Assessing the Legacy of Iain Banks
After his tragic death at the age of 59 from gall bladder cancer, tributes have poured in for Iain Banks. This is what happens when a British writer dies (I know he was Scots Nationalist, but until the state decides otherwise he was technically British). It’s amazing how few innovative writers are appreciated in their own time.
This is partly because authors who connect with audiences in a simple appealing manner make better interviewees. They toe the line and play the press game. When JG Ballard was interviewed, he took a journalist to a faceless business hotel near Heathrow to make a point about his writing. Kindly and forgiving, Ballard seemed the ultimate suburban man, but couldn’t give a non-subversive interview to save his life.
Banks was that rare beast, a writer who connected passionately and clearly with readers while exploring subversive ideas. From ‘The Wasp Factory’, a book my own former agent branded ‘immoral’, to his latest, ‘The Quarry’, about dying, and novels like ‘The Business’, he was not only able to jump around in terms of subject and style but also write a stream of hard SF books that hooked a fanatical genre readership.
How did he manage to keep readers through this schizoid career? It was partly thanks to the sheer readability of his work, and partly through brilliant marketing on behalf of his publishers, who divided out the two strands with separate imagery, so readers would know what they were buying. (This is something that cannot be underestimated – most writers get stuck with lousy covers that prevent pickupabiity or instant recognition. I’ve had books change covers in mid-publication).
Banks also established his free-range approach to writing from the start. His first novel famously had an unreliable narrator and undermined the traditional approach to storytelling. It was astoundingly dark and funny. But then he followed it with ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Walking On Glass’, one told in a dream-state, the other comprising three seemingly unconnected stories. Readers quickly learned that one thing to expect from his output was the unexpected.
I met him several times for a drink in my local pub, and was amazed at his breadth of knowledge – but also his total geekiness. He had a scientist’s eye for dissecting events – but was also the best pub companion imaginable, thanks to a cruel wit that could shock without offending. He was an evangelical atheist who regarded death without terror or unnecessary mystique.
As a writer’s career continues and the press realises they’re not going to go away, reviews lessen as new stars are sought. But Banks continued to give extremely topical subjects a fantastical twist. ‘Dead Air’ is about 9/11, but it also has less time-specific concerns. His mainstream novels became more personal, but some continued to be about huge secret organisations, which means that his topicality remains right into today’s NSA-investigating headlines.
And that’s what will keep him on library shelves. Not everything on the page is readily decipherable, and his books can be returned to at a later point.
Perhaps, for the reading public, the best is yet to come.