Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Meet Fabio’s Darker Cousin, aka All-Infidels-Must-Die!

I had a revelation of sorts this week. After reading three wonderful books in a row by three very talented authors (Martin Cruz Smith, Len Deighton, Charles McCarry), I resisted the urge to read another of their books and instead picked up the newest release by a very successful thriller writer. Sometimes, market research can be very illuminating.

The book’s premise sounds promising. The problem is, within a page or so of being introduced to our writer’s first villain (an Arab, of course) I started laughing. Here is his first bit of dialogue: “Infidels! The Jews are the enemies of Islam. Jews are the source of all conflicts! They are liars. MURDERERS. If I am defending my home, no one can call me a terrorist. All infidels must die!”

Now, I’ve met many Arabs in my life. Some were Moslems, some were Christians of various denominations, a few were Druze, some were secularists. Many are refugees, having lost homes, businesses, and/or farms to the Israelis both in 48 and 67. A few of them could be labeled “terrorists.” Some were members of the PLO at a time before Hamas when we thought the PLO was really scary. Some spent several years in Israeli prisons, some have been tortured. One even hijacked a few airplanes and blew them up (minus the passengers) in the deserts of Jordan. Now, because I’m always interested in getting to understand people, we talk politics. We talk history. We talk philosophy. We talk religion. Yet never once have I heard anyone spew any of the above venom. The only people who talk like this come out of the minds of American writers. They are clichés. Actually, they’re worse than clichés, they’re cartoons. And cartoons are (usually) funny. Funny is not something you want your villain to be unless you’re writing a comedy.

But what, you’re probably saying, does this have to do with Fabio? I’m getting to that.

As bad as the “All infidels must die!” line is, the book quickly gets worse. That memorable bit of dialogue is delivered in the Prologue, which is set in 1985. Picture the scene: the bridge between East and West Berlin. Of course it’s dark, cold and snowing (isn’t it always?). The Russians are releasing someone they really don’t want to release in exchange for our infidel-hating cliché. Why? Because his parents offered them 1 ½ million dollars. Right. But wait. It gets better. We’re told that after he’s released, our cliché—described as a “Muslim militant”—is going back to Damascus. At this point I’m screaming, “No, no, no, no!” Evidently no one told our thriller writer that any Muslim militant with any sense steered well clear of Damascus in 1985 unless he wanted to end up in prison being tortured (basically by the same guys the CIA now uses in their “renditions” program). But Damascus is scary—it’s part of the axis of evil, after all. So who cares if the scenario makes sense?

But wait. It gets better. After they make the exchange, the evil Commies—perfidious like all villains—have a sniper shoot and kill the man they’ve just released. I almost hurled the book across the room. Right. I’m to believe the Soviets would risk having everyone on their side of the bridge immediately machine-gunned, plus destroy forever this very professional and mutually beneficial exchange system, simply to kill a 70-year-old doctor they agreed to release just to get their money-grubbing hands on 1 ½ million? Pul-eeze.

Why did our writer do this? (This is where we get to the Fabio Revelation part.) Ignorance doubtless played a part, but I suspect she wrote this stuff because All-Infidels-Must-Die Arab terrorists, Damascus, and perfidious Commies are shorthand for Bad Guys. Why create real characters and situations when you can evoke emotional reactions by leaning on clichés?

In the interests of market research, I’m still wading through this book. We’ve met two more villains, one American, one described as cosmopolitan, both as hopelessly clichéd as All Infidels Must Die. The more I read, the more I find I’m reminded of the collection of Mills and Boons romances I once plowed through in an effort to help a couple of Aussie friends aiming at that market understand why their books kept being rejected. I’m sure our thriller writer would faint if she knew I was comparing her to romance writers, of all things. Actually, it’s the romance writers I’m insulting here. (And to them I apologize. There are some wonderful, talented writers working in the romance genre.)

Why the comparison? Because our thriller writer has fallen into the romance-like shortcut of using symbols, images, and allusions to provoke emotional responses. Consider this passage of literary criticism: “The author…and her audience enter into a pact with one another. The reader trusts the writer to create and recreate for her a vision of a fictional world that is free of moral ambiguity, a larger-than-life domain in which such ideals as courage, justice, honor, loyalty…are challenged and upheld. It is an active, dynamic realm of conflict and resolution, evil and goodness, darkness and light…and it is a familiar world in which the roads are well traveled and the rules are clear. The…writer gives form and substance to this vision by locking it in language, and the…reader yields to this alternative world in the act of reading, allowing the narrative to engage her mind and emotions and provide her with a certain intensity of experience. She knows that certain expectations will be met and that certain conventions will not be violated.”

That’s Jayne Ann Krentz, explaining why romance writers use clichéd plot elements and language—a language that “most effectively carries and reinforces the essential messages that [the writers] are endeavoring to convey….Stock phrases and literary figures are regularly used to evoke emotion.” But Krentz could just as easily be describing all too many of today’s thriller writers. Krentz was writing a defense for some of the worst excesses of the romance genre. I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it when it’s applied to thrillers, either. This is lazy writing. Unfortunately, it’s also very, very successful. Since most thrillers are written by men rather than women, I doubt they’ll receive the kind of scorn that is so-often heaped on romances. But that doesn’t alter the fact that another genre is being hijacked. Move over Fabio.

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Anonymous Chap O'Keefe said...

An excellent message, if only it serves to encourage all those genre writers who come across it to pay more attention to credible characterization and plotting.

In defence of the romance writers and others, I would stress a couple of points to which you allude. Readers and publishers of genre fiction present authors with expectations, and it is difficult in any branch of the entertainment industry to argue with what you call "successful". The people putting up the money like to think they're backing "a sure thing" . . . so we get the clichés, albeit that these days a cliché's life does seem shorter!

As far as the maligning of female romance authors goes, I could, but won't, name one or two male western writers who have been just as badly maligned, possibly for similar reasons -- perceptions by a non-reading general public that are often exaggerations.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Steve Malley said...

Oh, they'll be reviled, all right. Regardless of gender, lazy writing is lazy writing, and the critics never forgive us for it.

Remember the old Fawcett/Gold Medal crime books? Some great work languished in (critical) obscurity in those books, but and awful lot of tacky and bad work sat between those covers. They weren't the sort of thing you'd want to admit you read.

Same for 80's horror. And comics? Fuggedabouddit. To most people, they still mean men in their underwear throwing cars at each other.

No easy solution, either. Genres exist because their readers (including me) are drawn to those story elements and want to see them again and again.

For many in my family, black velvet Elvises, little porcelain clowns and ten dollar 'Famous Artist Oil Paintings' are high art. For some, the crappiest romance/mystery/thriller/western is great fun as long as the formula holds. And no reason why they shouldn't be, either.

Except that the rest of us wince when we read those things. And admitting we write them gets us smeared with the black velvet brush...

Now, I'm a fussy reader. I want my thrills and chills, but I also want pace and storytelling, believable characterization and poetic use of the language. And a plot.

And yeah, sometimes that does seem to be too much to ask.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to read mostly older thrillers. They seemed more literate in many ways, although sometimes plagued with cliches as well.

9:47 AM  

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