Monday, January 18, 2016

Theme Park Ireland

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of John Banville's Quirk novels. Banville writes these crime books under the nom de plume Benjamin Black to distinguish them from his proper literary work and he has gone on record publicly many times speaking about this contempt for the mystery genre, his contempt for its devotees and his contempt for his own readers. He boasts about how he writes a Quirk novel in 6 weeks but how a proper John Banville novel takes a year to compose. I think all of this shows in the Quirk books which are poorly crafted, sloppily constructed and lack any of the spark or zest of the best books in the genre. One doesn't so much read a Benjamin Black novel as plod through it wincing at the clumsiness... But Black isn't really my bete noir, my bete noir is the whole notion of theme park Ireland. At a talk he gave in Scottsdale in 2007 Black said that he sets his books in 1950's Dublin because that's the way most Americans see Ireland and that therefore caters to the biggest possible audience. Banville's commercial acumen can be admired by those who admire commercial acumen but at the time I saw this as a completely cynical move that would not pay off. Americans will easily see through this crude venality I reckoned. Boy was I wrong. The Quirk novels got positively reviewed in the New York Times, profiled in the New Yorker and became a huge hit. Banville, of course, was right. What the public wants is theme park Ireland: the Ireland of the 1930s or 1950s; rural, Catholic, rain-swept, poor, religious. The public wants smoky pubs and Guinness and toothless men in flat caps, red haired children in knit jumpers and nuns. Lots of nuns. 
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The problem isn't just an Irish one. Diana Gabaldon's novels Outlander etc. are a theme park version of Scotland that outsell every single Scottish novelist combined. Rather annoyingly Gabaldon wrote the first two without even having visited Scotland. The Harry Potter boarding school novels are a kind of theme park version of England (99% of English children do not go to boarding school). Films like The King Speech and shows like Downton Abbey are also a wildly successful theme park version of England whereas great contemporary English movies like Fish Tank and Catch Me Daddy were seen by a fraction of Downton's audience. 
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For me it all boils down to what it is you are trying to do as an artist or film-maker. Do you want to write artistically challenging and interesting stuff or do you want to make as much money as possible from a gullible public? Every writer or film maker must make that choice for him or herself. I've gone for the former path and let me tell you it is a long and lonely road. But that's ok, as Lee Strasberg says in The Godfather pt II, this is the business we've chosen...