Thriller Writers: David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, Karen Dionne, & Barry EislerBy Susan Henderson
January 17, 2010
The big reader in my family was my mother; and from the beginning, I coveted her shelves full of D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O’Conner, James Baldwin. Before I was even aware of the ways writing could be categorized, I was steeping myself in literary fiction, and a love of character and phrasing over plot.
It wasn’t until I was a creative writing major in college that I took my preference for a certain type of book and turned it into an outright prejudice. This was so prevalent in our program that I wonder, now, if we were taught this idea. Suddenly, there was an “us” and “them”. We unpublished literary fiction writers cared about every sentence, every nuance, while they, they cared only about racing toward… racing toward… okay, so none of us had actually read any of these books for which we had such a strong disdain. But we knew one thing: they were hack writers and we were artists.
Two events changed me. The first was clicking on a link to a talk given by thriller writer, David Morrell. The lecture was called, “Why Do You Want To Be a Writer?”, and it spread through the literary fiction community, leaving many of us swooning. Who is this guy? we thought. He wasn’t one of us, and yet, he described the heart of a writer and the process of writing so intimately that I had trouble believing in my “us and them” theory. The second was the joy I felt when a friend had her book published (in fact, it’s out this week). I was so excited for her, I asked for an early copy. An environmental thriller. One of those books from The Other Side. And guess what? I read it, and yes, it was different than anything I’d read before, but absolutely gripping.
Today I want to tackle this divide between literary and genre fiction by introducing you to four exquisitely bright and big-hearted thriller writers. I think you’ll enjoy this discussion, and I hope you’ll continue it in the comments section. Maybe, like me, you’ll have a change of heart.
A few years ago, there was a controversy when Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS was chosen for the Oprah Book Club. He asked for his book to be withdrawn because Oprah’s Book Club was directed toward a mass audience and Franzen felt that his work was part of the high-art segment of literature. I have a Ph.D. from Penn State and for many years was a professor of American literature at the University of Iowa. Naturally I wanted to look at Franzen’s high-art novel. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was a genre novel — specifically, a dysfunctional family novel. This only reinforced in me the believe that all novels ultimately fit into one or more categories. The categories themselves don’t matter as much as how well each novel is written.
The division between high-brow and low-brow shows how much Calvinism and moralism affect many opinion makers. In the early 1900s, the great cultural analyst Van Wyck Brooks bemoaned this influence, pointing out that when a critic refers to a “good” book, that book is frequently slow-paced and difficult to read, something we are encouraged to work at, as if leisure were sinful. For these critics, any novel that gets our hearts pounding should make us suspicious. They refer to thrillers as a “guilty pleasure.”
I personally turn away from the Calvinistic tradition and embrace the all-embracing transcendentalism of British Romantics like Wordsworth, as well as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman in the United States. I welcome diversity and the stimulation of my senses as well as my intellect. One purpose of the International Thriller Writers organization, which Gayle Lynds and I co-founded, is to show that thrillers can be as well-written as any other type of novel, including Franzen’s dysfunctional-family novel, and that the excitement in them makes our lives fuller.
David Morrell is the author of FIRST BLOOD, the award-winning novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph.D. in American literature from the Pennsylvania State University and taught in the English department at the University of Iowa until he gave up his tenure to write full time. “The mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions,” as one reviewer described him, Morrell is the co-founder (with Gayle Lynds) of the International Thriller Writers organization. His numerous bestsellers include THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (the basis for a top-rated NBC miniseries broadcast after the Super Bowl), THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE, THE FIFTH PROFESSION, and EXTREME DENIAL (set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives). He is also the author of THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST: A LIFETIME OF LESSONS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING. His latest is THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS, a holiday action thriller. Please visit him at www.davidmorrell.net.
Back in the early 1980s, when I was beginning to write fiction, my mentor was Robert Kirsch, the L.A. Times literary critic. He sent me to the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, explaining it was the child of Robert Frost, the preeminent “literary” workshop in the United States, and he was worried that my primary influence (other than him) was the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, tops at the opposite end of the literature spectrum.
It was true that at the Santa Barbara conference I was getting earfuls from various instructors and fellow students about how pretentious, boring, and navel-gazing so-called literary fiction was. In other words, “literary” writers were full of themselves, and pea green with envy because they made so little, if any money, for their work.
So off to Breadloaf I went, where I got earfuls from various instructors and fellow students about how shallow, repetitious, and needlessly breathless genre fiction was. How writers in the field were lightweight and definitely not serious artists. Worse, they wrote only for money.
Both were – and are – excellent conferences, but the divide was there.
When all of that occurred more than twenty years ago, I was writing and publishing literary short stories. Within a short time because of changes in my personal life I was suddenly writing and publishing male pulp fiction. Today of course I write international espionage novels, which puts me at the heart of what some call non-literary fiction.
What has always bothered me is that both sides aimed – and still aim – poisoned darts at each other. It was utterly silly then, and it still is. We’ve already won the moral war.
As David points out, at our best we combine first-rate writing often better than what’s to be found in “literary” fiction, with dimensioned characters, stories as important and vital as any of the classics, and plots that keep people reading through even content-heavy passages. Among our precursors are Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Each was composing genre fiction during his time. Each was serious about his work, popular with large audiences, and making a living. I’ll bet none of them was embarrassed about it either. And despite all those negatives, they’re now viewed as literary icons.
On the other hand, the “literary” folks are winning the PR war.
Remember when genre fiction was called popular literature? It’s an honorable designation, reflecting the fact that we purposefully want to reach people – regular people. We want large, gregarious, vibrant audiences. To do that, we must be relevant and experiential. We must hit a nerve, say something so intimately entertaining and personally important that readers return to devour more of our books. Is it working? Sure does seem so – they’re voting for us at the cash register.
But that’s helped the literary writers to beat us in public relations – they’ve been calling us writers of commercial fiction, or “commercial writers,” so long now that the phrase is deep in the public’s lexicon. As all of us know, words are powerful. By calling us commercial writers, they’ve inculcated the public with the idea that we do indeed write only for commerce – for money. That there’s no way we can take pride in our work and our contributions, or heaven forbid that our books might be excellent, because of course those qualities are unnecessary for success in the book-buying marketplace. In fact, quality often hinders sales.
As such, prima facie, our books are not worthy to be read.
When was the last time you heard us referred to as writing pop literature? My guess is it’s been years, probably more than a decade. And that’s really our fault. I suspect there’s some sort of Calvinist, Catholic, Jewish, or Midwestern guilt deep within us in which we have a niggling fear they’re right. That our work’s unworthy. Oh, for Pete’s sakes – get over it!
Oprah Winfrey is a smart woman, and she reads a lot, but she has done a disservice to readers. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it’s because the term “commercial fiction” has brainwashed her, too. She trends toward the underdog, which I heartily support. But as such I suspect she views literary fiction as the underdog against a vast conspiracy perpetrated by commercial fiction to destroy our culture. Or, at best, add nothing insightful to it.
One of my great regrets has been to watch the demise of small book clubs across the country. Over and over friends and people I meet while on tour tell me their book clubs have died. Why? Because “we were reading” depressing books, boring books, hard-to-understand books, books “we should” read, books that “are good for us.” It reminds me of castor oil. Often they were Oprah picks.
Have you noticed that sales of Oprah’s book club selections have declined steadily book by book since the first one? I’m glad the sales figures remain large, because I want to do everything I can to support the publishing industry and those who enjoy her choices. Still, a mark of anything successful is that more and more people are attracted to it. Not fewer.
But “fewer” is what is happening to book clubs across the country. When clubs make it a rule that literary fiction will be their only reading choices, people slowly stop reading the books, then they stop attending. Sayonara book club.
At the same time, we’re seeing something similar happening in schools. Instead of a mixture of literary and pop fiction in elementary and high school reading and literature classes, the selections are almost entirely literary – and fewer kids read well, and fewer still read any books as adults.
Literary fiction is an important part of our culture, and it can bring great reading joy. I wish it well. But not at the expense of genre fiction.
If in order to thrive, literary fiction feels it must denigrate us, there is something tragically wrong. And I say to our denigrators what I say to us – get over it. Get a life. Get busy and do something about it as Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and a host of other literary writers have done by creating suspense stories and novels. Even Graham Greene, who for years divided his novels into “real” books and entertainments, at the end of his life decided he had been wrong, that all of his books were just that, books, everything and nothing, not lesser nor greater because of whatever category he or others might choose for them. They were books. Books.
It would be a sorry world if only one form of reading pleasure were available to us. Let us all sit around the campfire and tell tales large and small. Let us respect – and celebrate – each other. Everything else is a waste of time that could be better spent writing the next book. Which is what I am going to do now.
New York Times bestseller Gayle Lynds is the award-winning author of eight international espionage novels, including THE LAST SPYMASTER, THE COIL, MASQUERADE, and MESMERIZED, which are published in some 20 countries. Her books have won such awards as “Novel of the Year” (THE LAST SPYMASTER) given by the Military Writers Society of America, and have been People magazine “Page-Turner of the Week” and “Beach Read of the Week.” Publishers Weekly lists her work among the top ten spy novels of all time. BookPage concurs: “Gayle Lynds has joined the deified ranks of spy thriller authors like Robert Ludlum and John le Carre.” With Ludlum, she created the Covert-One series and wrote three of the novels. One of them, THE HADES FACTOR, was a CBS miniseries in April 2006. A member of the Association for Intelligence Officers, she is co-founder and co-president (with David Morrell) of International Thriller Writers, Inc., and is listed in Who’s Who in the World. Born in Nebraska, raised in Iowa, she now lives in Southern California. You can visit her at www.GayleLynds.com.
At one of my Backspace conferences, an accomplished literary fiction author participated in a panel discussion on creating living, breathing characters in literary fiction. One of the things she discussed at length was the musicality of words, and the care with which she chooses each one. When I told her that I, too, spend a great deal of time crafting individual sentences even though I write thrillers, I could tell she didn’t believe me.I think this is one of the misconceptions literary fiction authors hold toward thriller authors: that we sacrifice quality for the sake of the story.It’s true, the fast pace in thrillers means there’s little time for lingering descriptions or deeply introspective character development. But that just makes the opportunities more precious. And even in the most intense action scene, the rhythm of the sentences, their length, whether or not a sentence ends on a hard or soft note — all of that matters. It isn’t that we don’t care about elegant language, or that we can’t write anything else; it’s that we choose to write thrillers.
Why? For me, it’s all about tension and pace. Thrillers are noisy. Whether they start with a bang or build to a crescendo, they’re all gripping, exciting, involving. And clearly, I’m not the only one who enjoys reading them, since thrillers dominate the bestseller lists.
Which leads to an area where I think literary fiction authors can learn from thriller authors: commercial appeal.
I’d like to offer Jon Clinch’s literary novel FINN as an example. I’m familiar with this book and its backstory because Jon and I are members of the same writing community, and we share an agent.
FINN opens with the most beautiful description of a dead body I’ve ever read:
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily dep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been flouting would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but this far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed a swarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.
Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.
An alligator gar, eight feet if it’s an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away. The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice. The urgent sunfish eddy. The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.
Reading on, we learn the body “lacks for skin, all of it, from scalp to sole. Nothing remains but sinew and bone and scraps of succulent yellow fat that the crows have not yet torn free.” The chapter finishes with Pap Finn cooking strips of human skin on a blind bootlegger’s campfire.
That opening could well be the opening of a thriller. It grabs the reader, draws them in, sets the tone, raises questions — all the things a good thriller opening does. In fact, when I wrote to Jon and asked if I could quote his novel in the context of this discussion, he told me he was actually thinking in terms of thrillers when he wrote it, and had “set out to see if I could write a book that accomplished many of the things that I’d heard thriller writers talking about, but with my own set of literary tools.”
Jon’s editor at Random House, Will Murphy, says in a preface to the advance reading edition: “Dear Reader: You hold in your hands a major debut and that rarest of beasts — a real work of literature that has big commercial potential.”
When FINN went on submission, 8 publishing houses wanted to buy it. The auction lasted for days, and the winner, Random House, made the book their lead title — not only because FINN is gorgeously written, but because it also tells such a wonderful story, and they believed the novel would sell in great quantities.
“Commercial potential” and “literary fiction” don’t have to be incompatible concepts, and their happy marriage shouldn’t be “rare.” Readers aren’t stupid. They want great stories. Thrillers sell in such large numbers because they deliver. But a beautifully written literary novel that also thrills will be just as well received.
I’ve always felt a little sad about that literary fiction author who didn’t believe I cared about the musicality of my words as much as she did. I don’t know why she couldn’t acknowledge we had that in common, but her close-mindedness hurts her more than it hurt me.
Thriller authors, on the other hand, are incredibly open. We joke that we’re so nice because we get all the meanness out of our systems when we write our novels. Whether that’s true or not, the thriller community is extraordinarily supportive. Those of you who don’t read thrillers won’t know this, but having David, Gayle, and Barry on this panel with me is like having a panel made up of Pulitzer and Booker prize winners with one MFA student. Not only have these accomplished authors made room for me at the table, all of them have made their mark on my debut. They’ve given me endorsements, critiqued the opening chapters, recommended the novel to their own editors — even given the novel its title. No one knows if one day I’ll be as successful as they are, but their acceptance isn’t contingent on that. It’s enough for them that I too, write thrillers.
Detroit native Karen Dionne dropped out of the University of Michigan in the 1970s and moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness with her husband and infant daughter as part of the back-to-the-land movement. During the next thirty winters, her indoor pursuits included stained glass, weaving, and constructing N-scale model train layouts. Eventually, her creative interests turned to writing. Karen’s short stories have appeared in Bathtub Gin, The Adirondack Review, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine and Thought Magazine. She worked as Senior Fiction Editor for NFG, a print literary journal out of Toronto, Canada, before founding Backspace (www.bksp.org), an Internet-based writers organization with 850 members in a dozen countries. Karen and her husband now live in Detroit’s northern suburbs. FREEZING POINT (Berkley, October 2008) is her first novel. And if you want to see what a cyber launch party looks like, click here: www.freezingpointlaunchparty.com.
Susan, thanks for kicking off this great conversation — it’s a privilege to be part of it.
For me, generally speaking, “literary fiction” means stories that are driven primarily by who; “genre fiction” means stories driven primarily by what. In other words, character driven vs plot driven stories. There’s nothing wrong with either; the only problem, I suppose, is when a writer thinks he’s writing one and is actually writing the other.
One reason literary fiction tends to garner greater critical accolades is because writing character-driven stories is harder than writing plot-driven ones. It’s easier to generate interest by creating a ticking bomb scenario than it is to generate interest by creating a vivid person. I agree with David, Gayle, and Karen that there’s also a Listerine element at work here: “if it tastes this bad, it must be good for me.” Which, if you think about it, is a silly way to judge a book, or anything else, for that matter.
How can you tell whether a book is more literary or more genre? One good sign that you’ve read something more on the genre end of the continuum is forgetability. If the pages were flying by while you were reading it, but shortly after finishing you’re no longer thinking of the book and its feeling doesn’t linger, it was probably more genre than literary. If you remember the characters, though, if they still seem real to you long after you’ve finished the book, if you can instantly recollect the feeling of the book just by thinking about it, if the book stays with you… I’d call that more literary.
It should be obvious at this point that the best books are both genre and literary: you can’t stop reading while you’re in the book, and you can’t stop thinking about it when you’re through. There’s plenty of fiction out there that fits the bill, but it’s classified as genre more often than as literary. Genre aspects tend to eclipse literary aspects when it comes to classifying a book because the genre aspects are more obvious. For example, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River succeeded perfectly as both genre and as literary fiction, but it’s more widely known as genre because the mental and marketing category “crime” is easier shorthand than “vivid characters; convoluted, Greek tragedy personal history; haunting sense of place.” If I were Dennis, I wouldn’t mind being known more as genre than as literary. A rose by any other name smells as sweet — but genre sells better.
By now, you’ve probably guessed that what I respond to as a reader is both, and not one or the other. I can’t get through books that are boring but supposed to be good for me. But a page-turner without substance doesn’t do it for me, either. Actually, if there’s no substance, I won’t be turning the pages — we’re back to boring, just without the “it’ll be good for you” promise to get you through.
As for my own books, I like to think they succeed as both genre and literary — at least, that’s what I aim for. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I just write the stories that interest me, and try to write them in as powerful a way as I can.
As far as sales and marketing goes, though, again, it’s great to be known as a thriller writer.
After graduating from Cornell Law School, Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center. Eisler’s thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous “Best Of” lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. The first book in Eisler’s assassin John Rain series, RAIN FALL, has been made into a movie starring Gary Oldman that will be released by Sony Pictures in April 2009. To learn more, please visit www.barryeisler.com.
I’m grateful to David, Gayle, Karen, and Barry for kicking off this important conversation, and I hope you’ll check out their links. By the way, that David Morrell talk that inspired me so much was a shortened version of the first chapter in THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST: A LIFETIME OF LESSONS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING. I’m buying it right this second.
Now, for the rest of you, let’s hear your thoughts…
I interviewed David Morrell when he was writing about the return of Captain America. I was so happy when the story made the homepage of CNN.com. Morrell was cool. I met him at the Yosemite Writers Conference.
He’s a good guy. Generous, approachable, and actively helping younger writers.
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