BLOG: The Only Game In Town

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The Only Game In Town

Adrian McKinty recently asked “Why are most crime novels bad?” and came to the conclusion that they were mostly long-running series that have run out of steam. Personally I think he has a point – the truly successful and consistent long-running series is a rare beast indeed. Of course McKinty wasn’t necessarily talking about the long-running series that crime fans hold dear – the Dortmunders, the Parkers, the Scudders and the Hap and Leonards. Those series haven’t troubled the bestseller lists in years. No, you take a peek at the NYT fifteen, and you’re talking about the ongoing Author Industries of Patterson, Clancy and Evanovich. But none of those authors could be considered crime writers. Indeed, there isn’t one of them who could lay a straight-faced claim to writing their own books anymore, satisfied instead in the role of “idea originator”.

Most popular crime novels are bad not because they’re part of a series, but because they’re not crime novels. For the last fifteen years or so – I take 1997 as an off-the-cuff starting point, seeing as that was the year of both Patterson’s Kiss The Girls and Child’s Killing Floor – the crime novel has been assimilated into the thriller, and the thriller has gone from the pared-down wit and excitement of Ambler and Thomas and become the simpleminded macho nonsense of, well, Patterson and Child. There are notable exceptions, of course – McKinty is a fine thriller writer, and you’d be nuts to miss anything to come out of Duane Swierczynski’s brain – but they are just that, exceptions, and haven’t broken in a big enough way to inspire the glut of knock-offs. And so we have an abundance of overwritten, bloated novels featuring a blank-slate avatar instead of a human protagonist and a plot that reads like a series of incidents rather than a cohesive narrative.

And yet, these books have a considerable audience. Next time you’re of a mind, check out the NYT combined bestseller list for Fiction. I guarantee out of the 15 books there, at least half of them will be the usual thriller names – Patterson, Clancy, Larsson – with perhaps a Connelly or an Evanovich thrown in amongst the original novels of movie hits and the odd anomaly. And these novels have a considerable audience because they aspire to nothing more than a way to fill the time. A lot of them are the overwritten, bloated novels I mentioned before, but where these traits might be anathema to the discerning reader, they’re a bonus to everyone else. Overwritten means that plot points are hammered home through repetition in both action and dialogue (the old show and tell), and so reader who aren’t willing (or perhaps able, thanks to the demands of Real Life) to concentrate on a book for any length of time can still follow the story. As for bloated, well, there’s a reason why publishers go to great lengths to bump up that page count – more pages equals more book, which somehow equates in the consumer’s mind with value for money.

You may argue that these novels are badly written, and you’d be absolutely correct. But your bestseller reader doesn’t give a crowning shit about the quality of writing as long as it’s legible and they can follow the story. Truly great writing is more of an aesthetic bonus than a narrative one, and bestsellers don’t concern themselves with aesthetics – they are, like their Hollywood cousins, concerned only with delivering a non-threatening narrative in easily digestible chunks. And to a reader who reads solely for entertainment, who’s perfectly happy buying what he’s been told to buy and who likes the warm, fuzzing feeling of camaraderie he gets by reading what everyone else is reading, that’s absolutely fine.

We don’t like to think like that, though. As genre aficionados, we like to champion novels that we feel represent the genre at its best and most innovative. And so it’s easy to forget that a vast majority of readers couldn’t give a flying fuck at a rolling Polo mint about the genre, about its history or its future, and will continue to enjoy the “same, but different” novels they always have. And so most popular crime novels are bad because their authors and publishers are geared towards bestsellerdom and therefore mimic the authors who can pull that off. And so those returns, my friends, they diminish until that particular genre implodes and something else – children’s novels featuring plucky boy wizards, sexual abstinence in the face of sparkly vampires, and sub-standard takes on Battle Royale, for example – becomes huge.

And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s been this way since forever, and it shows no sign of stopping now that digital publishing has “democratised” the process – compare the number of self-pubbers producing work of quality to those who have used the platform to launch their own (sometimes extremely successful) knock-offs of Clancy, Cornwell, Ludlum and Patterson. Readers want what readers want, and there’s no sense force-feeding caviar to pigs. The fact is that most discerning readers already have TBR piles that would dwarf Ayers Rock, and those who care about the genre still actively recommend those novels that they think have a lasting spark. Every now and then, the tastes will match, or a movie adaptation will be a success, and you’ll see an author break into the mainstream, even if it only for an instant. But for the most part, genre fans will talk to other genre fans, and writers will continue to not make a living.

We are not, after all, the only game in town, us hardboiled/noir/social fiction/whatever the fuck we’re calling ourselves this week. In fact, as games go, ours is a penny-ante craps game in a roadhouse back room compared to the neon blaze, slot-till-you-drop, big-money Las Vegas wonderland of mainstream crime and thriller fiction. It may be fat and gaudy and bad for you, but it’s always going to be more popular, and the sooner we accept that, the better. Because once we accept that and quit bemoaning the “state of the genre”, the more time we’ll have for making it good.

And that, friend-o, is as good a vocation as any.

Comments

  1. Dana King says:

    Well put. Crying about what is popular and what is not and wondering what can be done about it is like objecting to the sun rising in the east. That’s just how it is. Deal with it.

  2. Pretty much spot on, Ray, tho you tend to pick examples that make your case (Clancy etc). There are bestselling crime writers who don’t write rubbish – Rankin, McDermid, M Walters (not to my taste, but socially involved) etc. Personally, I have a less damning view of the bulk of readers, tho that may be idealistic. Keep on sticking the knife in! Paul

  3. Vince Gilligan and David Simon, the geniuses behind the two best series to ever grace a TV screen both said the same (very interesting) thing about series. They have to end. They both began with the end in mind. Swierczynski seems to have structured his accident people the same way and Dennis Lehane reopening his Kenzie/Gennaro series after ten years proved to be borderline irrelevant. Good series have to end sometimes.

  4. Ray Banks says:

    Dana – Cheers!

    Paul – Good point. TBH I picked Clancy etc, because those were the ones mentioned by McGinty, and also represent the HYOOOGE bestsellers in the States. As far as I’m aware none of the names you’ve mentioned cracked the NYT Bestsellers recently. As to the readers, I was sticking up for them, wasn’t I? Therefore I get to call them pigs. Heh.

  5. stevemosby says:

    I agree overall (although, same as Paul, I think you’re picking your examples), especially with the last two paragraphs. The way I discriminate is generally between fiction that forces you to engage with the world and fiction that helps you escape it, which is some way towards how I separate Art and Entertainment. And I think that’s basically what you’re getting at, although I don’t think social realism is the only way to do it. A lot of long running crime series probably give up on being overtly realistic, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have things to say, in much the same ways that Fantasy does. And a lot of single crime novels are fantastical too.

    But anyway, I disagree, with both you and Adrian, that the latter – simple escapism – is necessarily bad. It’s just fiction that performs a particular function, and the problem with your argument is that a lot of people like that function. It’s easy to liken them to “pigs”, but the reality is that not everybody wants caviar every day, or even most days – and anyway, not everybody likes the same flavour of high class food as you. It’s very difficult to define what “bad” means in art on all levels – and it’s certainly a harsh word to throw around. This is my main problem with these arguments. We say the literary versus genre debates are pointless and stupid, but isn’t this kind of thing just perpetuating them on a smaller scale? Kicking at what we perceive to be down? When Adrian posted his blog I said I wished the crime genre could stop chewing at itself, and this doesn’t make me feel a whole lot different overall.

    • Ray Banks says:

      Steve – I was wondering when you’d comment. Glad you did, even if it does mean I have to sneak a reply from the day job!

      Couple of things:

      First, see above for the examples. I just picked from the NYT Bestseller list, and used McKinty’s piece as a springboard rather than write a proper reply. For the record, I think his premise that crime fiction is bad because it’s series-based is flawed, but it’s a start.

      Secondly: “The way I discriminate is generally between fiction that forces you to engage with the world and fiction that helps you escape it, which is some way towards how I separate Art and Entertainment.”

      I don’t discriminate like that. I tend to separate Art and Entertainment purely by the quality of the aesthetic. So then social realism has nothing to do with it, as you correctly point out. I certainly don’t think escapism or reading purely for entertainment is a bad thing. I think reading bad escapism and bad entertainment because you only have time for one or two books a year and have picked up what everyone else is reading is a bad thing. The work of writers like Swierczynski or Westlake or Thomas is difficult to label High Art, but the craft and intelligence on display certainly make it High Entertainment. The same can’t be said for whoever’s writing on behalf of Clancy and Patterson these days. So this really isn’t a argument of literary versus genre or Art versus Entertainment at all. It’s purely aesthetic.

      Finally, the subjective nature of “bad”. I actually don’t think it’s as subjective as all that, nor do I think “bad” is a particularly harsh term (it’s certainly not the first word I thought of, believe me). I mean, if you know the genre and you have a decent handle on what is cliché and what isn’t, then it’s relatively easy to reach a critical consensus on what is good and what is bad. My argument here is that your occasional reader – the “pig” in that he/she is indiscriminate in his/her reading – doesn’t have that perspective and so requires cliché, requires that easily digestible, not too challenging, tell AND show “bad” aesthetic in order to be entertained by the story. I’d argue that bad writing has always been popular too, so this isn’t exactly a recent development.

      Ultimately all I’m saying is these occasional readers really aren’t mine, probably won’t ever BE mine, and so it’s futile to think about them. If anything, it’s a little perspective, especially given the recent pressure that I and many authors like me have been under to write something more “commercial”. The intent here was different, I think, to what you may have picked up from it.

      • stevemosby says:

        Ray – cheers for the reply. I understand better, and I see where you’re coming from with the aesthetics issue. I probably order things a little differently, is all, so the aesthetics, for me, should most effectively serve the overall function of the text. (Which is probably why we disagreed about first/third person, come to think of it).

        So I wouldn’t say the use of cliche is necessarily “bad” if it helps to produce a piece of escapist entertainment that a reader loves. It’s not subjective, of course; it’s intersubjective. And if enough people enjoy enough of Lee Child’s books over enough time, it becomes far trickier to argue those books are “bad” in a way that keeps bad as a useful word beyond subjective use. It’s one of the words I would use for his writing, but who am I to argue with someone else’s personal experience?

        But we could go round and round on that, and it still leads to the same place. I totally agree with you that you shouldn’t write with an eye to be commercial. It’s pointless, and it will make you frustrated and unhappy, and it will probably annoy everyone else too. Write the thing you want to write. (Or maybe, given the current climate, write what you need to. And only that. Please).

  6. Gonzalo B says:

    I think that the question should be: How can we make quality crime fiction more commercially viable, without dumbing it down for sales purposes nor making it gratuitously “literary” so that critics can say it transcends the genre and hence it’s worth their time. There are tons of non-commercial noir novels that are just as bad as a Patterson airport thriller so it’s not simply the lack of a crime element that makes a thriller bad. It’s also a lack of imagination, derivative plots, cliched characters and the inability to say something interesting. As a reader, I see that in both thrillers and noir novels. These flaws are more visible in commercial thrillers simply because the average reader tends to buy the former rather than the latter, just like moviegoers prefer action blockbusters to noir, be it good noir (The Killer Inside Me) or derivative noir (Guy Ritchie.)

    Somehow, companies like HBO have managed to produce commercially viable and quality series (Deadwood, The Wire) in an age in which reality shows are among the most watched programs on TV. I don’t know how this translates to books, but there’s got to be a way to monetize quality when it comes to the publishing world. Some have said that quality crime fiction writers and those in other genres should look towards public funding, just like literary authors do. I don’t think that’s the way to go either. Academic publishing, especially when it comes to fiction and non-commercial genres like poetry, is a house of cards that is swiftly running out of funding. While it’s true (and good) that there will always be funds, subsidies, and awards to keep literary fiction alive, the vast majority of colleges and universities in the West are slashing budgets like crazy and their publishing imprints suffering accordingly.

    Lastly, I believe McKinty’s argument aimed more at series than airport thrillers per se. I don’t know if I agree with his argument completely. There are series like the Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke that even if derivative at times, they retain a standard quality that puts them way above an Evanovich novel. Likewise, McKinty’s somewhat extreme argument that only first-time authors should be published (and I know he was exaggerating in order to prove a point) is not very persuasive. One of the pleasures of following an author is watching him become a better writer throughout his career. It’s pretty rare to find a writer that gets it right in the first book (one notable exception would be Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, although I’m sure there are many more.)

    • Ray Banks says:

      “I think that the question should be: How can we make quality crime fiction more commercially viable, without dumbing it down for sales purposes nor making it gratuitously “literary” so that critics can say it transcends the genre and hence it’s worth their time.”

      Depends on your definition of commercial. For me, it’s impossible to quantify in terms of subject matter, genre or intelligence. For every Patterson there are hundreds of thousands of Patterson imitators who are completely unknown. He hit at the right time with the right book with the right number of people.

      HBO is an interesting example to use, actually – arguably its most commercial series were The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and only one of them can make any claims to be “quality” television. The Wire was famous for being the best show nobody watched and was under recurrent threat of cancellation (especially after the third season). Deadwood WAS cancelled after the third season, which doesn’t say much for its popularity.

      The thing is, nobody really knows what will end up being commercial. A certain boy wizard was rejected all over the place, and Dan Brown wrote three books before The Da Vinci Code hit big. I suppose my point is that writers shouldn’t look to make their work more commercial, because that often means mimicking bestsellers in the most superficial way possible.

      • Gonzalo B says:

        But my point is how to find ways to successfully commercialize quality fiction, a task that certainly shouldn’t fall just on the writer’s shoulders. I was actually thinking more in terms of promotion, distribution and packaging. I pointed to HBO as an example even if admitting that it might not completely apply to the publishing world. The Wire lasted five seasons and Deadwood lasted three. I doubt the reasons they were kept on the air that long were just for the sake of prestige. If they were really bleeding money, they would have been gutted before. Sure, they didn’t do as well as The Sopranos or Sex & the City, but they still proved to be commercially viable for a significant period of time. After all, I think what we’re talking about here is how can crime fiction writers be more commercially successful, not whether all of them can crack the NYT bestseller list.

        As for quantifying the commercial value of a book, I guess sales are the best indicator. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that a significant amount of readers can’t discern between intelligent stuff and assembly-line thrillers. The fact that James Lee Burke’s books sell well tells me that there is a place in the market for commercially successful, quality fiction.

        • Ray Banks says:

          Yeah, I think I misread your point there. Sorry about that.

          Absolutely, I’d love to see someone manage to commercialize quality fiction, but it won’t be me and you’re correct in that it shouldn’t just fall on the writer’s shoulders – I’d argue that it’s got bugger all to do with the writer in the first place, anyway. The job of making quality fiction sell belongs to the publishers and their marketing departments. And to say any more on that is to get into a whoooole other post.

          Something else I want to say here – I completely agree that a significant amount of readers are discerning readers, and can sustain commercially viable careers. My point however was that to sustain huge, bestselling careers those authors need to reach the occasional readers, who are far less discerning. Mostly that’s done through film adaptations – it’s no secret that Stephen King’s early career (and thus what set the template) was helped dramatically by the Carrie movie and the Salem’s Lot miniseries – he was barely selling half his print run before that. The NYT bestseller list bears that theory out, too – lots of novels selling incredibly well because of their adaptations.

  7. Could not have said it better. In fact, I didn’t.

  8. I can’t believe I initially missed this when you first posted it, as it’s a subject that I’ve been ranting about for a while myself. You really nail it, I think. It’s the Age of the Doorstop Thriller, books for people whose main concern seems less about quality and more about filling up time.