Book lovers are always pleased when water-cooler conversation turns to the latest phenomenon in which a novel or author has had the kind of popular success that extends far beyond the usual book reading public. The general tenor of such discussions runs along the dyspeptic lines of: ‘Why aren’t people reading better books?’ I have heard the following: ‘I find it really depressing when I see an adult reading a JK Rowling novel on the tube’, and ‘Steig Larsson may keep you turning the pages, but what a shame he died before his books could be properly edited.’ And as for Dan Brown and E L James, they have almost become shorthand (certainly among middle-class readers) for bad writing that sells in massive numbers. But do such dismissals tell the whole story?
There is another (and in this writer’s view) more welcome attitude to be found among readers of the non-snobbish variety — and that is a realistic welcoming of the fact that a great many people who would not otherwise pick up a book do so because of these popular writers (who clearly make up in sheer readability what they may lack in style — why, otherwise, are their novels consumed in such vast numbers?)
The defence of unpretentious books is hardly a new phenomenon. Peter Meyer, who ran Penguin, received vitriolic criticism for publishing the sex-filled ‘bonkbuster’ novels of Shirley Conran. He cheerfully pointed out that Penguin was still publishing writers such as Graham Greene — and that the many people who were reading writers like Conran were unlikely to pick up Greene and co. Essentially, he was saying, there was room for all.
Literary snobbery is perhaps aimed at the thriller more than most genres. It’s not hard to see why: the form itself was derided for many years, and even aficionados of the more sophisticated thriller are dismayed by the success of straightforward action pieces aimed at a different audience. But, as Andy McNab has pointed out, young men for whom reading is a challenge are attracted to uncomplicated incident-packed thrillers, and though they may be the only books they are reading, they are, at least, actually reading.
I’ve written extensively about crime fiction, always attempting to communicate my enthusiasm for the genre as well as making the best possible case for its virtues when appropriate. A certain resolve was necessary, in the teeth of some literary snobbery, to keep talking up the genre. The notion that such popular forms of entertainment could be taken seriously in terms of their craft is relatively recent, and the cultural respectability of the crime novel owes much to the example of writers like PD James. But what about the thriller — the novel of adventure? There, the situation is markedly different. Admittedly, certain thriller writers from the last century have achieved great critical acclaim, notably such talents as Eric Ambler; but there has been nothing like the kind of critical encomiums accorded to simple books where dogged coppers solve crimes in the teeth of their bosses’ disapproval.
In writing Guns for Hire: The Modern Adventure Thriller, I attempted to deal with novels which do not fall into the category of straightforward crime, detective, legals or police procedurals. In other words, the books I considered sported a picaresque, (possibly) globetrotting element with an emphasis on action and danger. It might be said to be a snapshot of the genre which began with John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and continued through Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal up to such modern-day thriller writers as Gerald Seymour and those novelists who specialise in books featuring special forces operatives, etc. (such as the pseudonymous ex-professional soldiers, Andy McNab and Chris Ryan). I opted to concentrate on writers at work in the late 20th and early 21st century, as earlier novelists have been copiously covered. There is no question that certain names — such as Gerald Seymour — have achieved the kind of gravitas that their great predecessors did, but there are a host of writers who (while not attempting the complexity of characterisation of Seymour) still produce sharp pieces of popular entertainment. Many of these writers do not enjoy literary reputations. They are generally perceived to be read largely by a male readership — although not always; the massively successful Lee Child, for instance is read by both sexes. And they are said to be limited by the form of the genre. But these commercially successful writers deserve closer critical attention.
Guns for Hire: The Modern Adventure Thriller is published by Endeavour PressTags: action, Fiction, publishing, thriller