Iain Banks has an unusually large fan-base. He is almost a household name, but his fans – unlike those of, say, Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie – are passionately devoted to his work in a manner associated more with pop stars or film directors. There are several reasons for this: in contrast to many literary authors, he is not dismissive of genre fiction (indeed, under the name Iain M Banks, he has written ten volumes of science fiction); with his love of whisky, music and fast cars, he seems an approachable figure, somehow closer to his readership than most writers; but most of all, he’s popular because his prose is so accessible, in the best sense of the word. You immediately know where you are with a Banks novel: he may make all kinds of demands as far as the structure of his fiction is concerned, but, taken sentence by sentence, he is unrivalled for clarity and pleasure. Unlike many novelists, he is both prolific and good value; there are almost no duds in his oeuvre.
In spite of this, Banks rarely gets the critical respect he deserves. He is often warmly reviewed, but his books are largely taken for granted. His 9/11 novel Dead Air was as interesting a novel as Ian McEwan’s Saturday, but received far less coverage. His new novel, The Steep Approach