I Hate Genre: An Interview with John Banville/Benjamin Black

By Jon WienerMarch 15, 2014

I Hate Genre: An Interview with John Banville/Benjamin Black

THE IRISH NOVELIST JOHN BANVILLE published his first fiction in 1970. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. In 2006 he published his first mystery, Christine Falls, under the pen name Benjamin Black. The new Benjamin Black book is The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel.

            — Jon Wiener

There have been something like 14 John Banville novels, books that go in the “literary fiction” section of the bookstore and that win the Man Booker Prize; and as Benjamin Black you have now written eight books, and they go into the “mystery” section. So we have high and low, art and craft, poetry and plot; is that an okay way to talk about Banville and Benjamin Black?

No. I hate it. I wish they didn’t do that. This genre of “literary fiction” is new since I started writing. It’s usually in a corner of the bookstore, and it may as well have a neon sign saying: “don’t read this stuff.” My ideal bookshop would have no sections, just alphabetical, and not just fiction, but all the books next to each other. You would discover things.

I hate genre. Some of the best writing of the 20th century was in crime novels. James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Richard Stark, Simenon of course — this is wonderful work, and shouldn’t be put off into a ghetto.

You’ve said you started writing the Benjamin Black books as what you call “a frolic.”

I had a television miniseries I had been commissioned to do — three hours. It wasn’t going to get made, and I hate to waste anything. I thought “I’ll turn it into a novel.” I had just begun to read Simenon. Simenon was a great revelation to me. When I saw what could be achieved with very scarce means, a very small vocabulary, direct speech, mainly dialogue-driven and plot-driven, I thought, “I’ve got to try that.” I was turning 60. I thought, “Here’s an adventure to embark on.”

Simenon famously wrote fast. Does Benjamin Black write fast?

Yes. Poor old Banville takes three, four, five years to write a book. Black does it in three or four months. Crime writers get very cross when I say this, as if the crime stuff I write is much inferior. But it’s just different. It’s an entirely different way of working. It’s craft work.

Benjamin Black’s original character was Quirke, a criminal pathologist in Dublin in the 1950s. In Black’s new book his protagonist is Philip Marlowe. Quirke’s world is your world, the world of your childhood and youth. You know Quirke better than anybody. That’s not true of you and Philip Marlowe.

I think I probably do know Marlowe as well as I know Quirke. I might know him a little better, because I’m not sure I know much about Quirke at all. He’s a strange invention, very secretive, very dark and damaged. Marlowe is dark and damaged as well, but not so much as Quirke. And Marlowe of course is witty. He turns a nice phrase. Quirke is very dour compared to him.

Raymond Chandler wrote the Philip Marlowe books in the first person. Was it a challenge for you to get inside that character, this American from the 1940s?

Oh no. Writing in the first person, I find, is easier than writing in third person. Because you have a point of view. And also you bring the reader on that journey from ignorance to some kind of clarity.

When did you start reading Raymond Chandler, and what did it mean to you?

When I was in my early teens, my brother, who was older, introduced me to Chandler. This was a huge revelation. Here was crime fiction that wasn’t just done like a crossword puzzle — which is sort of Agatha Christie’s approach. You do end up wondering why you spent time reading those books — just to get to the end, to find out who did it. In the Chandler books, nobody cares about who did it. He said himself the only thing that will endure from this writing is the style. That was something I found very sympathetic.

But Raymond Chandler was not the original inspiration for Benjamin Black.

It was Simenon — I had not read him until 2003, when a philosopher friend of mine recommended him. And I discovered this new world: a dark, acrid place, but very true to life. There are at least a dozen of Simenon’s books, the ones he called his “hard novels,” which I think are masterly — better than Camus, better than Sartre. They’re the true existentialist fiction of the 20th century.

Your new book is written in Raymond Chandler’s style, which is different from Simenon’s.

Very different. It’s poised, it’s elegant, it’s witty. It is very stylish. Chandler is something of a dandy when it comes to language. He’s very much aware of his English education. He went to Dulwich College in London, where P. G. Wodehouse went to school, and C. S. Forester went to school. He brings that dandified English sensibility to writing crime fiction set in Los Angeles. That’s one of the things that makes it so rich and so interesting.

Are there any tricks to writing in the Raymond Chandler style?

The one trick I discovered was that he never leaves a sentence alone. His sentences are almost always in two parts. He’d say, “I walked into the room — but I’d rather have been walking out.” Really he’s an elegant writer, very poised, with a wonderful eye for eccentricities of human character. His minor characters are superb, wonderfully memorable. That’s a great achievement.

Place is an essential component of Raymond Chandler’s writing. We’re doing this interview in North Hollywood on Cahuenga Blvd. The Black-Eyed Blonde begins on the corner of Cahuenga Blvd and Hollywood Blvd — about a 10-minute drive from here. How important was it to you to get the landscape right?

I don’t know how I had the effrontery to attempt it. Chandler himself is rather cavalier with the topography of Los Angeles. For reasons known only to himself, he changed Santa Monica into “Bay City.” I felt I had the same license to push things around, especially since I was living in Dublin and had only been here a handful of times.

But we all imagine that we know Los Angeles very well indeed — from the movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

Another essential component of the Raymond Chandler books is the sadness of Philip Marlowe.

The essence of Marlowe is his loneliness. He’s a completely solitary creature: no family, no friends. No possessions. Lives in an anonymous rented house. All he seems to own is a chess set and a coffee pot. It is, outwardly at least, a bleak life. But it’s the life he has chosen for himself, because he values his freedom.

Chandler’s Marlowe can also be violent.

When Marlowe gets brutal, I think it’s Chandler suddenly remembering he’s writing crime fiction and he better get tough. I didn’t feel I needed to do that.

Do you ever imagine what it would have been like for you to live in LA in 1950 and be a writer of detective fiction then and there?

I’d love to have been one of those hack writers for the movies, living in a little cabin in the Hollywood Hills, hammering away at a typewriter, a glass of scotch at my elbow, and a guy’s coming in and saying, “You gotta have two scenes by four o’clock, and they better be good or you’re off the picture!” I would have loved to work under that kind of pressure. And they made such marvelous movies.

Which are your favorites of the Philip Marlowe movies?

Of course The Big Sleep. It was unsurpassable. But Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling made a wonderful version of Farewell, My Lovely. Mitchum was a different kind of Marlowe from Bogart’s — he was lazy, he was tired. He was disenchanted in a way that Bogart couldn’t be. And Charlotte Rampling is the perfect Chandler femme fatale.

Both the Quirke and the Marlowe books are set in the 1950s — what drew you to that decade?

The ’50s are a fascinating decade. People of my generation tried to forget about the ’50s. In Ireland especially, the things we’re discovering now about things that went on in the ’50s makes it fascinating. We were always assured that we were free and that Eastern Europe was under the jackboot of atheistic communism. We didn’t realize that we were in exactly the same position as Eastern Europe: they had the Communist Party dictating everybody’s lives; we had the Catholic Church dictating everybody’s lives. It was a mirror image, two sides of the same coin. In a way, our lives were more controlled than theirs under the Soviet regime. Ireland was a society run by power-hungry men who didn’t have any allegiance to the state; their allegiance was to Rome, to the Vatican. It was a strange, dark time, full of secrets, with lots of cigarette smoke and fog, and clandestine sex; a perfect time to set a noir novel in.

Of course LA in the 1950s wasn’t dominated by the Catholic Church the way Quirke’s Dublin was. But we did have McCarthyism, which made for a different kind of dark time.

Oh yes, that was a terrifying time in America. It very nearly turned fascist at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s. It’s a great tribute to your individuality and sense of freedom that you didn’t allow that to happen. I’m a great admirer of America. I still believe America is the last great hope.


Yes. Despite all your problems, you do amazing things. Who would have thought 10 years ago that America would have a black president? Who was elected not once but twice? Who would have thought that a politician like Lyndon Johnson would have brought in civil rights legislation, would ram it down the throats of the politicians and a lot of the country as well? Where else could that happen?

You were literary editor of The Irish Times and reviewed all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction, and now you write for The New York Review. Where does reviewing fit into your life as a fiction writer?

That’s a separate persona that I have. I think book reviewing is an honorable trade if it’s done honestly. There’s no point in doing it otherwise. It’s not criticism. It’s saying to the reader, “Here’s a book that you will not have read yet; here’s what I think of it. Take it or leave it.” That’s very important for the health of literature — people who will do a first tasting, but have no pretensions of being critics. People say to me, “Will you bring out a collection of your criticism?” I say, “It’s not criticism, it’s book reviews. And I’m really not going to bring out a book of book reviews.”

You’ve been a novelist for several decades now — has your approach to writing fiction changed as you’ve gotten older?

I feel freer. I let my instincts run things far more than I did when I was younger. I’ve come to realize that writing fiction is much more like dreaming than anything else — a kind of controlled dreaming. Nietzsche said every man is an artist when he’s asleep, which I think is true. Look at the fantastic creativity of your dreams: you lie down, you close your eyes, suddenly you’re dealing with people you’ve never seen before, you’re in places you’ve never been before, you’re developing an extraordinary and compelling world. It’s that kind of deep power of the unconscious that novelists try to put discipline on.

As a writer of fiction you’ve said, “a sentence can always be better.”

That way lies what Henry James called “the madness of art.” Artists live with failure because we aim constantly for perfection. We know we can’t have it, but we keep striving toward it. All we can do, as Beckett says, is “fail again, fail better.” Yes a sentence can always be improved. You never finish a sentence. You just abandon it.


Jon Wiener is a contributing editor and on the board of directors at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory TowerHe is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


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