Literary awards have been one of the last bastions of high culture, but in the week when the crime writer Peter Temple took Australia’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin award, Alison Flood examines whether a detective novel could ever win the Booker

When the Australian crime novelist Peter Temple heard that one of his detective novels, The Broken Shore, had been longlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin award, he “thought it was a clerical error”. So when his latest novel, Truth, made this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist, Temple had little hope that this time Inspector Stephen Villani, the brooding head of the Victoria homicide squad, could bring off his greatest coup and go on to win Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.

“I read the other shortlisted authors, on the basis you should know who the people are who are going to beat you, and I was quite confident that at least three were going to beat me,” said the author, speaking from Australia. When the judges for the prize opened the envelope to read out his name, “Booker-style”, on Tuesday night, he was “absolutely humbled”.

Temple is the first crime novelist ever to win the Miles Franklin, setting him in a canon of former winners including Peter Carey, David Malouf and Patrick White.

“It is a very bold thing for the judges to do. They really are the custodians of Australia’s oldest literary prize, they decide who should be admitted to the contemporary canon. So to admit a crime novelist, they’ve put their lives on the line,” said Temple. “It’s a fairly small panel [of previous winners] but the writers are all of quite extraordinary talent and quality … I don’t know what on earth I’m doing there.”

Back on this side of the world, no crime novel has ever won the Man Booker prize, and the former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland isn’t expecting it to happen any time soon.

“The twice I’ve been on the Booker panel they weren’t submitted,” he said. “There’s a feeling that it’s like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”

According to Sutherland, the perception in the UK is that there are enough specialist awards for crime fiction. The barriers to genre writers are also higher. “They just don’t have quite the same class system in Australia, and perhaps they don’t have the same class distinctions in Australian letters,” he said.

Sutherland also worries that awarding a mainstream literary prize to a work of genre fiction, particularly one which is part of a series, would devalue its reputation. “There is a dilution effect,” he said. “Series have tended to inhabit the lower reaches of literature.”

But according to the bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin, attitudes towards genre fiction are slowly shifting in this country as well.

“Things are changing,” Rankin said. “The old canards are that crime fiction is plot-driven, thin on character, populist: a lesser calling. But that no longer holds true. Kate Atkinson’s last three novels have been crime. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a crime story. William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller. Slowly, the barricades are tumbling. You can now study crime fiction in some universities and high schools. At least three PhDs on my own work are currently under way. A St Andrews lecturer has written a book about one of my novels. Thirty years back, ‘modern literature’ at St Andrews meant Milton.”

According to the crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of the Booker judges pointed to her novel A Place of Execution in 1999 as an example of great writing, but dismissed it as a contender for the prize “because ultimately it’s a genre novel”. “It made me feel cross more than anything – a good piece of fiction is a good piece of fiction, whether there’s a dead body in it or not,” she added. “I think perhaps in Australia there is slightly less of a literary snobbism than there is, still, in this country.”

According to Rankin, Ruth Rendell should have been regularly shortlisted for the Booker, while “in the USA, the likes of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos are writing fiction that is Pulitzer-worthy, but I don’t see them winning it”.

Temple said the situation was similar in Australia. “The feeling is there is a very clear line of demarcation between the two things. With crime, romance, science fiction, we are considered to be writers within a formulaic genre, whereas literary writers are considered to be ‘moving freely’, as it were,” he said. “There has always been a feeling that literary fiction is improving, that you come away from reading it and you’re a better person for it. No one ever said that about reading a crime novel – although maybe you come away feeling happier.”

Although no crime novel has won the Booker in the past, Tom Rob Smith’s thriller Child 44 was longlisted in 2008 – and that year’s winner, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, follows the story of a murderer. To add to the sense that attitudes might be softening in the UK as well as in Australia, the judges for this year’s Orange prize shortlisted Attica Locke’s thriller Black Water Rising.

Ion Trewin, who judged the Man Booker prize in 1974 and who, as administrator for the award, has sat in on many a judging session, said approaches to genre fiction have changed greatly over the years: Sarah Waters, for example, has been shortlisted twice for the Booker, “and if she’d been published 40 years ago she would never have been considered, people would have said she was just genre fiction”.

“In 1974, the idea of genre fiction of any kind being considered for a ‘literary’ prize was just unthinkable. When the Booker began in 1969, Rebecca West was one of the judges and she made it absolutely clear that as far as she was concerned this was a prize for literary fiction, and that this very much excluded anything thought of as a crime novel, thriller, or genre. If you’d said science fiction, she would probably have gone into orbit,” he said.

But John Sutherland’s experience of literary judging panels suggests this thawing in the attitude still has a long way to go.

“They’re very tolerant towards crime fiction until they come to the final judging,” he said, “when they start to ask ‘Is this really a serious contender?'” There may be a shift in the literary atmosphere, he continued, but “climate change is very slow, and this is no exception.”

For Morag Fraser, a Miles Franklin judge for the past six years, it is simply a question of quality. “Most crime novels that I have read (and I read one a week, often more) will never win the Miles Franklin or any other ‘literary’ prize because they do not work language hard enough, and they do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination,” she said. “They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.”

“In the case of Peter Temple’s Truth, the divide was so comprehensively crossed that we did not think much about the conventions of crime fiction except to note that Temple was able to observe them rather as a poet observes the 14-line convention of the sonnet or a musician the sonata form: as a useful disciplinary structure from which to expand, bend or depart.”

Former Pulitzer judge Catharine Stimpson, dean of the graduate school of arts and science at New York University, agreed, as well she might: in 2007, when Stimpson judged the Pulitzer, the panel awarded the prize to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. “All wonderful writing subverts and transcends generic boundaries, although it is always fun to play the genre game and to stick books into categories,” she said. “Amusing and historically interesting though this game might be, the vital distinction among texts is not the genre per se but the degree to which the writer either sticks rigidly to the formulae of the genre or to which the writer upends the formulae.”

John Banville, who won the Booker for his novel The Sea, and who writes crime fiction as Benjamin Black, was absolutely in agreement, saying that “there is only one distinction, and that is between good writing and writing which is … not good”.

“I see no reason why a so-called crime novel should not win the Man Booker prize,” said Banville. “I suppose an objection that might be raised is that crime fiction always has a prior commitment, as it were – there can be a non-crime novel that has a crime in it, but there cannot be a crime novel that has not a crime in it, and perhaps this could be a hindrance to a freely and purely imagined work of art. But as EM Forster among many others has pointed out, the novel’s requirement to have, for instance, a plot of some kind is already a burden.”

For the newly crowned Miles Franklin winner, Temple, crime was just “an excuse to write”. “It gives a sense of urgency, of narrative drive. My characters have a reason to get up in the morning. Ian McEwan, who I think is wonderful, his characters do not really have an urgent reason to get up in the morning,” said the author. “There is only one judgment for the value of a book, and that is what sort of emotional response it elicits in the reader. That’s down to the quality of the writing.”

His UK publisher Quercus is submitting Truth for this year’s Booker prize, raising the prospect that Temple could go on to complete a memorable double. “Just to make the Booker longlist would be a wonderful thing,” he said. But is he in with a genuine chance to be the first crime writer to take the Booker? “We shall see,” said Trewin. “I’ve said to the judges each year that there are no exclusions at all. If you consider a novel – whether it’s crime, romance or science fiction – is really fabulous in every particular, then judge it with the same criteria you’d use for a literary novel, and if you agree, you must include it … It would be great if a genre novel was to win the Booker one day and I hope that’s the next stage. It would be rather like having the first woman prime minister, and it will be terrific when it does happen.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds