“The writing is terrible!”
“The characters are cardboard!”
“How does this guy sell so many books?”
How many times have struggling midlist writers and discriminating readers heard, thought, and said some variant of these words? The object of their puzzlement, dismay, and yes, envy is usually an author—Dan Brown and James Patterson being the most notable examples—whose work is not only earning them millions but read with enjoyment by millions of readers. On the one hand, are all these readers swine who don’t know pearls from garbage and prefer the latter? On the other, are champions of expert use of language and rounded characters merely literary snobs? What is going on here?
I recently participated in a panel at the New York Public Library devoted to mystery and thriller writers who use their professional expertise as doctors, lawyers,and psychotherapists as a resource in their work. During the question period, an audience member and the lawyer on the panel agreed that in their opinion, Scott Turow not only presented a more accurate picture of a lawyer’s world than John Grisham, but was a far better writer. The Turow fan’s question: “Why is Grisham so popular?”
I have no opinion on Turow or Grisham. I’ve read only one or two of each of these writers’ books, and they are not my kind of read. But the answer to not only the immediate question but the global question of how bad writing about flat characters so often makes no difference to a book’s success suddenly came to me.
Imagine the novel—any novel, but especially a mystery, thriller, or other genre novel—as a three-legged stool. The three legs that support the work are writing, characterization, and storytelling. The simple secret of why millions of readers love certain books in spite of their flaws is that their authors—Brown and Patterson and Grisham and their ilk—are master storytellers. These writers aren’t emperors whose fans can’t see they have no clothes. Their “clothes” are the gift of telling stories that keep readers turning the pages to find out what happens.
I happen to love character-driven novels. And I’m an old English major who winces at sloppy syntax and stale metaphors. But my theory makes more sense to me when I consider the movies I’ve seen based on Brown’s and Grisham’s novels. First, there’s the “high concept,” a phrase that I believe was coined in the movie business, though publishing has adopted it. Take Grisham’s first bestseller, The Firm. What’s it about? A young lawyer takes his dream job and discovers he’s working for the Mafia. Brilliant—what a story! Second, consider what happens to characters with no depth when the stories are made into movies. In the book of The DaVinci Code, Robert Langdon has no backstory and little personality. But in the movie, he’s Tom Hanks, a character invested with life by the actor’s presence.
How important is good writing? Is it irrelevant? Is the notion of literature itself outdated? Do we need it? I think we do. Let’s consider diamonds, which are far beyond the means of most people. My own two or three pieces of “good” jewelry are cubic zirconia. And Swarovski crystals can be lovely. So why bother with diamonds at all? Even if we can never own one but only admire them in Tiffany’s window, there’s nothing like the genuine fire. Same with a well written book.