Do you like backhanded compliments?
Do you like to make basic mistakes and misrepresentations of the entertainment industry?
Well, you’ll love this article by Nick Cohen.
The genius of bad books
By Nick Cohen
From James Bond to Jack Reacher, we’re suckers for an uncomplicated hero. But there is an art to the action novel, writes Nick Cohen
Anyone who believes the human race is rational should try introducing themselves to strangers as an author. You do not need to do it too many times before someone says, “I need to make money. I’m thinking of writing a bestseller.”
I may be early into my author career with only a handful of published short stories under my belt, but that does allow me to
brag complain mention that I’m an author. Clearly Nick finds himself in the company of very different people to myself. Sure, the average person has a lot of misconceptions about being an author, just as I’m sure I have misconceptions about what it means to be a politician – they kiss babies to find the tastiest ones for dinner, right?
They do not understand that they have more chance of winning the lottery. Countless millions have written novels no publisher will touch. Of the thousands of hopeful thrillers, rom-coms and sex-and-glamour blockbusters published each year, only a few will sell 50,000 or more. Fifty thousand is only the capacity of fair-sized football stadium, but it is a more than respectable sale for a book. At the top of the pyramid are the genuine blockbusters: the few books that fly off the stands. And if those odds aren’t daunting enough to the person in front of you, clutching a glass and expecting fame and money, you need to tell them best-selling authors must have talent too.
Replace author with literally any other career path. Of the millions of scientists hopeful of winning a Nobel Prize only a few will ever win one. Of the millions of junior footballers only a few will ever be paid to play before a packed crowd in a football stadium. And of course, no Nobel Prize winner, nor any footballer would ever be accused of having talent. I hope no-one paid money for this article to be written.
To the educated, the idea that the airport thrillers I find myself picking up despite my better instincts are written by talented authors is absurd. It is their clumsy writing and formulaic plots that make everyone believe they can knock one out. They are not GK Chesterton’s “good-bad books” – the Sherlock Holmes or Jeeves and Wooster stories, which are read and loved after works that are more serious are forgotten. No one reads Alistair MacLean, Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins today. The fate of the airport novel is to be everywhere and then nowhere. Their authors flare and then vanish. I know it, so why do I, like so many others, still put aside worthwhile books for trash? No book sells in millions by chance. Their authors have something that readers cannot find elsewhere, or at the very least struggle to find elsewhere.
I really do take issue with the term airport thrillers and its sister term airport novels. There is an inherent invective in these terms as they are almost always used as a pejorative. The implication is that no-one would read these novels if they weren’t going to be bored out of their minds, stuck at 9,150 metres in a metal tube for endless hours. Whilst the descriptor is widely used and conjures to mind the sort of titles you see in airport bookstores, it is another version of the worthiness argument. Another defence of Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.
To start with the assertion that these are Lesser Works and then further asserting the evidence is in the “clumsy writing and formulaic plots” is fallacious. At a glance you could mistake this for an evidenced argument, but we’re just told this is the case. What Nick is actually complaining about here is the popularity of novels that are primarily written to be entertaining. It’s like saying that all TV dramas are rubbish because they aren’t super serious documentaries about WW2. But those two genres are trying to achieve two very different things, so of course they will have differing approaches.
“You can be 50 pages into a Jack Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it”
Sorry, is this pull-out quote meant to be an insult or compliment? Is this meant to suggest Lee Child’s writing is similar between books, or that you’re so wrapped up in the opening pages you don’t realise you’ve already read it?
Every time I finish a Jack Reacher novel, I wonder why I have wasted my time. The Reacher stories are like pornography. They grip you while you read them then leave you with a feeling of futility and shame at the end. Lee Child is so determined to churn out a book a year he recycles his plots: a particular favourite is the villain who organises an apparently crazed serial killing so the police never guess that he was only in cold-blooded pursuit of one of the dead. So similar are his stories that you can be 50 pages into a Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it.
I hate to break it to Nick (not that he is likely to read this) but there are only a handful of plots. Six story arcs. Even if you don’t look at the story arc and just at the plot premise you still don’t get many. Lee Child has written twenty-two Jack Reacher novels (to-date) so of course they are going to feel the same – I’ve even said as much in my review of Make Me. What Nick is actually complaining about here is that Lee Child unashamedly writes commercial fiction with the intention of entertaining rather than having more literary pretensions. I mean, how dare he!
Yet Child has sold more than 100 million copies because he has a talent beyond the ability to construct a convincing plot and describe action – skills which on their own are far harder to learn than those who breezily think they can write a blockbuster imagine. His hero can beat anyone in a fistfight. He loves guns and knows how to use them. He is strong, largely silent, entirely self-sufficient, clever, honourable and always on the side of justice. He never suffers a moment of doubt about the righteousness of killing wrong-doers, and he never needs counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder when he has dispatched them. Such men have been heroes from Homer through the knights of Arthurian legend to the cowboys of Hollywood’s golden age. They are almost entirely absent from today’s fiction, because our age regards men of violence with understandable wariness. Although the modern world is preferable in every respect to societies that mythologise warriors, there remains a yearning for the old heroes, and not just among male readers. Jack Reacher is a modern Hercules or knight errant. Child has found that readers respond to stories of violence without guilt in a world without complexity as enthusiastically as their ancestors did.
Highlighted a WTF? moment. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen bestselling thriller authors with at least one vigilante hero series. To suggest the vigilante hero – which Nick rightly pointed out dates back to the Ancient Greek myths – is somehow absent from modern fiction suggests Nick is ignorant of the topic he is writing on.
This point is illustrative of a very basic flaw with this attack on “airport thrillers”. He hasn’t even stooped to familiarising himself with the topic. As such, his article is the opinion of the uninformed. Kinda like saying Terry Pratchett was a hack when you haven’t read any of his books – but nobody would ever do something that stupid in a major news publication…
A decade ago, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels sold almost as well as Child’s novels do now. They have equally far-fetched plots. The most telling and unconvincing is the willingness of beautiful women to sleep with the shabby middle-aged journalist hero, who, strangely enough, sounds rather like Larsson. Granted, they are more thoughtful than the Reacher novels, but I would be astonished if they survived.
It is greatly insulting to compare Larsson to Child. The latter is a writer with very few peers. The former proved that anyone could have a bestseller if Oprah recommended it. And this isn’t just an assertion on my part, Lee Child isn’t just one of the bigger bestselling authors. Child manages to retain more of his readers with each instalment of his Reacher series than his peers. Where a John Grisham or Stephen King are getting 40% of their audience to read their next instalment, Patricia Cornwall manages 50%, and Lee Child has the strongest brand with 70%. Or put another way, Lee Child’s readers really like his books, and Nick is bashing the wrong thriller author.
“Lisbeth Salander may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism”
This is a sentence only a white guy on the internet could write. I guess he’s never heard of the suffrage movement, or the electoral and social reform movements, and the reproductive rights movement. Referring to the fourth wave of feminism in this way is kinda cute. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if Nick actually researches any topics he deems to write about.
Yet, once again, beneath all the murders and conspiracies, Larsson had a kind of truth to tell, and news to bring. He understood how computers could be hacked to devastating effect long before Edward Snowden. Moreover, his heroine, Lisbeth Salander, who doesn’t “hate men, just men who hate women”, may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism.
The king of the airport bookstands at present is Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim. It is the best thriller I have read in years, in part because it deals with Islamist terrorism. Most film, television and literary thrillers avoid the subject for reasons that are honourable in their way. Writers do not want to stir anti-Muslim prejudice, or are appalled by the west’s wars after 9/11. They are also constrained, although they rarely admit it, by their ignorance of religious fanaticism. Hence, Jason Bourne fights his employers in the CIA and James Bond fights shadowy conspiracies of powerful westerners. The combined effect of these good motives is strange, however. Real spies worry about radical Islam more than any other threat. Fictional spies barely think about it. Hayes succeeds, not because he is a better writer than his contemporaries are, but because he addresses fears that his rivals, both highbrow and lowbrow, cannot bring themselves to face, and spends the time needed to research and create a plausible Islamist villain.
This is again a great example of Nick’s ignorance of the thriller genre. I’ve reviewed one thriller in the past year that used Islamic terrorists as the villains, and I haven’t even been focussed on thrillers. My reading has jumped over just about every genre. Nic can’t really be trying.
Also, not sure if he is aware, but the FBI is concerned about white supremacists (and other domestic terrorists) more than ISIS et al. The former chief of MI6 (actually called SIS, but let’s go with the name people know from the movies) called Trump the biggest threat, a view supported by the US intelligence community. I suppose you might say radical Islam ranks Top 5 if you just pretend religion drives terrorism like Nick does here, rather than it being more complicated than that… If it isn’t obvious, Islam is one of Nick’s trigger issues. He can’t help but throw a few stones at it every chance he gets. Pity he doesn’t seem to be informed on this topic either.
“The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself”
Yeah, it’s a zero-sum game. And I’m sure this sentence seemed really profound before it became a pull-out quote.
He believes in his story, in other words, as all successful authors must. You can hide in an article or a web posting of 1,000-words or so. Those who think they can write a bestseller do not understand that there is no hiding place in a novel of 100,000 words or more. The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself. If they don’t believe in their story, no one else will. If they are following formula, their insincerity will out.
What Nick is trying to articulate here is that it is harder to write a novel than an article or other short pieces. There is more to a novel, it has to be more substantial, and it has to engage the audience for much longer. He isn’t wrong here, just dancing around the point like Mick Jagger on LSD.
I accept that I risk sounding naively romantic about a publishing business without a shred of romance in it. So let me stress that I am not arguing that an author’s sincerity guarantees that a book will be good or even publishable.
Nor am I saying authors must sincerely believe their story is a realistic or even quarter-way realistic portrait of the world. The thrillers that sell in their millions are by any sensible standard ridiculous. The forces of law and order are either corrupt or asleep on the job. Western societies endure extraordinary levels of violence, and are threatened with worse, even though by historical standards they are more peaceful now than they have ever been.
So only very serious works are worthy? Because the attempted point appears to be that the premise of thrillers are unrealistic, which is somehow bad. I sure hope Nick doesn’t stray into the speculative fiction, romance, or political biography sections of the bookstore. Talk about unrealistic stuff!
You can claim that every device their authors use is false. Every device, that is, except one. They must believe in their books so that, if only for a moment, their readers can too. To put it another way, if you want to show a lone agent taking out a crime gang or saving America from a biological attack, you had better be able to convince yourself that he can.
Yeah, that’s not how it works, Nick. It’s called a plot contrivance and audience buy-in. You don’t have to convince people, they just have to accept it as plausible in the fictional work they are reading. This is Fiction 101 stuff. He must have slept through that class.
At some level, all popular writers share a similar delusion. Barbara Cartland believed that princes would come for virtuous girls who waited, and Ian Fleming thought that men could be James Bond. The best airport thriller writers are no less lost in make-believe.
Again, this isn’t about any delusion. This is about the craft of telling any fictional story, especially stories that are fantastical. Or put another way, the first authors to write about space travel were delusional by Nick’s estimation. But many of those authors were particularly prescient and even inspired rocket scientists to make space travel possible. Those authors never deluded themselves that space travel was possible at that time, but they were still able to convincingly tell a story that inspired it to become possible. And the moon still counts as space travel. Even though that isn’t anywhere near as cool as the ideas we have in fiction.
Rational people may want the advances, but cannot begin to imitate the immersion in fantasy. For that, perhaps, they should be grateful.
Nick Cohen is a journalist, author and political commentator. He is a columnist for the Observer, a blogger for the Spectator and TV critic for Standpoint magazine. His books include You Can’t Read This Book, What’s Left? and Pretty Straight Guys
Honestly, I could write a piece every week discussing one of these articles. They are written because people will read them. We love to pretend to be intellectual as we deride someone’s favourite movies, books, TV shows, art, etc. But where real critique and discourse would offer insight, and thus informed judgement, these articles never elevate themselves above unsupported assertions. They are merely attacks against the invading Lesser Works to keep Fort Literature safe.
The main problem with Nick’s brain droppings is that he is mistaking his subjective view for being objective. There is a level of snobbery to his derision of Lee Child (and other “airport novels”), something I’ve taken issue with previously. But it also displays the pseudo-intellectual nature of his arguments and his ignorance of the genre he is criticising.
We’re not just talking about Nick’s displays of ignorance about “airport thrillers” or the other highlighted inaccuracies. He is also blithely unaware of what makes art and how the aesthetics of art are appreciated. It could be argued, and has been, that art being enjoyed is subjective and multifaceted. But there is also an objective measure of art, part of the culturally shared aesthetic and the understanding of the art form. For example, we can recognise when a book has spelling and grammatical errors, we can spot confusing sentences and may have trouble interpreting what the author is trying to say. So there is an objective measure of art. But how do you compare a literary novel to a Jack Reacher thriller? You have to make subjective divisions and distinctions that is more about individual enjoyment or appreciation than it is about objective aesthetics.
In short: just because you like something doesn’t make it better than what someone else likes.
Further to that, Nick fails to set forth a proper argument with clear divisions and distinctions (probably due to ignorance on his part) with which to argue his central premise. “The genius of bad books…. there is an art to the action novel” remains largely unsupported because his points could apply to any novel in any genre. At no stage does he define what the art is to the action novel, and thus what sets it apart from whatever thing he thinks is superior art.