Monday, 25 January 2016

In praise of crime fiction

Crime fiction is one of the most popular genres around.  It enjoys wide and diverse readerships.  At the same time, there remains in the academy a certain propensity for snobbery when it comes to crime fiction.  It is high time these views were challenged, not least from inside academia itself - by the people who teach the very valuable modules on genre fiction, whether it is how to study crime texts as texts, or or how to write crime fiction.


A recent news story from a Canadian university has done just that. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, when I came across a recent article in The Gauntlet, the University of Calgary's student newspaper.  The article is called "Popularity of Detective Fiction Course No Mystery".  It investigates the popularity of a crime fiction module taught at the university by Professor McGillivray.  In the article, author Jill Girgulis interviews Professor McGilliwray, asking him about his experience of teaching the module and his academic background.  

On being asked why he is teaching this detective fiction module, the reported explains that McGillivray, a Professor of Medieval Studies, noted that: "he always enjoyed detective fiction, though he was unable to pursue a PhD in the genre." He further explained how a doctorate on crime fiction “would have been frowned upon during that period [...] Popular genres were just not given serious study."


It is sad to think that genre fiction used to be looked down on in this way.  In fact, it is vital that we recognise the important contribution that genre fiction makes to our literary culture, and that we acknowledge the complex themes and questions treated in crime fiction and other genre writing, such as dystopian fiction, children's literature, historical fiction, travel writing, and so on. Genre writing employs literary strategies and tackles important issues which their respective formats allow them to convey in a unique way - questions which may otherwise not have been raised and which may have remained silenced otherwise.

It is, however, great news that Professor  McGilliwray is now teaching this popular module. Reflecting on his experience, I teach a crime fiction module myself, which I devised from scratch some 8 years ago.  During that period, the module has undergone many changes and updates, and has proved consistently popular with students.  A number of students have also gone on to write their undergraduate dissertations on crime fiction.  I am immensely grateful to all my present and past crime fiction students for the privilege of teaching and supervising them.  


(Photo is of my article on the Scottish crime short story in the journal Short Fiction in Theory & Practice  (2013)

The more I learn about the crime genre, through my research and publications, the more I have to share with students in class.  For a couple of years running, I have taught the Scottish crime short story in one of the sessions on my crime fiction module.  I have utilised selected stories from the collection Crimespotting: An Edinburgh Crime Collection.  The study of these texts has been supported by my article (pictured above), and research on the crime short story.  These contemporary and diverse texts provide the perfect literary setting for us to study questions of national identity and uses of genre in crime fiction.  These are certainly matters for "serious study" (to use Professor McGilliwray's poignant phrase).

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