London now has an autumn season when the big fiction blockbusters are delivered to a public with longer evenings for reading and Christmas money to spend. It may not be anywhere near as clearly marked off as it is in New York and the launching machinery still creaks a bit, but its component parts are familiar from the smoother-running American model. Some six months before publication, fabulous, record-breaking deals and tie-ins are released to the trade and furnish paragraphs for the gossip columns. Background stories, authors’ profiles and studio portraits are sown in the national and provincial press during the run-up to publication day. With luck, Robert Robinson or a lesser TV person will be recruited to do a celebratory book programme. In addition to the traditional newspaper, shop-window and point-of-sale displays there will also be extensive coverage on commercial radio. This year, ‘biggest-ever’ advertising budgets have been divulged for the season’s biggest titles: £50,000, for example, for Hutchinson’s The Devil’s Alternative, a sum which they claim will finance the ‘greatest ever campaign for a hardback novel’; Secker and Warburg, a smaller house, have allocated £15,000 for the promotion of The Four Hundred. Authors’ tours, interviews and signing sessions are laid on. ‘Distinctive symbols’ are devised and publicised to fix the books in the public mind.
Most people will by now know that this autumn the British blockbusters are Forsyth’s The Devil’s Alternative (its distinctive symbol is a neon-red star), Stephen Sheppard’s The Four Hundred (its distinctive symbol is a gold sovereign) and Harry Patterson’s To Catch a King (this title and its distinctive symbol are still to burst upon us from, once again, Hutchinson). The authors of these commercially outstanding novels have much in common professionally. All are British tax exiles. Forsyth lives in Southern Ireland; Sheppard in Spain; Patterson in Jersey. Expatriation is fitting since they are in the business of writing what Hutchinson’s publicity machine quite accurately calls ‘world best-sellers’. The Eagle has landed, Patterson’s best best-seller (which he wrote under the name of Jack Higgins), is estimated to have sold 18 million copies in 42 languages; Forsyth’s last novel, The Dogs of War, runs alongside with an estimated 20 million copies in 24 languages. These authors are the literary equivalent of the multinational company. Forsyth reports that 80 per cent of his income derives from other than British sources. And in keeping with its global market, the subject-matter of this new variety of world literature is carefully internationalised by its authors.
The narrative of The Devil’s Alternative shuttles between Washington, London, Moscow and Holland. Understandable indulgence is shown by these British authors to non-British readers. Forsyth, for example, will routinely insert parenthetic guide-book material for the ignorant, but commercially valued, foreigner: ‘At home on the outskirts of Sheffield, the great steel town of Yorkshire, Mr Norman Pickering kissed his wife and daughter farewell …’ Would Bennett have ventured that (for us) redundant information as to Sheffield’s location and industry? But Bennett, of course, was a best-seller of a previous era and 80 per cent of his income was earned in the home market.
Vol. 1 No. 5 · 20 December 1979
SIR: John Sutherland’s essay (LRB, 8 November) is foolish. The thrillers of Forsyth and Higgins are not ‘written,’ he says, as if that meant anything at all. What this complaint boils down to is that they are written fast. This is even less relevant than Forsyth’s shark-tooth pendant. Dickens wrote fast. Forsyth’s prose is not as good as Dickens’s, but this is not a question of writing speed. What is it a question of? Sutherland doesn’t say. I think he should.
But he admits he is at a loss for a context in which to consider supersellers. So are most critics. ‘They simply don’t fit the reviewer’s bench or his tools.’ Could it be that some blame attaches to the reviewer for this state of affairs? Is it right that the people on whom we rely for intelligent discussion of fiction should quiver impotently and rant about necklaces and film rights when confronted with the novels that most readers read?
There is a literary context within which best-selling thrillers might be assessed. The genre has a one-hundred-year history. Beginning with The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, its milestones include Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, the early novels of Graham Greene and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Crime and Punishment might be discussed as a borderline case (and has been so discussed by Julian Symons). There might be argument about the primacy of The Moonstone: what about Bleak House, for example?
I imagine Sutherland would argue that The Devil’s Alternative won’t stand comparison with any of those books. In turn I should say that none of the novels reviewed in the same issue of the London Review of Books would stand such comparison.
If Sutherland thinks The Devil’s Alternative is rotten (and I bet he does, really) then he might subject it to the kind of hatchet job Ian Hamilton does on C.P. Snow on the very next page of your magazine. He might also bend his intellect to the following interesting question: just what is so damn good about Forsyth’s work that half the world is panting to read his next book?
Thrillers need not be reviewed generously. They might be approached with sympathy for their aims and awareness of their limitations: just the approach used toward the kind of straight novel of considerable skill and slight weight which is the reviewer’s regular fare.
Readers and writers need good critics. We want them to nail down exactly what makes one book so enchanting, to articulate what it was about another (or even the same) book that left us vaguely dissatisfied. I speak as a writer of best-selling, if not superselling, thrillers. Each day I strive for the apt words, I rack my brain for compelling imagery, I agonise over passages I know to be shallow, I go dizzy trying to keep clearly in mind the parallel development of interacting characters. I read Dickens to remind me how much better it can be done. Intelligent criticism is hard to come by.
We don’t need the publicity of a review in the London Review of Books. We don’t want Mr Sutherland to write about our clothes and our swimming-pools. We want him to consider what is good and what is bad about our books. We want criticism. Please.
John Sutherland writes: I will deal with the ignorant part of this letter first. In his expatriation on the Côte d’Azur it would seem that Mr Follett routinely turns to Dickens. Dickens apparently consoles the author of The Eye of the Needle in his intolerable wrestle with words and meanings because ‘Dickens wrote fast.’ Dickens didn’t write fast. Bleak House – a novel in whose great tradition Follett would place himself and Forsyth – took over a year to write, as did all the major fiction. One instalment (a twentieth, that is) of Bleak House might occupy Dickens for as long as Forsyth needed to write the whole of The Day of the Jackal. There have been schools of ‘literary’ authors who advocated frenzied rates of composition, notably the ‘Beats’. But I don’t suppose that Mr Follett would derive any consolation from the fact that ‘Kerouac wrote fast.’ Mr Follett is falsely modest in claiming that he is only a second-league ‘best-seller’. His recent American triumphs have elevated him undeniably to the rank of ‘international superseller’. Since this is the case, his complaint about the critical invisibility of writers like himself carries weight. I’m all in favour of more, and more thoughtful, commentary on contemporary thrillers.
Vol. 2 No. 1 · 24 January 1980
SIR: As one who would have liked to have been ‘literary’ but doesn’t have the brains or the background, I read a lot of reviews – and even occasionally the books. I am always struck by the seemingly gratuitous and extreme personal rudeness of many reviewers to their subjects – unless of course they all know each other, but I think that unlikely. The example I have in mind is John Sutherland’s reply to Ken Follet’s letter (Letters, 20 December 1979) defending – or defining – thrillers. I personally think Frederick Forsyth’s books are not of much account, but there are times when I am glad to read them; and even if there weren’t, I wouldn’t call him a cheap hack because he has a swimming-pool and I haven’t, or is lucky enough to live in the South of France. Writing for money doesn’t make people blockheads. I suspect that without the huge sales of those ‘deplorable’ books, the weighty and important ones that ‘we’ read might not be published.
Ships Pilot, Sovereign Venture
Vol. 2 No. 4 · 6 March 1980
SIR: John Sutherland (Letters, 20 December 1979) is wrong about Dickens’s writing habits, and since Mr Sutherland goes as far as to call me ignorant, perhaps you will allow me to reply. It is misleading to say that Dickens took more than a year to write Bleak House, for he was at the same time writing A Child’s History of England and ‘To be Read at Dusk’; he was full-time editor of Household Words; he took his theatrical company on provincial tours; he was involved in slum-clearance schemes in East London; he travelled abroad and he led a hectic social and public life. Sometimes he wrote only in the mornings; sometimes for only a fortnight in each month; often not at all. If it took him more than a year to finish a book, that was because he was not working full-time on the book; when he was writing, he wrote fast. ‘Mr Dickens writes too often and too fast,’ said a contemporary critic, making the same mistake as Mr Sutherland by confusing speed with haste. Now as then, quality is not necessarily related to pace of work; nor to life-style, publishers’ publicity, or any other of the red herrings in Mr Sutherland’s article. He says he is in favour of more thoughtful commentary on contemporary thrillers, yet when I complain that he writes about an author’s jewellery instead of the book, he finds space in his reply for a gibe about my house in the South of France. I think he’s insincere.