" of readers unwilling to read the deeper, less resolved (and, probably, less entertaining) kind of fiction he advocates, it suggests respect and tolerance are among the rules Mr. Hensher successfully freed himself from. Good for him. Bad for us.

Further reading:

Steve Mosby's comprehensive takedown of Hensher's diatribe, with many good points and a marvelous last line.

2 commentaires:

Patrick a dit…

Merci, merci, merci, Xavier! The link to the article is brilliant!

Allow me to rebut these shallow claims with a wonderful quote from "Encyclopedia Mysteriosa":

"The crime, you see, is just to set the stakes. The real message of the detective story is that even in the worst of circumstances, a man or woman can make things right using courage, tenacity, and brainpower. Even though writers depict protagonists who are corrupt or criminal, the characters are at least trying to do something about their lives. That's especially appealing in these days when so much of so-called serious literature is plotless, hopeless, and, in the eyes of many, pointless.


For a long time, there has been a school of criticism putting down mystery stories as 'crossword puzzles in prose.' This is nonsense, as the smallest familiarity with the genre will show. Mysteries range from light comedy to Grand Guignol, with every gradation in between, including that of (ahem) literary art. It happens rarely, to be sure, but it happens just as rarely in those rarefied circles of writing whose practitioners are shooting for art and nothing else. And in the mystery, the misses are still fun to read.

But even if mysteries were crossword puzzled with plotlines, what of it? What kind of plotlines are we talking about? Good versus evil, order versus chaos, illusion versus reality, and the necessity of thought as a tool of survival. I'll take that."

Someone give this man an award! Wait... they already did. Oh, well, can't hurt to give him another one! Can you see why I love this book so much more than, say "Bloody Murder" or the carelessly spoiler-filled Cambridge companion? Every word of this wonderful reference volume shows that the author truly loved his subject, and he treats a wide variety of mysteries the same way: from puzzle plot to hardboiled fiction to police procedural.

The quotes I've lifted from the introduction, and it's like a direct reply to the ignorant snobbery of Hensher's article. I am proud of my love for reading mysteries, and I'm sure we can agree that I'm no moron. I resent that comment of Hensher’s, but Steve Mosby's brilliant article has given us the perfect reply.

J F Norris a dit…

Thanks for all of this, Xavier. Steven Mosby's response is scathingly brilliant too.

I like knowing that Hensher had a novel that was spurned by the Booker Prize judges. As Mosby points out, and as I noticed myself, the article has no specific examples showing why thrillers do not merit any literary attention and also reveals the paucity of his reading in the genre. I smell a case of sour grapes. The article is probably a personal tantrum more than an insightful literary criticism.

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