The Genre Heap
A common complaint leveled against the Man Booker Prize is that it ignores genre fiction – for a couple of years there was the obligatory Ian Rankin denunciation of how unfair it was that the jury always overlooked crime fiction, while more recently it’s also science fiction authors that have registered complaints. (For an early overview of some of this, see Peter Preston’s 2005 piece, Genre specific, in The Guardian.) The Man Booker is, of course, specifically designed to be genre-unfriendly – the strict and absurd limits on what books can be submitted (in recent years, basically just two titles per publisher) pretty much ensure that publishers won’t submit a genre title for the limited, coveted spots (unless the publisher publishes nothing but genre titles) – making these complaints rather futile tilting at windmills. (It seems near-certain that none of Ian Rankin’s books were ever even submitted for the prize by his publishers (and hence could never even be considered by the jury).)
The Best Translated Book Award doesn’t have that excuse: we consider every previously untranslated work of fiction published in the US in the relevant year. (Well, we try to – logistics do mean that the one or other title slips through the cracks because none of us manage to get our hands on a copy.) A significant number of books we consider are genre titles – not much Harlequin-type romance, and still surprisingly little science fiction, but a hell of a lot of mysteries and thrillers. Just piles and piles of them. The Nordic crime wave continues – there are three Jo Nesbøs alone to consider this year – but other countries are also churning them out (often in multiples, too – this year there are also two Andrea Camilleris, four Maurizio De Giovannis, two Pieter Aspes etc.). Yet over the years very little that even resembles genre fiction has made it past the first cut, onto the 25-title-strong longlists. The 2013 and 2012 longlists are entirely mystery/thriller-free, and you have to go back to 2011 where, arguably, Martín Solares‘ The Black Minutes qualifies as such.
I think there have been some reasonable genre (or at least genre-like) contenders for the longlist over the years. As far as mysteries/thrillers go, I was disappointed that Nakamura Fuminori’s The Thief didn’t make the cut last year, and I think there has been a case to be made for Deon Meyer’s Trackers, Leif G.W. Persson’s Another Time, Another Life, and, for sheer hard-boiled punch, J.P.Manchette’s Fatale, over the years.
As far as science fiction goes, there have been titles with fantastical elements that have gotten serious consideration – Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times was shortlisted last year and Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas made the longlist (it also won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards last year); Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age was shortlisted in 2010. But even these – or another book that stood a decent chance of getting longlisted, Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences – likely aren’t found on the science fiction shelves of most bookstores (i.e. they generally aren’t considered truly genre-books).
Given that – at least as far as mysteries and thrillers go – genre titles make up such a large percentage of the titles we consider, I’m a bit disappointed that they fare so poorly. But honestly: few really stand out. As Man Booker Prize judge Stuart Kelly recently pointed out, a prize-deserving book should read well on re-reading, too – and crime novels, where much of the point is often learning whodunit (and how), generally rely so much on plot that once that has been revealed and resolved there’s just not enough left to the book for a reader to go out of his or her way to return to it. (That doesn’t have to be the case, of course: there are classic mysteries that it’s a pleasure to return to (I’ll pick up any of those Raymond Chandlers or Jim Thompsons I’ve already read any day), and there are books eligible this year that come with mystery-like surprises and twists that still impress mightily even when one is aware of them (I mention, yet again, Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza …).)
Many of the crime novels in the running for the BTBA are also part of a series, featuring the same cast of detecting characters – Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Camilleri’s Montalbano, etc. – and it’s generally hard for an individual title from a series to really stand out (and stand separately). (The fact that US/UK publishers perversely continue to publish crime fiction series in translation out of sequence – one of the Nesbøs published this year is the first in his Harry Hole series, while the third in the series was the first published in English, way back in 2006 – doesn’t help matters at all, either.)
Crime fiction tends to be more formulaic than most, too – more likely to follow a predictable path and pattern – which again makes it difficult for such books to really stand out – at least against the competition, which includes a lot of very creative work, a lot of great writing (which, it has to be said, does not always appear to be a top priority for many of the mystery authors whose work we see), and even a lot of plots that are as exciting as any well-turned thriller.
Finally, it also has to be noted that the translations of genre fiction are … let’s say less consistently of the highest quality. The translator-names generally aren’t the best-known (though many high profile translators do dabble in genre fiction, too), and there’s perhaps a bit less care and attention paid in the entire translation process when it comes to this sort of fiction. (That’s also why it’s so exciting to see Penguin’s new translations of Simenon’s Maigret-novels starting (in the US) next year (sadly ineligible for the BTBA, since they’ve all been translated before) – a great roster of translators bringing their A-game to works where the previous translations seem to have been … less than ideal (and that was Simenon !).)
So how does it look for this year’s crop? Well, I still have a lot of books to go through, but so far nothing has leapt out at me from the mystery/thriller pile. A lot of this stuff is decent beach reading, but really not much more (and I suspect some of my fellow judges are even less receptive to much of this sort of thing). Something like Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer benefits from being a product of a different era, which gives it a different feel from most of what we come across, but that’s not quite enough. And as far as the much-touted contemporary thrillers go, none that I’ve read so far has even come close to living up to its promise. (Meanwhile, I’m holding out hope for Mai Jia’s Decoded come 2014 …..).
The one genre-esque title that has stood out: Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End, which is the sort of clever science fiction I’d like to see more. It’s not entirely successful – those big ideas can be hard to neatly tie together – but it’s still damn good, a title I could see on the longlist.
Still, there are a lot more books to get to – including Frank Schätzing’s massive Limit … – and I haven’t given up hope yet.