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April 22, 2010



"This blog" despises genre fiction? Really?


If the editor had gone through this and removed every odd-numbered adjective, it would greatly improve the style of the prose. As it is, it is seriously overloaded with ornamental qualification that impedes, rather than enlightens, the reader.

GG Gaynor


This will get deleted, but I agree, the excerpt seems bloated and first-draftish. As a Banville and crime-novel fan I was excited for this but very disappointed.


I'm a great fan of genre fiction. I've never felt "despised" on this blog for that reason.


Ah, 'cut most of the adjectives', the first resort of every workshop hack. Banville's work, whether one loves its style or not, is altogether willed, so I don't think an editor would have been allowed to 'improve' his prose. And I'm glad of that, because I love it, and I didn't feel impeded. Niall's, and GG's, mileage, I guess, varies.


There's an explanation for this rather loose writing: Banville is not as careful with genre, as he more or less admitted during a recent talk, saying that during a morning he can crank out two thousand words as Benjamin Black, but only two hundred as John Banville.



I didn't say cut most of the adjectives. Just half of them. And since I've never published anything, I can hardly be considered a hack. Writing is about precision, which means choosing your adjectives carefully, like fine spices. I'm not at all part of that school that believes they can be dispensed with - they can't. But there is such a thing as too much. Conversely, he could go the Lovecraft route, and proliferate adjectives so hysterically that it becomes a new kind of style. But one or the other. Not what he's produced here.

Ward -

This just shows that Banville has a secret contempt for genre literature, because he uses it as an excuse to let his own literary standards down. We should be glad that Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson didn't feel that way about their art.


Tim, I also think "hack" is unnecessarily rude. That said, I will say I always tend to be a little suspicious when people object to "adjectives" because that smacks of a rigid predisposition about what writing should be. But I know Niall to be a more sophisticated reader than that.

That said, I don't really agree with his read here. What I have most enjoyed about the Black series are the lush atmospherics of the thing. I find his Dublin so rich and textured that I personally don't want one word less. I love the thickly layered feel of the work. But that's a taste thing in the end, not a provable right/wrong.

I also think Niall is mistaken to posit motivations. Banville is on record as considering Simenon's romans durs among the best books ever written. I don't think it speaks of contempt at all - he simply has a very different artistic mission with each set of books, and recognizes allowances must be made to the conventions at either pole, whether "genre" or "literary." From everything I have heard him say, he has an abiding respect and affection for genre fiction. It is true that he does not consider it "art" the way he considers other writing "art," but that does not translate into contempt - something GG gets wrong about me.



Those are good points. Perhaps "contempt" is too strong a word. What he seems to be saying is that writing in genre under a new name helps him use a new style, which, upon further reflection is fine. I would say, though, that perhaps he is underestimating what it takes, stylistically, to create the genre style he is aiming for. Lushness is a good thing to aim for. But I do think he uses too many adjectives to say basically the same thing in the excerpt above.


Not sure anything so programmatic as cutting half the adjectives is needed, but it does seem that some of the phrases are paradoxical, like "dull shock" or "faintly desperate." I'm just not sure that "shock" can be dull or "desperation" faint. I think this adds to the mushiness to which Niall seems to be reacting.


Skip -

Yes, I noticed that too. You can add "obscurely disappointing" to the list. He seems to want to put strange spins on everyday words by modifying them in odd ways. I don't think this works too well for him here, as he keeps making you stop and wonder what on earth he really meant to convey. It's also theatrical in way that doesn't ring true. Take this line, "He could feel Malachy watching him with the melancholy shadow of a smile." Not a melancholy smile, mind you, but a melancholy *shadow* of a smile. He's finessing things to death that he could more effectively present with less pointless ornamentation.

I think that's why the excerpt comes across as inert, for all the stylistic calisthenics he has invested in it.

GG Gaynor

How about "flabby warmth"? Or: "The atmosphere outdoors had the texture of wetted, cold cotton." I still don't know what the hell that means.

GG Gaynor

I also question Banville's motives for the whole Benjamin Black thing. It's not even meant to be a secret that Black=Banville - the connection is explained in large type on the home page of the Black website. So why use the pen name in the first place? To be able to conveniently separate himself from lesser writing? Preservation of legacy? "Oh, well, that whole Ben Black thing was just a lark, nothing serious, you know."

Maybe he's addressed this in interviews, I don't know. I'm sure someone here can fill me in.


Actually, "the atmosphere outdoors" sentence rings very true, if you've ever lived in that kind of climate. But you're on the money about "flabby warmth". What could that possibly mean?

I seem to recall Banville is a big Nabokov fan. If so, this might explain these stylistic encryptions. The sorcerer's apprentice has not yet mastered his master's spells.


GG -

I can't speak for Banville, but it may be that historically pulp and genre writers have published under different noms do plume. It's part of the tradition, in a way. Banville may be writing as Benjamin Black as a kind of hommage to the genre he is writing in.

It might also be helpful to analyze the (not so)pseudonym as a tool to define a "child brand" for Banville - one that clearly separates this type of writing from his more literary efforts, walling it off from what he would prefer to be seen as his real legacy. Perhaps Benjamin Black is the Toyota to Banville's Lexus.


"Flabby warmth" is a good one too. I agree with Niall that "branding" might be a good way to think about this. Maybe the sentence-level excess is reflected in the pseudonym; both are as much about affectation as they are about effect.

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