…my great pal, Author, Tony McManus, delivers another outstanding contribution with this blog on Quality Writing and the not-so-brilliant stuff… enjoy…
AND MARKET FORCES
What is it that drives some novels to the top of the commercial sales charts while other books wallow in poor sales rankings? What makes a blockbuster? Good writing? Maybe not.
A short while back I published a blog, Bringing the Curtain Down, in which I speculated on when and why the author of a thriller series should call it a day and wrap it up. In the article, I mentioned that the writer, Lee Child, was about to publish his 22nd Jack Reacher novel, Midnight Line.Well that’s now history and #23, Past Tense,will be available in November 2018; great news for Lee Child, his publisher and for Jack Reacher fans the world over.
After I’d written the piece it occurred to me that I’d never read a Jack Reacher novel. And, as Lee Child is an apex novelist and his Jack Reacher Series a world block-busting top seller, I decided it was time to correct that anomaly and find out what all the fuss was about. I’d join the crowd and read me some Jack Reacher.
I headed into downtown Chiang Mai, to The Lost Book Shop, my favorite bookstore, and picked up five Jack Reacher paperbacks: Killing Floor, The Hard Way, One Shot, Bad Luck And Trouble and Make Me. Second hand, they were cheap but in good condition. Back home, I got into them.
I began with Killing Floor, the first in the series. And I have to say I enjoyed it and can see why it was a hit. Written in the 1st person, the story-line was sound, tense and exciting. But, like many of today’s novels, I found it inflated and overweight. My edition weighed in at 525 pages. I believe that good comprehensive editing would have cut it down to 350 or even less and delivered a tighter, more dynamic book.
Next up was The Hard Way followed by Bad Luck And Trouble. Both were disappointing. Written in the 3rd person, I found the narrative poor, staccato, heavily padded and packed with redundant sentences, many sentences lacking verbs and way too much description of people and places. And for me the abundance of one-word sentences and even one-word paragraphs is painful. I then read Make Meand had started reading Kill Shotwhen I picked up a copy of Personalwhich, like Killing Floor, is written in the 1st person. I enjoyed it. I never went back to Kill Shot.
Giving it thought, it’s as if the series is written by two different writers, and in a way it’s true. In the 3rd person novels, Lee Child tells the tale. In the 1st person stories, there are six, Child hands the pen to Jack Reacher. And Reacher delivers the better book.
Writing in the first person allows a writer a free hand, a chance to break loose from many grammar and syntax constraints and speak just as he feels through the medium of his narrator as Mark Twain did with Huckleberry Finn.The language can be crude or elegant. The narrator may be a gentle Dr. Jekyll or a brutal serial killing Mr. Hyde. The character of the protagonist is revealed through the narrative tone and the language. And, naturally, Jack Reacher, the loner, the rugged individualistic drifter, couldn’t care less about the niceties of English grammar and good prose as he tells his tale. Right?
This freedom, I feel, is one reason many writers choose to write in the 1st person. The 3rd person narrative is a far different and more difficult arena governed by law and order and rules to which the omniscient narrator should adhere. Some writers can switch and write well in both. Child isn’t one of them. Lee Child is a free-wheeling writer who has rejected the discipline of grammatical rules and guidelines. I believe he should have stayed in the 1st person for the entire series. And that way he could have blamed Jack Reacher for any anomalies.
The old advice “show, don’t tell” is sound advice in my view. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”(Chekhov). It was at the core of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory of omission.’ I believe it also reveals a writer’s respect for his reader. Of course, a good writer utilizes both; he shows and also tells. Lee Child prefers to tell not show. And it shows.
The lack of editing in Lee Child’s novels is chronic. One comes across many unedited self-published books on Amazon, where lots of publications are not even self-edited. But Lee Child’s novels come from a publishing house. So why didn’t his publishers set their editors to work and rein him in? It could be that now he’s so established, they leave him be. I sense that the editors only check for minor things such as typos and spelling errors, with more serious violations off limits. Child once commented that his editors are, “. . .afraid to piss me off.”Really?
Lee Child seems to be a great guy. He’s had setbacks in life and overcame them. I admire that, and his consequent success has to be applauded. I feel sure I’d enjoy a good chat and a few beers with him. In interviews, he’s open and honest. He’s said he’s not out to seek prizes; his aim is to deliver entertainment. And his books sell like freshly baked bread in a famine. But how come? What gives?
A long time ago, ‘back in the day’, I had a sweet Toronto girlfriend. Clare was well read. She loved good books, and her bookshelf revealed a catholic taste in its mix of classics and contemporary writers. She’d read George Eliot’s Middlemarchin college and wrote an essay on it. She admired a host of fine writers. But she loved Harold Robbins.
Robbins was, and remains, one of the best-selling writers of all time, he penned over 25 best-sellers, selling over 750 million copies worldwide in 32 languages.
Under pressure from Clare and to please her, I got into him starting with The Carpetbaggers. I moved on to A Stone for Danny Fisher and on and on. I didn’t read the whole Robbins corpus but more than a few. And yes I enjoyed them though I didn’t rate him too highly as a writer. Like Lee Child, Robbins wrote as he liked. It seemed he’d never heard of the ‘point of view’ rule, so quite often you didn’t know which character was thinking what.
One day, Clare was lying back on her couch flipping the pages of Robbins’ latest, The Adventurers. I teased her. I told her I thought Robbins wasn’t much of writer; a crappy one, really. I expanded on that and she agreed. “You’re right, Tony,” she said, laughing.
“You agree?” I said, surprised.
“Yes,” she nodded. “I agree.”
“Yet you read him?”
“Yes,” She smiled. “It’s crazy I know. I can’t explain it, but I just can’t put him down.”
Rick Gekowski is a writer, broadcaster, rare book dealer and former Senior Lecturer in English at Warwick University. In 2011 he held the Chair of Judges for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. The Guardian newspaper once stated that“Gekowski likes to be around a better class of book than the rest of us.”Impressive, right?
Yet, in an article published in The Guardian, Gekowski came out of the closet and confessed to being a Jack Reacher junkie who can’t wait to get his hands on the latest Lee Child novel and devour it. It’s a bit like discovering that a world-renowned cordon bleuchef sneaks out in disguise to a motorway transport café to nosh down on greasy burgers and fries loaded with red sauce.
In his article, Gekowski admits that, “. . . no one, I imagine, values Child for the quality of his prose. One can hardly find, in the entire corpus of the work, a single sentence worthy of independent admiration.”Yet, like Clare with Robbins, he can’t put him down. I guess some ‘smart readers’ need the occasional literary junk food fix.
In my view, as a writer, Child is bloody awful, his prose poor, overwritten and uninspiring. In comparison with Lee Child, Harold Robbins was a disciplined literary genius. The Jack Reacher series is bad writing in essence. An English teacher might well use it in class to demonstrate how NOT to write. But does it ever sell. Over 70 million worldwide at this time. Plus all those Amazon downloads. Wow. But how? It beats the hell out of me.
Here’s a question I ask myself. Would the Jack Reacher Series be the success it is if it were well-written and thoroughly edited? And the answer? Probably not.
Quite obviously there exists a vast market out there for this stuff, and Lee Child is delivering what it wants and getting rich in the process. It seems these readers not only don’t care, it appears they even love this literary dross. For me, it’s another sad reflection on the dumbing-down of Western civilization.
Writing was the first to fall. Think of those university graduates who can’t compose a simple job application letter and need to hire professionals to do it. Now, it seems the ability to read-well is withering away.
So there it is. Bad writing sells; big time. But I don’t advise going there. It’s a swamp. A quagmire. Lee Child was and is lucky; chances are you won’t be. Keep your feet on solid ground and stick with good writing? It also sells though not in such a frenzy as the Jack Reacher stuff. But don’t lose heart. Respect the English language. It’s a great, rugged and virile language with a body of literature behind it that has no equal. Use it well and write your best. And make every word count.
Jack Reacher is becoming a small industry. There’s now a Jack Reacher online game. And Jack Reacher Custom Coffee is available: ‘Robust. Full Bodied. Battle Tested’ plus a matching coffee mug.
Tony McManus resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
He can be found at:
or via his email: firstname.lastname@example.org
He has recently published a thriller: The Sum of Things, Book #1in the James Fallon Series. https://amzn.to/2u0EFwj
He is also the author of the novel: The Iran Deception. http://amzn.to/1Ppb45P
And a short story compilation: Down and Out in the Big Mango.http://amzn.to/1FetYVl
He is presently writing Book #2 in the James Fallon Series and working on a crime novel: Bangkok Retribution,the first book in a new series featuring sleuth Mike Villiers.
…thanks for this, Tony… see yeez later … LUV YEEZ!…
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