Friday, October 25, 2013

Are You Getting Your Money’s Worth?

by thriller author Michael Sherer

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?

Is Anderson right? Who do you read and why?

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 or you can follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist.


  1. Great post, Michael! Since I edit fiction all day, mostly thrillers, when I read one, it's hard to turn off my editing mind, even for a bestseller, so I notice a lot of inconsistencies and continuity/logic errors, even in NYT bestsellers. I think the budget isn't there any more for quality editing, or the editors are reluctant to point out to rock-star authors areas where some revision may be needed for it to make sense. I really like Sandra Brown, but every book I've read of hers in the past year contains some logistic errors that someone should have caught!

  2. As a reader, I've always cared more about storytelling than prose, and I suppose that's true about my writing as well. I have little time/focus to read now, so I spend that time trying out new authors. But I'm with you: implausibility and inconsistency will make me give up on a novel or author faster than anything else.

  3. Jodie mentioned the very real aspect of quality editing, regardless of the format or price of a book. And the content and style spectrum you mentioned suggest that there truly are a broad number of readers out there with differing tastes, even from one month to the next.

    As a writer, I find it difficult to lose myself in a story and tend to be more critical, at least in my own head. Some books appeal to the snob in me and others appeal to my need for some quality entertainment. So my answer is, it depends.

  4. Wow, Michael, your post really spoke to me because I've been feeling the exact same way. When I buy a book I expect the whole package: exquisite prose and powerful storytelling. However, I rarely find it in a lot of books I've picked up recently and it's my own fault because I haven't been reading the authors whom I know can fulfill my needs. You've reminded me that I need to dig into some great fiction from equally great writers like Robert Crais (love him!) and Laura Lipman, whom I haven't read in ages. I'm a multi-genre enthusiast so I read across the board and my only requisite is a damn good book.

    A friend of mine, who writes erotic romance, was lamenting about the poor quality of a lot of self-published fiction in her genre. She says she could probably be a best seller if she pandered to the whims of the erotic romance reading public. She probably could, too. But I know she won't. When you know what you're doing it's hard write in a way you don't believe in.

  5. Well said. It's very discouraging that these authors keep getting all the praise not because their new books deserve it, only because they're previous best selling authors.

  6. Great post, Michael.

    I find I'm drawn to the well-told crime story that sneaks a little literary spinach in when I'm not looking. Probably my favorite crime series is Stephen Dobyns's Charlie Bradshaw mysteries, set in Saratoga Springs. Airtight yet leisurely plotting, and original, highly pleasurable prose with a hint of highbrow. Anything by C.J. Box comes in a very close second, and anything by Laura Lippman slots almost as high in my hierarchy.

    Other favorites in that vein include Tyler Dilts, Bill Cameron, Lynn Kostoff, Chris Knopf, John Rector, Sean Doolittle, Peter Abrahams, Linwood Barclay (yes, he's upped his game the last few times out), John Sandford, Steve Brewer, Max Byrd, Marcus Sakey, Aric Davis, Brendan DuBois, Victor Gischler, Ed Gorman, George V. Higgins, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard, Patti Abbott ....

    I could fill up the rest of this page. These are great times for American crime fiction. I'm not worried about the crap that's out there. There are a zillion alternatives out there, and more new great novels out every week.

  7. Bold article, sir. I admire your candor.
    In the listing of great storytellers with gifted prose I find one of my all-time favorites missing -- James Lee Burke.

    1. My bad! Of course JLB deserves a place here. Wonderful writer whose gift for metaphor I admire and envy.

  8. Speaking of James Lee Burke, Doug Lyle has a great review of Burke's latest book, Light of the World, over at the Writer's Forensics blog right now.

  9. Burke is a good one, though I roll my eyes sometimes at his over-the-top soul-corrosion, quasi-Biblical, McCarthy Lite melodramas.

    I think sometimes we just get blinded by the stuff the clogs up the supermarket checkout aisles and the bestseller list. Don't worry about that stuff. Dig a little deeper and just as with almost anything in life, you'll be rewarded with the discovery of dozens of brilliant crime authors. In my opinion, most of the best authors in the genre are not with the biggest publishing houses.

  10. Michael, those are some great insights. But I need you to clarify things a bit. You see, I strive really hard to zero my writing in on the eighth grade reading level. Each draft of a novel gets closer and closer to that "ideal." But you seem to be saying that eighth-grade prose is inferior. Is that really what you're saying? I suppose a case could be made for that notion, but it is also a time-tested measure of how to appeal to the largest readership, isn't it? And if so, is that such a crime? I want lots of people to like my books, and have no interest in "snob appeal." So I'm wondering if you are condemning or blessing eighth-grade prose.

    1. Tom, I don't think eight-grade prose is inferior. I simply prefer books that aren't written to the lowest common denominator. In a January blog, I talk about using "big words." Some people like them, some don't. Personally, however, I don't feel that I need to pander to an audience that either can't read above an eight-grade level or is too lazy to use a dictionary. When I read Umberto Eco, I'm challenged as all get-out; I'm not that smart. But I don't in any way think he should write down to my level.

      Essentially,I'm blessing eight-grade prose as entirely suitable for a huge mass audience. I prefer prose that's more musical and more lyrical, and often that's above eight-grade level. It certainly doesn't mean it's better.


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