Friday, October 25, 2013
Are You Getting Your Money’s Worth?
At dinner with several authors a couple of months ago, I mentioned how disappointed I’ve been in the past few years with so-called bestselling thrillers and mysteries. These books have been filled with stories that border on outlandish and implausible inconsistencies and mistakes, with mediocre writing at best.
Lee Goldberg, one of the authors at the table, said he thought it was because so many authors are writing to a formula these days. I contend that, discounting the real crap, there are three basic types of authors getting published: 1) beautiful writers who can’t tell a story, 2) storytellers who write at an eighth-grade level, and 3) writers who tell terrific stories with beautiful prose.
John Grisham, for example, is a terrific storyteller who keeps you turning the pages, but his prose isn’t anything to write home about. Serviceable, I suppose. (Heresy, I know, but I think Stephen King is in this camp, too.) Wallace Stegner, on the other hand, paints beautiful pictures with prose, but can’t tell a story that makes sense, or at least that holds my interest.
At dinner, I rattled off some of my favorites in the third category: Gregg Hurwitz, Jeff Parker, Lisa Unger, Bob Crais, Tana French, Michael Gruber, Tim Hallinan, Jonathan Kellerman and even Michael Connelly, though his prose is more straightforward, something you’d expect from a former newspaper reporter.
Lee contends that guys like Gregg and Jeff, and Connelly until recently, haven’t broken out to as wide an audience as many “bestselling” writers for precisely that reason—because they don’t write to the formula, because their prose is too pretty. I happen to think all the writers listed above are pretty successful, but I get his point.
But my real question is whether readers are settling for less than their money entitles them to. With Kindle’s 99-cent and freebie specials, there’s a lot of very inexpensive entertainment out there. And self-publishing has opened the floodgates to content of every stripe. But there are still a lot of thrillers that will cost you $34.95 in hardcover and $12.99 in e-book format out of the gate before publishers start seriously promoting them. That’s a lot of money. At $3.99, an e-book is cheap compared to a movie or dinner out, but hardcover prices are real money.
I ran across this quote from Patrick Anderson’s book The Triumph of the Thriller on Facebook the other day. "James Patterson is possibly the best-selling writer of fiction in America today. He is also, in my view, the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynical, scuzzy, assembly-line writing. If, on a bullshit scale, people like Pelecanos and Leonard rate a perfect 0, Patterson is the other extreme, a bloated, odoriferous 10. So why is he popular? Well, he keeps things not just simple but simple-minded. He writes short sentences and short chapters and deals in stereotypes. He teases his readers with soft-core sex. He telegraphs who are the good guys and who are the bad guys—a man with a scar on his face is a bad man, a girl who doesn’t wear makeup is a good girl. He panders to ignorance, laziness, and prurience."
I couldn’t agree more. But for me, Anderson’s explanation of why Patterson is so popular raises more questions than it answers. Are readers that dumb, that afflicted with attention deficit disorder they only can digest short sentences, stereotypes, and semaphore signals designating who’s who? Are readers truly ignorant, lazy and lecherous?
I’m a sensible eater, but I’ll admit to occasional junk food binges. I prefer a rich and varied diet of thriller authors like Charlie Huston, Tom Piccirrilli, J. Carson Black, Tyler Dilts, Greg Rucka, Sean Doolittle, Gillian Flynn, Marcus Sakey, Taylor Stevens, Alison Gaylin, Sean Chercover, and Laurie King in addition to those I listed above. But that doesn’t mean I don’t indulge in the candy afforded by Lee Child and Jeff Abbott. They definitely give me my money’s worth.
And, yes, my cup of tea may be your glass of hemlock. Reading is, after all, a subjective pursuit. But there’s a ton of true garbage hitting the bestseller lists these days. Is that really what readers want? Pablum written to the lowest common denominator? Are we really getting what we pay for?
Michael W. Sherer is the author of NIGHT TIDE, the second novel in the Blake Sanders thriller series. The first in the Seattle-based series, NIGHT BLINDwas nominated for an ITW Thriller Award in 2013. His other books include the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel, ISLAND LIFE and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series. Please visit him at www.michaelwsherer.com or you can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thrillerauthor and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist.