Reading Double, Writing Double: The Fiction of Iain (M.) Banks
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Of the major sources used for this thesis, Banks occurs more frequently in academic texts focusing on the Gothic or Scottish literature and culture, suggesting either academic pigeonholing at work or that he is simply vastly underestimated in the formation of the contemporary canon. Critics such as Jago Morrison (Contemporary Fiction), Phillip Tew (The Contemporary British Novel) and Rod Mengham (An Introduction to Contemporary Fiction) all fail to mention Banks' debut or the longevity of his career and he only receives scant attention in Tew's Second Edition to The Contemporary British Novel because of Dead Air and the inclusion of a problematic section concerning the 9/11 novel and 'the traumatological'. By contrast, critics such as Tim Middleton, Cairns Craig, Duncan Petrie, Gavin Wallace, David Punter and Victor Sage acknowledge key texts within Banks' oeuvre as contributing to their respective genres and national traditions. In conversation with Will Self, J. G. Ballard commented that 'a lot of British fiction is too rooted. The writers are too comfortable'26 and this is another reason why, of the McEwan, Amis and Banks trio, only Iain Banks can be considered to have remained true to his original cultish status, despite achieving stellar sales figures.
Banks' assessment of his role as a writer differs from his approach to the practice of contemporary fiction. In his playful lambasting of reviewers and the critical reception of his novels, Banks claims that his commercial success must mean his books are substandard—yet there is an overt and self-conscious craft about the complexities of his work which acts in opposition to this assumed lack of quality. The distinction is reinforced by his ability to maintain a narrative pace with this sophistication in his writing, sustaining the readers' interest but also challenging and unsettling their expectations.
By contrast with the literary pretensions of his contemporaries, Banks is shamelessly forthcoming about his reputation as a devil-may-care writer whose attitude to the practice and craft of writing is both erratic and cavalier, but despite his phenomenal success, Banks maintains a self-deprecating view of the importance of his own literary output. Following the publication of Dead Air in 2002, Banks revealed that 'I assumed that if you were a good writer then you didn't sell very well, and if you were a rubbish writer you sold bucketloads—so I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm a rubbish writer.'27 Far from reinforcing the serious image of the author as an austere, intellectual artist whose oeuvre embodies their philosophies, values and imaginations, Banks deliberately problematises the question of his role as a writer, as demonstrated when he was interviewed about the events of September 11th 2001:
In an earlier interview with The Guardian, Banks was asked about his views on the subject of contemporary fiction and responded accordingly:
These are the opinions of a writer who is unquestionably a wonderful raconteur, who lets his imagination run wild but who still appears to retain a predominantly traditional attitude to the conventions of the novel. His dismissal of 'post-modern shite' is a contradiction, though, given his use of metafictional devices and the frequent multiple narratives which vie for dominance in his novels. Such inconsistencies stimulate significant interest in Banks' work and also reinforce the importance of examining his destabilising narrative conventions and propensity for mixing the literary and the popular.
Martyn Colebrook Mr Colebrook is a doctoral candidate at the University of Hull, in the English Literature department. Martyn.Colebrook[@]english.hull.ac.uk
26 Will Self, Junk Mail (Penguin Books Ltd, 2004) p. 29.
27 Libby Brooks, "The Word Factory", in The Guardian: Books, 26 August, 2002, p. 5.
28 Ibid, p. 4
29 Colin Hughes, "Doing the Business," in The Guardian, 7 August, 1999, p. S6.