Tour’s Books Blog

March 26, 2009

Ruminations on Plots, Characters, and the Quality of Books

Filed under: Editorial,General — toursbooks @ 2:56 am
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Here I sit, trying with all my might to get seriously interested in Randy Wayne White’s latest Doc Ford novel, Dead Silence, and I find myself once again questioning – “What’s gone wrong with the whole action thriller genre?”  The plots are implausible.  The characters are increasingly shallow and cartoonish.  The action parts realistic only in Hollywood.  Suddenly, everyone is trying to be James Bond.  If I wanted James Bond, I’d read Ian Fleming.  And it’s not just action thrillers, it’s a lot of other genres and authors as well – from Janet Evanovich to Stuart Woods to Christina Dodd.  Their books are increasingly the literary equivalent of ‘paint by numbers’.  I feel insulted that such mediocre junk is passing for ‘best sellers’ on the strength of an author’s name.

OK – not everyone demands, or even fully appreciates, a good piece of writing, but the core fans do.  When you start cheating, we know it!  And no, I don’t hold all genres to the same standard.  That wouldn’t be fair at all.  But within a genre, especially within the limits of a writer’s own work, I should have a reasonable expectation of consistent quality.  Not so anymore.  Take a look at my recent reviews and you can see the degree to which things have deteriorated.  My favorite writers are falling off my ‘auto purchase’ list faster than bugs dropping at a Raid convention.

Who’s to blame for this flaming train wreck?  The writers for offering generic material and milking their fame?  The publishers for making deadlines more important than quality?  The public for buying it?  Maybe it’s a big circle jerk of equal parts laziness and greed for publishers, editors, agents, and writers – and readers who buy the crap are the willing victims.  So, instead of aiming high and doing the ‘good stuff’, and maybe taking 18 months to write a book, writers and publishers alike fall back what’s safe, forgetting it was the ‘good stuff’ that got them where they are.  Now at the top, they publish one book a year – sometimes more.  Nobody cares as long as the filthy lucre rolls in.  In the end, we the buying public end up cheating ourselves.

I challenge anyone to read all of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels in order and tell me it isn’t happening right before our eyes!  Between One for the Money and Three To Get Deadly, she finds her footing and starts really hitting them out of the park right to Seven Up.  After Hard Eight, it was all downhill at ever increasing speed.  Do the same thing with Stuart Woods, especially his Stone Barrington books.  Lee Child and his Jack Reacher books.  Jack Higgins and his Sean Dillion books – start with Thunder Point. Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford series.  Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series.  Though in fairness, White’s and Silva’s decline is less dramatic.  Even the venerable Robert B Parker had to start Jesse Stone to find himself again.  Stroll over to the romance section and it’s just as bad – if not worse.  I swear, I pick up a book that’s just been published and 20 pages in I’m convinced I’ve read it before.

Some writer’s walk away from their winning formula.  Robert Crais did with his Elvis Cole series.  Harlen Coben did with Myron Bolitar.  A rare few manage to break through their own limitations and hit a rich vein.  Robert Ludlum wrote a hell of a good thriller, bestseller after best seller, but it was his plots not his characters, that drove the stories.  Then something happened.  He wrote The Bourne Identity.  He finally managed to find a character with 3 dimensions, making him both believable and memorable.  He even found the one thing that had eluded him his whole career – a believable female lead.  The book was so good, Ludlum ended up writing two more Bourne books (at the insistence of fans and publishers) and now Eric Von Lustbader is continuing the series.  Dan Brown is another writer who is solely plot driven, but the overwhelming popularity of The DaVinic Code seems to resonate beyond the quality of the book – and that is thanks to his clever, intricate story line that grabbed people’s interest with the same kind of conspiracy theory that Ludlum used, only this time the Roman Catholic church is the nexus – not a government or corporation.  I read Digital Fortress and Angels and Demons long before I read The DaVinci Code and knew he was very like Ludlum – especially with his female characters who seemed like men in skirts the characters were so poorly drawn.  Even the men were two dimensional at best.  But that’s OK – he was selling a plot, not The Godfather saga which was all character based.

When Robert Crais brought Elvis Cole and Joe Pike back, they were older and not the same men they were in his earlier books like Lullaby Town.  Fair enough.  I still liked them – a lot.  They were good books.  I’ll buy his next Elvis Cole novel without a qualm.  I’ll get the next Myron Bolitar and that will decide if I continue with that series.  Stuart Woods and Jack Higgins have run out of goodwill and hope, they’re off the list.  Alas, based on Dead Silence, so is Randy Wayne White.  Lee Child’s fate will be decided by the next Jack Reacher due out mid-May.  I’ll forgive Barry Eisler for Fault Line and hope it was an aberration, so for now, he’s on the list, but has his first warning.  Nelson DeMille went to ‘wait and see’ long ago, despite Plum Island and Charm School being two of my favorites.  Same for David Baldacci – very erratic quality.

So where are the good ones?  That’s the biggest problem.  There are good writers out there – possibly better than the ones getting published, but they haven’t established a following and publishers hate betting on anything but a sure thing.  It has Lee Child’s name on the cover – it will sell.  I say, ‘Brett Battles’ and no one has a clue, yet The Cleaner was a far better thriller than Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble in 2007.  Battles’ second book, The Deceived was also really good while Child’s Nothing To Lose was not, yet I’ll bet Child’s book sales were exponentially higher.  He has the ‘name’ and you can literally take that to the bank.  Books are about money, not quality.

Authors who dare to break with their winning formula are not always rewarded for their efforts – though that depends on how good a book they write.  Some really bite, others are quite good.  Still, readers develop a love affair with characters and don’t want them to change.  Look at Robert B Parker’s Spencer!  Stephanie Plum hasn’t aged even though her sister has come home, gotten pregnant, twice, and Steph’s still ‘early 30’s’ fifteen years later.  Barry Eisler aged his John Rain and even made his somewhat dependent on weapons – something he disdained as a weakness and now needs to compensate for the limitations that age is putting on his speed.  Jack Reacher is aging slowly, but aging.  In Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco, he gets older, has children and gains a certain respectability, but remains at heart who he is.  Jill Churchill, Joan Hess and other cozy writers deal with aging far better because their protagonists aren’t expected to get involved in fights with criminals.  Amelia Peabody and the whole Emerson family have aged nicely, thank-you, while James Bond remains forever young.  Even John Sanford aged Lucas Davenport and promoted him up the ranks.

This might be one of the few places where romance novels have a distinct edge.  They don’t tell a story with the same lead characters over many books lasting years.  Only occasionally will a writer tell the story of the children or grandchildren from earlier books.  So each book is a standalone story – maybe part of a set the centers around an extended family, Club members, comrades in arms, even a house or place of business or school, but not usually a series with the same leads over 10 or more books.  Leads become background characters in the next story to tie things together to continue the larger story against which each romance is played out.  Paranormal and Urban Fantasy romances use this technique often.  Regency romances are fond of extended families, clubs and schools.  Contemporary uses families, towns, places of business, etc.  Romantic suspense uses security, protection and investigation services staffed by former black ops, special ops or covert ops types or they create covert extra-governmental group – very popular.  Es muy macho, eh?  Regardless, the plots might get stale, but romances are character driven, so you can often forgive a well used plot.

Now before all you action fans smugly point out that ‘the plot’s the REAL story’ – know an author named Clive Cussler?  How about Ian Fleming?  Who cared how outrageous the plots were, we read those books to watch Dirk Pitt and Giordano or Bond in action.  The villain changed names, but who cared?  These guys kick ass.  And I’ll put Tara Janzen’s Steele Street guys up against your action thriller guys and we’ll see who makes it!  (My team gets John Rain.)

I took a look at Amazon’s list of ‘hot new releases’.  Half was non-fiction and of the fiction, I’d say 90% were paranormal books – vamps, weres, and alternate realities.  Same on Barnes and Nobel top 10.  NY Times Fiction Bestseller #1 is The Associate by John Grisham.  On Amazon it gets 2.5*.   What does that tell you about how a name sells even bad books?  But will those people buy again?  Clive Cussler’s Corsair is #2 and Randy Wayne White’s Dead Silence is #3.  You read Cussler without expecting a great plot or great characters, you read him because he write the literary equivalent of the Die Hard movies.  He doesn’t take things seriously, least of all himself.  It’s pure slam-bam-thank-you ‘mam action, witty banter, a thin plot and impossible odds that our ever resourceful and preternaturally lucky heroes manage to triumph over.  It’s pure mindless entertainment and I’m not expecting anything more.  That doesn’t make it bad, it’s just what it is and his fans love it.  You buy it knowing this in advance.  I confess, sometimes, even I love it.  I pick-up Randy Wayne White – and yeah, I expect a LOT more than that.  This is a writer of enormous talent who seems to have lost his mojo and is allowing his alterego – Randy Striker – control the plots.  But that’s for the book review that I’ll put up this weekend.

In the meantime, all you readers out there stop and think for a moment.  Are you paying ever increasing prices for decreasing quality in your fiction?  Feeling cheated by your favorite author’s increasingly trite and generic stories?  Maybe it’s time to just say no and re-read the good books we saved on our ‘keeper shelf’.  I’m getting mighty tired of being ripped off.  Vote with your wallet – stop buying bad books!  When you do get a real lemon, speak up!  Vote on Amazon.  Go to the forums.  Whatever – express your disappointment.  Despite Victoria Laurie’s attack on a fan panning one of her novels, just speak up.  You can even disagree with me.  🙂

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1 Comment »

  1. […] @ 9:07 pm Tags: books, Editorial, commentary OK, I know I let loose on action thriller authors in Ruminations On Plots, Characters and Quality of Books back in late March, but now I need to vent about everything from romance and erotic romance […]

    Pingback by Mulling Over the Plethora of Stunningly Mediocre Books « Tour’s Books Blog — April 17, 2009 @ 9:21 pm | Reply


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