‘The Genre World of Australian Crime Fiction’: Dr Beth Driscoll

On the 11th of October the Centre for the History of the Book was delighted to welcome Dr Beth Driscoll from Melbourne University to discuss her ongoing work with genre fictions. Driscoll helpfully delineated the definition of a genre world and how it was inspired by the art world model that Howard S. Becker devised in 1982. This model worked well for popular fiction genres and was adopted by scholars as an exciting new way to analyse and investigate these types of literature. Driscoll emphasised how the research into these genre worlds provides great insight into the cultural importance of the genres, and how they interact with the different layers of society.

The talk then focused in on Driscoll’s main topic: Australian crime fiction. This genre was able to develop uniquely in Australia because of its outsider position from Britain and the USA, publishing in particularly developed at a distance from the London and New York markets. This was followed up with some studies of successful writers who fit into certain trends of crime fiction. Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Phryne Fisher novels reflect the idea of ‘cosy crime’. They have a historical setting of the 1920s and have recently been turned into a TV series which has dramatically raised the profile of the novels.

Driscoll emphasised how the success of these novels has been driven by readers, with fans pushing for more novels, films and merchandise. Driscoll then spoke about several other authors and the different publishing routes they had chosen to explain how the publishing of crime fiction operates in Australia. Sulari Gentill was one example, she published with a small press, as did Gary Disher, whereas Michael Robotham published with one of the multinational companies. The crime genre world has been slow to embrace self-publishing however, with far fewer writers using this pathway.

The talk then explored diversity, or lack thereof, within both the publishing world and the crime genre itself. Driscoll highlighted the dominance in both areas of white, middle class males. This patriarchal model reflects the conservative history that both the genre and the publishing industry have. Yet there is some hope. Driscoll highlighted writers such as Gentill and Emma Viskic who were breaking out into the crime genre world. Gentill spoke to Driscoll about the challenges she faced as a minority ethnic writer; her publisher suggested she use a shortened version of her surname because it was too long to fit on the spine, and she was surprised at how the crime genre and its writers was less diverse than other genres. Viskic’s protagonist is a deaf detective, this is helping to forge the way for a more diverse range of characters represented in crime fiction but Viskic is, unfortunately, in the minority of crime writers.

This fed into a wider discussion about the crime community and the events it holds. Here too there is a form of gender segregation with specific female events and predominately male panellists at other major crime writing events. Driscoll and her colleagues’ research call attention to some intriguing findings around the world of Australian crime fiction. It would be interesting to see how these genre worlds function differently across the world and if they all experience the same influencing factors. The diversity within these worlds is an important issue and it is great to see writers finding ways to break down the dominant forms of representation.

Report by Eliza Cottington, current MSc student, Book History and Material Culture

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