British thriller writers shoot themselves in the feet

"Jeffrey Archer, Matt Lynn, Martin Baker and Alan Clements launch bid to woo writers away from 'formulaic' American writing" is the headline of this ludicrous Guardian piece. The "reign of the production-line American thriller writers" that is being challenged is the crown held by the likes of James Patterson, John Grisham and Dan Brown.

While there is certainly some truth in what these British authors are saying about the contemporary book market (ghost writers, "factories" of teams producing books under one main author's byline, and so on), let's just take a closer look at the five principles of the group.

1. That the first duty of any book is to entertain.

2. That a book should reflect the world around it.

3. That thrilling, popular fiction doesn't follow formulas.

4. That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.

5. That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.

These principles are all fair enough if that's your taste, but the two authors of the "Curzon four" I have read certainly do not live up to them. In addition, there are many books that can be criticised along the same lines that are not thrillers: celebrity biographies and novels are ghost written, for example; Dickens and Zola followed forumulas; and Jane Austen did not reflect highly significant contemporary events in Europe (the Napoleonic wars).

But the whole enterprise is massively wrong-headed, and possibly just a marketing exercise to get some of these authors better-known. Nobody can tell anyone else what to read, or judge a book along the lines that these Curzon authors are doing. What one reader extols, another may not. The first duty of a book is not necessarily to entertain, if that isn't what the reader wants. Some readers enjoy formulas. And so on. The Curzon four should stop this moaning forthwith, and if they think they can do better than Patterson, Grisham and Brown, good luck to them. In the meantime, "sour" and "grapes" are two words that immediately spring to mind. If you disagree with me you are welcome to find out more about the Curzon group:

"Their not-entirely-altruistic plans to champion the cause of British thriller writing include a month-long debate on books site Bookarmy.com which will pit British writers against a yet-to-be confirmed American author; a poll to find the greatest British thriller of all time (early possibilities include The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The 39 Steps and The Ipcress File); a story competition for wannabe thriller writers; festival appearances; and a manifesto of five principles they hope will provoke debate. Promotions, blogs and live chats will be running throughout the year at a new website, greatbritishthriller.com."

All of these enterprises seem very positive and worthwhile; I only wish they did not originate in such apparently petty jealousy.

Update: Sarah Weinman's view on the Curzon four is here.

7 thoughts on “British thriller writers shoot themselves in the feet

  1. Maxine I think that should read “doesn’t follow formulas”.
    I must admit having a chuckle at reading the article on line. If these writers need advice from Jeffrey Archer jealousy is not their only problem.
    The idea that a financial journalist, a screenwriter and a TV producer [whose wives are far better known than them] are going to revive the British thriller is laughable.
    The great British thriller writers of the past did have the big advantage that they had lived life outside the confines of a TV studio and away from the dining tables of the chattering classes.
    Will any of the Curzon group join the ranks of Buchan, Sapper, Ambler, Household, Le Carre, Deighton, Fleming, Forsyth and MacLean?
    Will their sales match one tenth of those of Patterson, Brown and Grisham ?
    I wonder.
    “1. That the first duty of any book is to entertain.
    2. That a book should reflect the world around it.
    3. That thrilling, popular fiction doesn’t follow formulas.
    4. That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.
    5. That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.”
    I have to admit that I quite like good formulaic writing with characters I want to read about again and again.
    Is it possible that Le Carre, Deighton, Conan Doyle and Christie all wrote to a formula, and that much of the Golden Age of British crime fiction reflected a very limited view of the world around it?
    Perhaps Karen can get a review book so we can compare these three with Eric Ambler or John Le Carre? ;o)

  2. Thank you, Norman. I have made the correction – well spotted.
    Based on the two out of four of these authors I have read, I would not bother with the review copies😉
    I thought Sarah Weinmnan’s points about the male-centric group plus their selections, and old-fashioned views of what constitutes a “thriller”, a genre that has evolved considerably since Jeffrey Archer’s schooldays, were very good ones.

  3. What a thoroughly odd thing this is. Have any of them pondered the fact they might not be very good? (The only one of the four I’ve heard of and read is Archer and while I think in his early days he could spin some of the best yarns around of late the man’s enourmous ego and belief in his own fantasy life has meant his writing has suffered).
    Stella Rimmington writes a damn fine British thriller. But of course she wouldn’t count being female and all.
    I’m reading Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 right now and it’s gobsmackingly entertaining, non-forumulaic and definitely an adventure (with a few tears thrown in). I guess it’s not a thriller in the Ian Flemming sense but it’s a thrilling story.

  4. Just finishing Philip Margolin’s latest, Berndadette, and that’s an entertaining, exciting, well-plotted thriller, too. Highly enjoyable!

  5. Well, let’s look at those precepts again:
    “1. That the first duty of any book is to entertain.
    2. That a book should reflect the world around it.
    3. That thrilling, popular fiction doesn’t follow formulas.
    4. That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.
    5. That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.”
    The precepts’ preoccupation with entertainment, adventure, excitement is all fine and dandy, and the eagerness to present all of that in a witty and stylish way while being also insightful (whatever that means), seems oddly at odds with a desire to reflect the world around us.
    But, setting all of that aside for the moment (since one could write a lengthy essay about the strengths and weaknesses in those few notions), I am particularly fascinated by the notion that “thrilling, popular fiction” should not “follow formulas.”
    Any serious student of so-called “thrilling, popular fiction” knows that good writing within those genres must nevertheless be guided by certain “formulas” (i.e., conventions and rules), otherwise all that is left is a disorganized, unsatisfying mishmash served up by a writer who either does not understand the craft or deliberately pursues singularity and unorthodoxy (and those are not necessary useful goals in the writing of “thrilling, popular fiction”).
    At the bottom, though, what probably is most destabilizing and misleading about the precepts is the implied goal: books that will sell without much regard from their literary merit, and that kind of crassness bothers me. Please understand that I do not mean to use the term “literary” in any sort of snobbish way, but–after all–good writing is simply good writing, and an author misses the point completely if he or she thinks devotion to the aforementioned five precepts satisfies that single, more important precept: good writing.

  6. May I leap to the defence of these poor helpless male writers who have inadvertantly (or probably deliberately) stirred up such hostility?
    I am a female writer. I have no links with the media or anything else newsworthy. I am simply a writer of crime fiction, committed to producing the best books I can, with what creative energy I have. Cut Short has just been published as the first in my series of thrillers. I am not sufficiently well known to interest the national press, but my book has received encouraging acclaim from local press and reviewed as ‘an excellent debut’ in Crime Time Magazine. I am particularly pleased that the style of writing has received praise. I happen to believe that writers have a duty to write well. My own book must stand – or vanish – on its own merits alone. That is how it should be. I don’t hold with spurious media hype, all style, no substance.
    I have joined the Curzon Group because, carp at them as you may, they are doing something to try and raise the profile of real books. In this age of screen-addiction, anything that signals a commitment to real books, or, for that matter, live performance in any of the arts, should be applauded and supported.

  7. Dear Leigh
    This post was written with what information was available at the time. Now, almost two months later, there is more information known about the Curzon Group. At the time of writing this post, they had issued a press release promoting themselves and attacking others. They did not seem very well informed about the range of books on offer to readers. Good luck to you if you have joined the Curzon Group and they are promoting your book. However, I suggest that your group might find more favour with readers looking for new books to read if they weren’t quite so negative. There are lots of good books being published.

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