Judge and Genre: A Profile of Scott Turow

Kevin Nance

Maybe so, but achieving acceptance by the literary crowd won’t be easy. For a century, a great wall has cordoned off the landscape of contemporary English-language fiction into two distinct countries. On one side of the wall is the rarefied province of literature, distinguished by artful prose, richly drawn characters, thematic complexity, psychological and emotional depth, and, often, an essential indifference to plot. On the other side is the action-packed domain of popular fiction, where literary values are trumped by high drama, fast pacing and, above all, page-turning narrative momentum. In one, character is everything and story almost nothing; in the other, that order of priorities is reversed.

Tall, thick, and guarded by sharpshooting sentries, the wall between these two countries has been largely impregnable. But like all such aging structures, it has crumbled in places, offering footholds to a nervy few who’ve scaled it and run along its ramparts, shaking their fists and dangling their legs on either side. Over the years, the ranks of this insurgency have included Dreiser, John P. Marquand, John O’Hara, Graham Greene, John Steinbeck, Tom Wolfe, John Irving, and Richard Price, as well as select outliers who parachute in from the distant continents of genre fiction: John le Carré (spy novels), P. D. James (murder mysteries) and, most recently and controversially, Stephen King (horror).

It’s the outliers who encounter the greatest resistance. “John le Carré gets almost no credit for how inventive a writer he’s been,” Turow says. “I love le Carré, I love P. D. James, and I love the way Steve King is coming to be seen as a serious writer today—not that he’s done a damn thing differently, but the appreciation for him is growing.” Still, for every critic prepared to let Turow out of the penitentiary of genre—such as Wendy Lesser, the Threepenny Review editor who, reviewing Reversible Errors in the New York Times, urged readers to “dispense with the unnecessary modifiers and just call Scott Turow a novelist”—there are several others who insist on sending him back to the slammer. “Personal Injuries not only evinces little of the insider’s knowledge of legal tactics and courtroom theatrics that imparted such authenticity to his earlier books,” the Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, “but it also lacks a fundamental sense of suspense.” (Time magazine disagreed, naming it the best work of fiction of 1999.)

“In terms of his reputation, Scott may have been penalized by his commercial success,” says his friend Jeffrey Toobin, a CNN legal analyst and staff writer for the New Yorker. “He’s an extraordinarily fine writer, and that description doesn’t apply to many people who sell like Scott does. I can’t say I feel sorry for him. But to be accurate and fair, you have to recognize that Scott is as skilled as any highbrow writer. With Kindle County, he’s created a world that’s every bit as real and involving as John Updike’s in the Rabbit novels.”

Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic of the Washington Post, agrees. “The worst sin a writer can commit in the eyes of the American literary community—which is extraordinarily snobbish, narcissistic, and out of touch—is to be popular and successful,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve become predisposed toward writers like Scott Turow, whose ability to understand the way we work, the way we lead our quotidian lives, is much stronger than that of writers who are venerated in the schools of creative writing. Turow is probably the best of all these writers, in that he combines the necessary ingredients of popular fiction with a very high degree of writing skill and serious themes. He occupies a territory that manages to have legs in both camps, which is an achievement that should be taken very seriously.”

Another literary pastime is to denigrate novels like Turow’s by dismissing them as entertainment. But what does it say about those who imply that to be entertaining is to fail? “I frequently say in my reviews that such-and-such is a very entertaining book and I can pay it no higher compliment,” Yardley says. “There are levels of entertainment, obviously; I find Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa to be immensely entertaining writers, but one is entertained in a different way by them than one is entertained by John Grisham. Still, art and entertainment—I’m reluctant to draw a line between the two, because the best works of fiction entertain as well as uplift or illuminate the human condition.”

Besides, he says, it’s not only snobbery that keeps some people from acknowledging the value of books like Turow’s. “When you have writers who are looking to sell ten thousand copies looking at writers who sell hundreds of thousands of copies, it’s not just literary condescension at work,” Yardley says. “It’s envy.”