Let’s bash the ‘airport’ novel

Sir Ken Robinson - Do schools kill creativity?

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.

headscratch

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 become 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 piece. 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
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
@NickCohen4

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.

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Book review: The Devil’s Country by Harry Hunsicker

The Devil's CountryThe Devil’s Country by Harry Hunsicker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Has there ever been a religious cult started for something other than allowing the leaders to have sex with the congregation?

Arlo Baines is wandering the state of Texas in an effort to forget the murder of his family. The former Texas Ranger sees a couple of guys up to no good, and starts making trouble in the neighbourhood. He gets in one little fight and has the local sheriff and a religious cult wanting to see him leave (for Bel Air).

It was refreshing to dive into a different take on the itinerant vigilante genre. Obviously there are similarities between any of the novels in this genre, the most prominent being Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series (of which I’m a fan). But Harry Hunsicker has brought a more haunted and reluctant hero to the page, one who feels a little more vulnerable, but no less unstoppable.

This is a fast-moving novel which hits all the right beats. While it doesn’t stray from the itinerant vigilante genre path, nor offer up any surprising twists, The Devil’s Country was an enjoyable read. Recommended for any fans of Lee Child, Matt Hilton, Zoe Sharp, et al.

NB: I received an advance review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

View all my reviews

Book review: Make Me by Lee Child

Make Me (Jack Reacher, #20)Make Me by Lee Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Does Reacher leave enough people alive to have criminals warning one another on the Deep Web about not messing with him?

Jack Reacher decided to catch a train to a small town for a change and by walking around as per usual he managed to piss off the local criminals. This will end well for the criminals.

Lee Child is a master of not wasting words. If there is exposition then it is important to the plot. Make Me is no exception. The twist for this thriller is revealed in little details throughout the story. It comes through as no less shocking.

While I have grown a little tired of the formula for the Reacher novels, they still remain entertaining reads.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Personal by Lee Child

Personal (Jack Reacher, #19)Personal by Lee Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack Reacher fought a little person in 61 Hours, so definitely time he fought a giant in Personal. Oh, and some other stuff happens… like beating up a giant!

Lee Child’s continued adventures of Sherlock Homeless – Jack Reacher – have reached (boom tish) their nineteenth installment. Reacher is manipulated into searching for a former army sniper he had put away 16 years ago, a sniper who has taken a shot at the French President and is threatening to shoot some other world leaders at the G8 summit. This is the first Reacher novel that isn’t set in the US, seeing him travel to Paris and London, for his manhunt. Of course, it is never as simple as a manhunt, especially when the sniper bears a 16 year old grudge.

What I love about picking up a Lee Child novel is starting the novel and finding I’m already 50 pages into the action before I realise it. Lee effortlessly steers you through the story and keeps you entertained. He makes you appreciate just how good an author he is compared to his contemporaries. It was also refreshing to have Reacher leave behind his small town problem solving in favour of an international, high stakes, manhunt. Not that this stops Reacher beating up people and solving problems: wouldn’t be a Reacher novel without that.

Hard to find fault with the latest Reacher adventure. The only criticism would be that it feels like a “standard” Reacher adventure, despite the break in location tradition. My own observation is that since 61 Hours Lee’s writing has become taut and that he skilfully plays with the reader, making him my favourite author.

View all my reviews

Misleading packaging: why reviews matter

FarCry

There is nothing worse than picking up a book, movie, whatever, expecting to be entertained based on the cover. The above example is the movie Far Cry, starring Til Schweiger, in what looks like a cool action flick. The description even makes you look past the fact that this is a video game adaptation, promising a slick action-eer:

An ex-special forces soldier turned boatman is hired by a journalist to investigate a top-secret military base on a nearby island.

The problem with this packaging is that this is a film by Uwe Boll. Til Schweiger is a fantastic actor and a major box office draw card, especially in his home country of Germany. He was also the driver behind one of my favourite films of all time, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Yet not even Til can save us from the worst director of all time.

One of the things that amazes me about Uwe Boll is not so much the fact that he is still making films (petition to stop him making films) but the fact that he is able to attract the money and star power to his movies. You would think that actors would be keen to avoid working with Uwe so that they don’t sign a career death note. But Til, Ron Perlman, Burt Reynolds, Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Eric Roberts, Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff, Claire Forlani, Leelee Sobieski, John ‘Gimli’ Rys-Davies, and Ben Kingsley (although, Kingsley may be an Oscar winner, but he has appeared in some truly awful films), have all lined up to appear in a Uwe Boll production. Why!?! Rys-Davis has implied that the money is good and Uwe is easy to work for. No mention of exactly how good Uwe is to work with; I’m going to assume running hot and cold hookers and blow.

This speaks to the underlying problem with picking good entertainment. We can be easily mislead with a cool blurb, impressive trailer, a spot at the front of the store, a stand that tackles you to the ground and forces you to buy the movie/book. It is why movie stars are paid big money, because they have a brand that audiences recognise, and that can guarantee box office sales. In publishing you have name brand authors like James Patterson occupying the front of the store because they are reliable bestsellers. And Lee Child was recently shown to have the strongest brand in publishing, with fans following him from book to book more than any other author, because of his reliably entertaining books. Uwe Boll is the opposite of this brand of success and reliability.

Essentially media consumers like us are less likely to try a new author, or watch a film by a new director, or one that stars actors we haven’t heard of, because of the Uwe Boll’s of this world. We want our entertainment to be entertaining – I know, not much to ask really – and we hate being mislead by slick tricks. We see a cool poster or cover, we see a big name actor attached, or read a cool blurb, only to be sorely disappointed. So instead of trying something new, we stick with what we know and trust.

I guess that is why I promote books I’ve read and liked on this site. That is why we need people to review books, movies, TV shows and music. That is why we need to find people with similar tastes to make recommendations to us. If we can’t stop Uwe Boll making films, at least we can tell people about the films that are worth watching.

Tyson Adams’ 2013 Book Awards: The Awesomes

This is the third year of The Awesomes™, the award I give to books that had me staying up late to finish them, the books that had me rapt until the end, and sometimes past the end. I’ve read a few books this year (+70) so here are my favourites of 2013 and this year’s Awesome™.

As you will have noticed, my reviews of books are more about my impressions of the book and talking about how much I liked the book, rather than a recap of the plot, etc. My reasoning behind this is simple, I want to say “read this book” to people rather than fall into my bad habit of spoiling the ending, or being a bitch about books I didn’t enjoy. My list is based upon what I have read this year, so obviously some great books have missed out due to lack of reading hours in the year (blame the rugrat). Also my read list does include some books that were published prior to 2013. There were also some categories that were sadly under-represented, whilst others had some very intense competition. Also, the fact that I finished a book shows that it was worth reading. I have my reading rules that stop me wasting valuable reading time on books I’m not enjoying. This means that any books on my read list are entertaining (well, unless I was particularly disgusted with the crappiness of the book in question).

Awesome™ of 2013
Luther: The Calling – Neil Cross
Killer Instinct – Zoe Sharp
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Never Go Back – Lee Child
Without Fail – Lee Child
Altar of Eden – James Rollins
The Secret of Excalibur – Andy McDermott

Zero at the Bone – David Whish-Wilson

Awesome Literary Fiction
There were no nominees in this category this year. Better luck next year.

Awesome Mystery & Thriller
Killer Instinct – Zoe Sharp
Without Fail – Lee Child
Altar of Eden – James Rollins
The Secret of Excalibur – Andy McDermott

Never Go Back – Lee Child

Awesome Crime
Luther: The Calling – Neil Cross
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Zero at the Bone – David Whish-Wilson

Awesome Fantasy
There were no nominees in this category this year. Better luck next year.

Awesome Paranormal Fantasy
There were no nominees in this category this year. Better luck next year.

Awesome Science Fiction
There were no nominees in this category this year. Better luck next year.

Awesome Horror

The Strain trilogy – Guillmero Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

NB: cheating here as it was only 4 stars, but deserves the nod as the TV series is now in development and looks like they might have a winner.

Awesome Romance
There were no nominees in this category this year. Better luck next year.

Awesome Humor
There were no nominees in this category this year. Better luck next year.

Awesome Nonfiction

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

Awesome Graphic Novels & Comics
Midnighter – Garth Ennis
Batman: The Black Mirror – Scott Snyder

Luthur Strode – Justin Jordan

Awesome Indie
No 5 star indies this year, although several 4 star and a few non-mentionables.

Awesome Poetry
There were no nominees in this category this year. Better luck next year.

Awesome Shorts/E-zines
I’m putting this category in just so that I can pimp:

Thrills, Kills and Chaos

Still Awesomes
I re-read – well in some cases I listened to the audiobook – several books this year. They deserve a mention for still being awesome. Sometimes books are better on their second outing, sometimes they are worse, sometimes you wonder why you didn’t throw the book out the first time (I’m looking at you Holden Caulfield).

Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams (better than I remember)
Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul – Douglas Adams (similar to how I remember)
Life, the Universe, and Everything – Douglas Adams (similar)
Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk (slightly better)
Game Keeper – Guy Ritchie and Andy Diggle (better)

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners. I hope that I have a chance to read more fantastic books from these authors again in 2014 and that everyone else does too.

Mini-me Jack Reacher sequel announced

According to a reliable source – well, a book blog for a bookstore I like – there is a sequel in the works for Jack Reacher.

That’s right, Tom Cruise will be reprising his role as Jack Reacher. It is unclear whether he’ll wear stilts in this adaptation of Never Go Back, the most recent Reacher adventure. For a reminder of the first Reacher film:


It seems odd to me for Cruise et al. to leap so far forward in the series, the previous movie being based upon the Lee Child novel One Shot. I’d have said there are some fantastic novels in between that would make fantastic movies, even with a half-sized Reacher.

The first movie was kinda average. The story was faithfully adapted, with the changes making sense, Cruise brought his star power, but I don’t have any kind words for his co-stars, who were generally flat and lifeless. So the “sequel” really needs to be better cast….. Maybe fill the cast with good child actors to get the star’s proportions right.

Either way, I’ll watch it.