Sunday, 21 October 2012

Sansom over Mantel: genre fiction works

All the fuss over Hilary Mantel winning the Booker Prize for the second time for her second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Bringing Up The Bodies, stirred up a mild irritation that there’s been so much praise for a work that’s been second best in its class.

My overwhelming reaction to reading the first in the series, Wolf Hall, was to wonder what all the fuss had been about. It took a lot of pages to tell the story about how Cromwell became Henry VIII’s chief minister and helped him to dump his wife for Anne Boleyn, and although I was looking forward to the read I never really became engaged in the book. I found it slow, too wrapped up in its subtleties to sustain the narrative, and stopped caring about the characters and the outcome with a couple of hundred pages to go (although habit forced me to finish the book).

A while later I picked up Dissolution, the first of C J Sansom’s books about Matthew Shardlake, a fictional lawyer who’s drawn towards Henry VIII’s court by working for Cromwell. It deals with a lot of the same themes of Mantel’s books – the ambitions and intrigues of individuals around the king, the violent political dynamic of the Reformation, the tension between reason and faith in the minds of intelligent people of the time – but does it a lot better. Dissolution, and the four books that have followed in the series so far, convey all this through a rattling good story in which it is easy to become immersed. But the literary establishment and the media don’t make anything like the same fuss over Sansom.

I don’t want to dismiss Mantel on the strength of reading one book, but I’m sure that her reputation rests heavily on the fact that she writes in a way that impresses people who regard themselves as the guardians of literary merit. They like a book that takes an effort to understand and isn’t an obvious source of entertainment, because it assures them that they are cleverer than most readers, and they can write in The Guardian or speak on Radio 4 about how much they’ve been impressed.

By contrast, Sansom writes genre fiction. His books are often found on the crime fiction shelves, although they could just as easily be classed as political thrillers, and they use a murder to provide the springboard for a strong narrative. They hook the reader early with a story that makes it easy to read, and convey their observations on fear, faith and power without demanding a big effort.

There are other genre writers who have written great books that convey as much about human behaviour and societal tensions as any Booker winner. Ruth Rendell provides a shining example, especially in her guise as Barbara Vine. But they write genre fiction so they’re not taken as seriously by the people who hand out these big prizes.

I look forward to the day that C J Sansom wins the Booker Prize, but I suspect it will never come. 

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

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