SS: Hi, Cynthia Hawkins! I’ve been enjoying your cinema posts on TNB; given that people are discussing and deconstructing literature and music and poetry it seems only fair that film is included. I’m glad you’re picking up the slack on that front, and I’m glad you seem to have become TNB’s resident movie buff. However, for this particular piece I’m not even going to make an attempt to go highbrow or even to attempt a neat segue … because what I’d really like to discuss is ’80s action flicks. The ’80s (to me) seems to be when action movies really hit their stride. I’m talking Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, Predator… First Blood, Tango and Cash, Commando. This was the golden age of guys like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Do you think there’s a defining quality, or qualities, to the action films that were such an iconic part of the 1980s?

CH: Why, hello, Simon Smithson! You don’t know how happy it makes me to take up any slack there might be in the TNB movie department. Finally, I feel as if my movie-geekness is being used for good instead of evil. And by evil I mean being unbeatable at Scene It on X-Box. It’s like I finally have a true purpose now, and that purpose is to talk about ’80s action flicks with Simon Smithson. I’d say ’80s action flicks were equal parts mullet, saxophone, slip-on shoes, and kicking ass. But more importantly, I think what seems to set the ’80s action flicks apart as a golden era is that they departed from the gritty realism of the ’70s action flicks and took action movies over the top. Everything was bigger and flashier — the actors, their personalities, the explosions. The same thing was happening in music as well, if you think about it. It’s like going from Boston to Motley Crue.

SS: Well, if you were to have any kind of life purpose, you probably couldn’t get better than talking about ’80s action flicks with yours truly.

Obviously, I’m kidding.

There’s no place for the word ‘probably’ in that sentence.

Do you think advances in special effects had anything to do with the hallmarks of the era? The technical ability catching up with the film-makers’s vision? Because you’re so right – reality went straight out the window. Suddenly, the archetypal story became the one guy, killing a whole bunch of other guys, in the most explosive ways possible, and kind of enjoying himself while he did it.

CH: Your description of the jubilant one-guy killing machine immediately brings to mind Bruce Willis yelling “Yippee ki yay, mother fucker!” in Die Hard. That has to be the quintessential ’80s movie moment. It has everything except a mullet. Now that you mention it, I don’t think the bombast of the era could have been facilitated without those advancements. But it’s funny to think of them as “advancements” now. I remember at the time The Terminator was, in true James Cameron fashion, supposed to be the second-coming of movies thanks to its use of the absolute latest in special effects. Watch that now, though, and it looks a bit chintzy by today’s standards.

In fact, it’s a little hard to pinpoint ’80s action films that do stand the test of time, whether that’s due to the special effects or not. They tend to be so very ’80s even when they aren’t supposed to be. Take Young Guns, for example. A western, so I’m veering a little from the action genre here, but even Billy the Kid has a mullet in Young Guns. And I’m pretty sure there’s a Casio on the soundtrack. The ’80s flicks unabashedly embrace the tastes and trends of the era in ways I don’t necessarily notice films in the decades after doing to that same degree. It’s not too much of a distraction for me, though. I love The Terminator anyway, even if a shot does look like an egg beater getting mangled in a high-school wood-shop vice. Since this is one of your favourite eras and genres, I’m wondering if there are a few that do stand the test of time for you — or if perhaps their rebellious refusal to do so might be part of their allure?

SS: I think you’re right – there’s so much about ’80s movies as a whole – not just action flicks – that are so soaked in the unique ambience of the decade that it’s impossible to see them as anything else. In terms of special effects, some films stand the test of time… some really don’t. So much of a film’s longevity comes down to storytelling, and so much comes down to how and what special effects are being used, and how judiciously – Aliens, for example. The menace is hinted at in darkness, and done with model work as opposed to the shoddy early-era CGI that started coming in afterwards. And it’s amazing how the monsters in Aliens look so much realer than the creature in Alien 3.

I think what makes an action film stand the test of time is – and I’m loath to say this, I really am – honesty. For want of a better word.

Take Die Hard, for instance. It was a new take on a genre that was still being figured out; the storyline was one everyman up against terrible odds, he’s human, he’s damaged, he keeps getting beaten down… then compare that to Die Hard 4.0, which is slick and highly-produced and had tens of millions thrown at it in post-production. Die Hard is, by far, the better, more memorable, and more re-watchable film. Because I think they were still taking risks and trying new things and working from an idea rather than market research and exit polls, as opposed to the hollowness of Die Hard 4.0. Even though, I guess, Die Hard was one of the films that moved action films into the ’90s.

So. Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Willis. Van Damme. Russell. Norris.

Any particular favourite? And why?

CH: I noticed you left Mel Gibson off that list. Does his sharp turn into utter misogynistic, racist madness cancel him out of ’80s flick glory? Talk about things that can make a movie largely unwatchable. Is it possible to watch his Three-Stooges flip-out scenes as Riggs in Lethal Weapon without inserting that weird animal huffing followed by something like, “And I’m gonna chop you up in little pieces and put you in the garden! Rawr!” Tsk, tsk, Mel. You coulda been a contenda.

Stallone. I’d have to say Stallone is the stand-out for the variety of iconic characters he portrayed, the success of the majority of his films, and the fact that his works span that entire decade (whereas someone like Bruce is just getting started at the end of it). Stallone’s characters tend to be dark, brooding outsiders, which always appeals to me because there’s something in that darkness that implies this person is capable of wreaking serious havoc without a moment’s notice. You have faith in this person no matter the odds.

It’s an interesting list you’ve created, though, because each of them had such strong and distinct personalities driving their films. And if there’s anyone I’d cross off it’d be because their personalities just don’t click with me. Chuck Norris for example (I think I just unleashed the hate mail kraken!). Norris’ films just seemed comparatively sub-par in my estimation and his characters weren’t quite compelling enough to remedy that for me. I know I’ll meet with dissenters on that score, and I’ll probably deserve it.

I expect you to answer this question of favourites now, because if I’m going out on a limb here you’re coming with me compadre!

SS: Mel has, unfortunately, lost all cachet with me. Even home-town pride only goes so far, you know?

I have to go for Stallone as well. He gets a lot of flak for his less cerebral roles (which, let’s be fair, sums up most of them), but I would have dinner with him any day of the week.

Admittedly, he would pay.

The guy wrote Rocky when he was 30 and won an Academy Award for it. Say what you like, that’s a better script than I see myself writing at 30. He threw himself into action roles – First Blood is a good movie too; there’s a reason the word ‘Rambo’ became synonomous with the genre – but there’s a lot of darkness and thought that went into Stallone’s performance. I’ve never actually seen a Norris film – I just suspect I wouldn’t care for him, and I don’t really feel any yearning to challenge that assumption.

It’s interesting you say ’80s flick glory – because there’s a lot of glorying going on in ’80s actions flicks. I can’t help but link it to the fact the US was riding high in the ’80s – there’s even a scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where they talk about how people aren’t patriotic any more, and Mac says ‘Not like we were in the ’80s!’

Your thoughts on this matter, Ms. Hawkins?

CH: You do realize that there are now parts of the U.S., Texas mostly, in which we’ll only be able to travel incognito due to our Norris sentiments. And I live in Texas. There’s such a fervour over Norris of late, and I haven’t figured out if it’s a joke (like nominating Carrie for prom queen) or if it’s genuine admiration for the guy. I think I’ll quietly tiptoe away from this one and move along…

Oh, I absolutely agree that the bigness of those movies is reflective of the bigness of America’s collective sense of self at the time. I’ve always suspected that the best way to get a handle on any era is through its pop-culture. That said, this is the U.S.A. of the ‘80s based on Rocky IV: “If all we have is a donkey cart to train on, we can still kick your ass. And we will do it to synthesizers. Now, step back and take in the awesomeness of my shimmery satin stars-and-stripes shorts.”

But this reminds me that as much as we love them, these films aren’t entirely representative. They’re largely white, and they’re largely male-centric. Your thoughts on this, Mr. Smithson? (It’s like I just dropped a grenade at your feet and ran away!)

…Okay, I’m starting to feel bad for sticking you with analyzing 80’s flicks for NOT ONLY issues of race but gender as well. I mean, sweet jeebus, how much time do you have? If you’d rather, I was also going to ask you about what you thought of Stallone’s comment regarding the “death” of the genre as it was envisioned in the 80’s. If you’d rather go that route, here’s the official set-up…


So, Stallone told the Los Angeles Times recently that he felt Tim Burton’s Batman marked the beginning of the end for the 80’s-style action hero such as himself. Suddenly, someone more ordinary, less ripped, someone like Michael Keaton, could be the hero. He also felt that the “visuals took over,” becoming more important than the individual. Do you think the 80’s brand of action movie and action hero is truly dead? And, if so, would you agree with Stallone’s assessment of why? I’ll remind you he’s still really big and he’s buying you dinner.

SS: But wasn’t that what America was all about in the ’80s? White guys kicking ass all over the world? Even if they had a decidedly non-American accent. Huh. Can I even say this? Wesley Snipes didn’t become an action hero until Passenger 57, in ’92. Jackie Chan didn’t break for Western audiences until Rumble in the Bronx, which was what, ’95? Bruce Lee was a one-off in Hollywood, so it was up to Chan to open the market for guys like Jet Li and Stephen Chow. Carl Weathers and Bill Duke were probably the most well-known mainstream non-white action stars, and Sigourney Weaver was the sole representative for female heroes (although she beat the other guys to the punch – Alien was ’79). I don’t know, can you think of many other non-white, non-male action stars with the same level of notoriety?

As for the Batman idea… that’s really interesting. I remember reading that there was an outcry surrounding Burton’s decision to go with casting Keaton; people thought Keaton, known up until then primarily for comedic roles, couldn’t pull it off. I would say Stallone was right on the money there – although I think visuals probably would have been just as over-the-top as they are now, if they’d just had the technology at the time to do them. There is an element of escalation – action movies have to keep upping the ante, it seems, which could be one of the reasons they’re becoming so blase and staid.

I think now we’re seeing a combination of 80s and 90s heroes. Bond and Bourne and Batman are just as buff as their 80s forebears ever were – it’s become mandatory to have an shot of someone’s amazingly-ripped body as they train or fight; every film since Fight Club has sought to include it (Pitt’s toplessly muscular fight scenes set the gold standard). But they also have to be psychologically fascinating – the best of both worlds?

And of course, that brings us to The Expendables

CH: I think you’ve covered it well! If there is, by chance, any non-white or non-male kick-ass action hero we’ve left off, I think the fact we’ve forgotten them says it all about their unfortunate status in the ‘80s. I distinctly remember watching Burton’s Batman and feeling really anxious at one point when it seemed Batman was utterly defeated. He’d just gotten the crap beat out of him. His Batmobile was trashed. And I thought, “What is this? Stallone would have had this wrapped up twenty minutes ago.” Of course, he manages, just barely, to get out of trouble, but Burton’s vision of the action hero introduced a level of vulnerability and ordinariness you just didn’t see often in the ’80s. I think that’s the direction the action hero has continued to go coupled with that attention to visuals Stallone laments.

So … The Expendables. Have you seen it? Is it on where you are? I’m going this weekend, so I’ll report back on it afterward. I was going to avoid it, actually, but after our chat I’m feeling a little nostalgic for that bunch. Except maybe Dolph Lundgren. I’m not feeling nostalgic for Dolph. At all. Until then… I really want to know two things. What is it about this era of action movies that appeals to you, and if I asked you to queue up one of these films to watch this evening which one would it be?

SS: Are you kidding? Lundgren is one of the unmoveable Scandinavian pillars of the action genre. He’s blonde death incarnate. At least, he’s blonde death incarnate up until the last five minutes of any film, when he usually gets iced by the hero. Did you know he has a master’s degree in Chemistry, speaks seven languages, and competed in the Olympics? Which makes two ex-Olympians in The Expendables, along with Statham (and yes, it will shortly be on where I am, and yes, I am going to see it).

I think the simplicity of the concept is what appeals to me. There’s no pretense in ’80s action flicks – the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and an explosion will, most times, take care of any problems admirably. Most Hollywood movies – most movies, really – despite how high their aspirations may be, don’t really have all that much higher-level functioning to them as a matter of course. Which is OK, because, honestly, how much philosophy and understanding of the human condition can you fit into two hours of running time? Sometimes it’s nice to see something that dispenses with any kind of effort to be anything but gun porn.

Any one of those films? Damn. You know, I might go with the original Terminator. It’s been a very long time since I saw that film. Did you know that in every James Cameron film that Michael Biehn stars in, Biehn gets bitten in the hand?

I wish Snipes and Van Damme could have made it into The Expendables. That would have been perfect.

So how about you? Any single ’80s action movie?

CH: I do appreciate Lundgren for one thing: uttering the words “I must break you.”

I have to say that Die Hard, First Blood, and the first Terminator are all movies I watch more than the normal person should. So I’m going to follow your lead and pick something I haven’t seen in a very long time. Predator. For one thing, it offers one of my other favourite movie quotes with Arnold’s “you one ugly mudda fucka.” For another, it has Carl Weathers who survives just slightly longer than most non-white people do in ’80s action movies. And then there’s the awesome heat vision special effects, the jungle razing explosions, and an alien enemy who leaves its prey hanging like strips of beef jerky in the trees. What’s not to love?

SS: Nothing.

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.


David Morrell

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’s Bio:

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.


Gayle Lynds

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.

Gayle’s Bio:

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.


Karen Dionne

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.

Karen’s Bio:

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.


Barry Eisler

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.

Barry’s Bio:

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…