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The genius of bad books

Jonathan Ring

From James Bond to Jack Reacher, we’re suckers for an uncomplicated hero. But there is an art to the action novel, writes Nick Cohen

Anyone who believes the human race is rational should try introducing themselves to strangers as an author. You do not need to do it too many times before someone says, “I need to make money. I’m thinking of writing a bestseller.”

They do not understand that they have more chance of winning the lottery. Countless millions have written novels no publisher will touch. Of the thousands of hopeful thrillers, rom-coms and sex-and-glamour blockbusters published each year, only a few will sell 50,000 or more. Fifty thousand is only the capacity of fair-sized football stadium, but it is a more than respectable sale for a book. At the top of the pyramid are the genuine blockbusters: the few books that fly off the stands. And if those odds aren’t daunting enough to the person in front of you, clutching a glass and expecting fame and money, you need to tell them best-selling authors must have talent too.

To the educated, the idea that the airport thrillers I find myself picking up despite my better instincts are written by talented authors is absurd. It is their clumsy writing and formulaic plots that make everyone believe they can knock one out. They are not GK Chesterton’s “good-bad books” – the Sherlock Holmes or Jeeves and Wooster stories, which are read and loved after works that are more serious are forgotten. No one reads Alistair MacLean, Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins today. The fate of the airport novel is to be everywhere and then nowhere. Their authors flare and then vanish. I know it, so why do I, like so many others, still put aside worthwhile books for trash? No book sells in millions by chance. Their authors have something that readers cannot find elsewhere, or at the very least struggle to find elsewhere.

“You can be 50 pages into a Jack Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it”

Every time I finish a Jack Reacher novel, I wonder why I have wasted my time. The Reacher stories are like pornography. They grip you while you read them then leave you with a feeling of futility and shame at the end. Lee Child is so determined to churn out a book a year he recycles his plots: a particular favourite is the villain who organises an apparently crazed serial killing so the police never guess that he was only in cold-blooded pursuit of one of the dead. So similar are his stories that you can be 50 pages into a Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it.

Yet Child has sold more than 100 million copies because he has a talent beyond the ability to construct a convincing plot and describe action – skills which on their own are far harder to learn than those who breezily think they can write a blockbuster imagine. His hero can beat anyone in a fistfight. He loves guns and knows how to use them. He is strong, largely silent, entirely self-sufficient, clever, honourable and always on the side of justice. He never suffers a moment of doubt about the righteousness of killing wrong-doers, and he never needs counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder when he has dispatched them. Such men have been heroes from Homer through the knights of Arthurian legend to the cowboys of Hollywood’s golden age. They are almost entirely absent from today’s fiction, because our age regards men of violence with understandable wariness. Although the modern world is preferable in every respect to societies that mythologise warriors, there remains a yearning for the old heroes, and not just among male readers. Jack Reacher is a modern Hercules or knight errant. Child has found that readers respond to stories of violence without guilt in a world without complexity as enthusiastically as their ancestors did.

A decade ago, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels sold almost as well as Child’s novels do now. They have equally far-fetched plots. The most telling and unconvincing is the willingness of beautiful women to sleep with the shabby middle-aged journalist hero, who, strangely enough, sounds rather like Larsson. Granted, they are more thoughtful than the Reacher novels, but I would be astonished if they survived.

“Lisbeth Salander  may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism”


Yet, once again, beneath all the murders and conspiracies, Larsson had a kind of truth to tell, and news to bring. He understood how computers could be hacked to devastating effect long before Edward Snowden. Moreover, his heroine, Lisbeth Salander, who doesn’t “hate men, just men who hate women”, may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism.

The king of the airport bookstands at present is Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim. It is the best thriller I have read in years, in part because it deals with Islamist terrorism. Most film, television and literary thrillers avoid the subject for reasons that are honourable in their way. Writers do not want to stir anti-Muslim prejudice, or are appalled by the west’s wars after 9/11. They are also constrained, although they rarely admit it, by their ignorance of religious fanaticism. Hence, Jason Bourne fights his employers in the CIA and James Bond fights shadowy conspiracies of powerful westerners. The combined effect of these good motives is strange, however. Real spies worry about radical Islam more than any other threat. Fictional spies barely think about it. Hayes succeeds, not because he is a better writer than his contemporaries are, but because he addresses fears that his rivals, both highbrow and lowbrow, cannot bring themselves to face, and spends the time needed to research and create a plausible Islamist villain.

“The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself” 

He believes in his story, in other words, as all successful authors must. You can hide in an article or a web posting of 1,000-words or so. Those who think they can write a bestseller do not understand that there is no hiding place in a novel of 100,000 words or more. The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself. If they don’t believe in their story, no one else will. If they are following formula, their insincerity will out.

I accept that I risk sounding naively romantic about a publishing business without a shred of romance in it. So let me stress that I am not arguing that an author’s sincerity guarantees that a book will be good or even publishable.

Nor am I saying authors must sincerely believe their story is a realistic or even quarter-way realistic portrait of the world. The thrillers that sell in their millions are by any sensible standard ridiculous. The forces of law and order are either corrupt or asleep on the job. Western societies endure extraordinary levels of violence, and are threatened with worse, even though by historical standards they are more peaceful now than they have ever been.

You can claim that every device their authors use is false. Every device, that is, except one. They must believe in their books so that, if only for a moment, their readers can too. To put it another way, if you want to show a lone agent taking out a crime gang or saving America from a biological attack, you had better be able to convince yourself that he can.

At some level, all popular writers share a similar delusion. Barbara Cartland believed that princes would come for virtuous girls who waited, and Ian Fleming thought that men could be James Bond. The best airport thriller writers are no less lost in make-believe. 

Rational people may want the advances, but cannot begin to imitate the immersion in fantasy. For that, perhaps, they should be grateful. 

This article originally appeared in issue one of Little Atoms magazine. To read more from Fergal Keane, Suzanne Moore, Jonathan Meades, Sarah Churchwell, Martin Robbins and more, order your copy here

Nick Cohen is a journalist, author and political commentator. He is a columnist for the Observer, a blogger for the Spectator and TV critic for Standpoint magazine. His books include You Can't Read This Book, What's Left? and Pretty Straight Guys

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  1. David Aaronovitch, writer, broadcaster and commentator on international politics and the media joins Little Atoms to discuss the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.

    “A very committed conspiracy theorist is as attached to their theories as any significant religious person is to their faith or a political ideologue to a political idea that they really don’t want to give up.”

    His book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History explores the importance of rationality in the information age.

    “The sources of information available to young people today are at a level that we never dreamed of. It will be increasingly important that as the information revolution deepens, to create spaces that have a rationalist kite mark on them - spaces that have a badge of quality on them. I think its going to be one of the big discussions of the next 10 years.”

    For Aaronovitch deconstructing conspiracy theories and finding the truth is vitally important.

    “It matters because one is true and one isn’t. It matters trying to get at the true versions of history and the true versions of science as far as we can know them. That effort matters.”

    First broadcast 29/05/09