The question of John Banville’s legacy

John Banville

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With confirmation that John Banville will be part of the writing team for a major new crime series slated to screen next year, and the Booker Prize winner seemingly increasingly besotted by the lure of commercial crime (in both book and television form), it could be an opportune time to the evaluate whether this late career shift in focus will have any impact on his legacy – and if that is the case, should anyone care.

But first, FIFA.

Marina Hyde, the exceptional Guardian columnist, wrote beguilingly last week on the story of Frédéric Auburtin, the French movie director behind the FIFA vanity movie United Passions, whose American cinematic release was perfectly, if surely coincidentally, timed to correspond with the fall-out from the FIFA arrests in Zurich and Sepp Blatter’s resignation. As Hyde wrote:

He would have liked things to have been different, “but I accept the job. I know Fifa is producing the film. As we say in France, don’t be more royalist than the king: don’t be the king if you are not the king.”

This is French for: listen, kid, we all gotta eat.

So to Banville.

Are his Quirke novels, where he writes as Benjamin Black, Banville’s way of saying, “Listen, kid, we all gotta eat”?

Speaking to Newstalk last week, in a promo interview to mark the publication of his seventh Black novel, Even The Dead, Banville admitted that he found the process of writing commercial crime fiction much more straightforward than the books which appear under his own name.

He said:

I love doing the Quirke books. I write them over the summer – the summer is the most boring season possible so I avoid it by writing a Quirke novel. Benjamin Black is a craftsman; he has no pretensions about doing anything other than a well-made piece of work. I make them as well as I can, and I’m quite proud of them.

[Banville and Black] are two completely different kinds of writers. I have a Banville book coming in September that took me three years to write, whereas it takes me three or four months to write a Benjamin Black book. I write very quickly and … spontaneously when I’m writing a Quirke book, but I write very slowly indeed, with very deep concentration, when I do a Banville book. When I’m doing a Banville book I’m writing it 24 hours a day. I’m writing it in my dreams as well as my waking hours, whereas a Benjamin Black book I do in office hours.

Putting your name to something is the ultimate seal of approval, so one has the right to ask whether a piece of work is devalued if its author opts instead for a pseudonym. (As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that the UK/Irish cover includes “John Banville writing as”, whereas in the American version Banville’s name is absent.)

Approaching it differently, though, it could easily be argued that the author’s name is a brand which itself suggests something about the book, and that a pseudonym was the only sensible route to take once Banville, with 14 literary novels behind him and a Booker Prize in the bag over 35 years, had decided to foray into crime-writing.

For instance, J.K. Rowling’s decision to secretly write crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, a ruse she maintained even after her cover was blown, was surely a valid one given that her name was associated with completely contrasting books; likewise, the late Scottish novelist Iain Banks wrote literary fiction under his own name while simultaneously forging a hugely successful science-fiction career as the subtly yet undeniably different Iain M. Banks.

So does the fact of the Benjamin Black novels, as well as Riviera, the TV crime series to come next year (on Sky Atlantic, presumably), diminish or enhance Banville’s oeuvre?

One answer is that it does diminish it: that the artist’s true path would be to write only as John Banville, and whether that brings plenty or penury does not matter, because considerations of money are irrelevant when it comes to art. But that is surely a simplistic answer.

Take, for example, the contrast between Charles Dickens and James Joyce: Dickens, who wrote prolifically and with a careful nose for commercial success, and Joyce, who died in poverty having, in the words of his wife Nora Barnacle, been possessed by a “necessity to write those books no one can understand”.

Is Dickens under-appreciated because of his modus operandi? Surely the opposite is the case, although it must be said that had he written his biggest blockbusters under a different name, then we might come to a different conclusion. Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote his entire career under Mark Twain, but as he rarely published under his own name, then the body of work remains a perfect whole.

Does the idea of legacy even matter, or is it something that should be kept to the dusty and easily judgmental academic halls of the future, far away from the reality of now, in the real world with its very real financial conundrums?

It should be abundantly apparent to all that the vast majority of writers must supplement their almost invariably meagre income from their books with other revenue – whether as university teachers, or writers in residence, or newspaper columnists or book reviewers or back cover blurb factories. (Or, in the case of former Children’s Book Ireland Book of the Year winner Celine Kiernan, as an apprentice butcher.)

Benjamin Black may well be Banville’s method of supplementing whatever income he receives from writing literary or artful books. While he has never suggested, to my knowledge at any rate, that he is doing it for the money, money must play a role.

And at the end of the day, we all gotta eat.


4 thoughts on “The question of John Banville’s legacy

  1. Even worse, mr. Banville abandoned most of his early novels. In various interviews he said he is no longer interested in his literary legacy, refusing to answer questions e.g. about his The Revolutions Trilogy.

  2. This is an interesting series of questions and I wonder if it isn’t that Mr Banville has the opportunity to exercise his creativity in a different way with his works of crime, as I think he himself said. So I personally don’t think it is predominantly for the money, but instead for the ease with which he can write a Benjamin Black novel, and that he enjoys writing crime fiction. I just think the man is do damn lucky to be able to do both and have such amazing talent.

  3. I saw John Banville at an event in Foyles earlier this year, where he talked briefly about his earlier work. He said something along the lines that it was all flawed and needed to be rewritten but there was no point in looking back; it was the future that mattered. I suspect he’s rather a perfectionist and feels that his older novels don’t live up to his high standards. Also, as someone who reads a lot of crime fiction, I wouldn’t describe Benjamin Black’s novels as strictly crime fiction; they’re far more high-brow and literary than the average novel in that genre.

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