How Jack Reacher and I Grew Apart
Lee Child used to be one of my favourite authors. Now, I can barely make it through a page.
The Authorial Voice Guessing Game
Clues are restricted purely to the prose, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. Not content.
I write on a computer that’s not new, but not old either. Outside it’s not warm, not cold. Just right. Three little bears. My desk is on the sunny side of a dark room. Pens. Pencils. Paper. The kind you’ve seen a hundred times. Maybe more. I get up to make a coffee. I drink it. Then another. Then I do what I do. Write. I do it every day. I might know I’m going to write. Might not. I keep going. No matter where it goes, how it gets there. Rules are rules. They keep society moving like gas in a pickup.
The screen starts blank. I tap for a while and it fills with words. Sometimes slow. Sometimes fast. Maybe somewhere in between. I do it for as long as it takes. A lot of words, a lot of time. Not all good, not all bad. Simple maths. I’m done when I’m done. Never before. Afterwards I do what I always do, except when I don’t. Exercise. Walk or run. One is just a quicker version of the other. Pick your poison. Thirty minutes, then forty, then sixty. When I’m done its late afternoon. Sky red as a sunburnt trucker.
Evening is the same routine as the morning but later in the day. Shower, dry, dress. Fresh pot of coffee. Cup poured. Book opened. I collapse on the couch. Big and lumpy, just like me. No more work, minimal movement. Rest and relaxation. I might listen to music, faint as a HB pencil. Maybe 4H. Some time later my stomach barks at me. I feed it. Meat and veggies. Caveman style. Potatoes, beer if I’m feeling it. I usually am. Time ticks, tocks. I’m not in bed late, but not early either. Tomorrow will be the same, maybe. Might not be a tomorrow, because writing like this makes me want to kill myself.
Did you find that inane prologue a slog? Did anyone guess what authorial voice I emulated?
James D. Grant, aka. Lee Child.
One of my favourite childhood authors, who I have realised is a horrible, terrible, atrocious writer. Or at least masquerading as one.
He’s a Bestselling Author, You’re Nobody
A fair statement. I am a lowly aspiring author in the process of writing my first novel, and would dream to have the kind of success that Lee Child has had. Over 20 books published, many of which were bestsellers. His novels have been adapted into films starring Tom Cruise, he has been widely emulated, and admitted to being able to “live like a king without making another buck ever”. All this success from writing macho wish-fulfillment stories featuring the ex-military policeman turned avenging nomad, Jack Reacher. Reacher is as intimidating to men as he is attractive to women, and is one of the most recognisable characters of 21st Century popular fiction.
Child knows what his audience wants and sticks to a meticulous formula. His novels begin with the reliability of a swiss clock. Reacher rolls into a foreign town, witnesses wrongdoing, and sticks around to fix it. Along the way he is bound to win several fights where he is outnumbered, speak like he grew up inside an 80’s action movie, and have sex with at least one, sometimes two, colleagues.
Of course, genre fiction is built on formula, which I am not opposed to. That is not my issue with Child. Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, and John Sandford rank among some of my favourite contemporary authors in the genre, and are all formulaic to some extent. Procedure makes thrillers and crime fiction work. To put it in the simplest terms: there is a crime, it is investigated, and eventually solved. What separates one work from another is what happens in between the crime and the solving — endearing characters, enthralling plots and vivid atmosphere. Child is sufficient at all these. He has studied the genre and hits story beats with the precision of the sniper in “One Shot”.
What Child doesn’t have, or perhaps chooses not to show, is a writing style with any substance.
So? He’s Rich and Successful
He certainly is. And you’re right to ask the question. Upon the release of “The Midnight Line” last week, this cycle while have continued with major success and very little deviation through 22 books across 20 years. The new book is bound to be met with the usual reaction — a mix of critical dismissal and appraisal, and huge popularity.
Most of us would kill for Child’s success. I wouldn’t mind writing novels in one of my two Manhattan apartments or one of my two houses in St. Tropez. Who cares about critical opinions. He has a large group of diehard fans that rush out to purchase his books each year. He holds fiction masterclasses, and guest lectures where he gets paid exorbitant sums to teach budding writers. He’s not trying to be Hemingway or Orwell or Dostoevsky. He provides the equivalent of a popcorn movie — something quick, fun and light to distract you from the world for a few hours at a time. In his world the baddie is always caught, the pretty girl always courted.
The other half says that I wouldn’t want that at all. At least, not that way.
Easy to say when you have no money, no temptation to forgo artistic integrity for popular consumption. But I don’t believe Child ever had any artistic integrity, or any artistic aspirations at all.
His story is well documented. Sacked from his job at Granada Television, Child found himself on the chopping block with a family to support. Instead of looking for a new job, he spent £4 on paper and pencils with the aspiration of writing a best-selling book in the world’s largest market: America. It is the stuff of fairy tales, right?. Look at the wording I used. He didn’t take the time off to continue his hobby of writing, nor just write a novel to get it published. He sat down at his desk with the direct aim of writing a best-selling book to the American market. Not writing a good book, a best-selling one. The two are not necessarily mutual.
He is quite up front with the way he goes about his writing. Unlike Stephen King or Ian Rankin, who meander into their stories, letting the characters grab them by their collars and drag them through to the end, Child crafts his simple tales with the formulaic care of a scientist handling beakers filled with toxic chemicals. This applies to every aspect of his writing — from his public persona, pseudonym and of course, his wandering hero, Jack Reacher. When Child talks about writing he doesn’t wax poetic about the joy and fulfilment of the act, he speaks of it with the dry lifelessness of a lawyer explaining a piece of legislation. He sees it as a means to an end. One example of this is his chosen pen name. It was crafted because he studied lists of best-selling authors and found that authors with surnames that are short, snappy and appear early in the alphabet, sell better.
Another example is the commercial reasons behind Reacher’s heritage. To increase book sales in France, Child added the backstory of Reacher’s French mother. Smart. Also an example of the lengths he has taken to craft himself into a best-selling author, not necessarily a good one. For anyone thinking that the two are mutual, look at the American president. If Donald Trump’s election has taught us anything, is that the public don’t have a bloody clue about what’s good and bad.
My Fading Relationship with Reacher
Looking over at the bookshelf nestled in the corner of my workspace, I count 10 Lee Child novels. Half are the first few in the series, the other half more recent. I know, I know! What a hypocrite. How can I write a critique of the man and own so many of his books? I’ll explain.
When I was around nine years old dad decided it was time to introduce me to adult books. Lee Child was one of the first he introduced me to. I instantly fell in love with Reacher — he was colossal, tough and smart, with a tongue that struck like a snake and fists equally lethal. I didn’t just like him, I wanted to be him.
Then I grew up. Christmas always meant new books for me, and more often then not, a new Lee Child book would sit proudly atop the pile. Only, like Andy towards Woody and Buzz in Toy Story, I began to drift away from them. I was introduced to new authors: Koontz, King, Rankin, Connelly. As well as old ones: Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Orwell. I still loved Reacher, but each adventure became harder to labour through. Eventually I stopped.
No, that doesn’t make me better than adult readers who still enjoy the stories. It just means that with my evolving appreciation and experience with literature, his prose had become infantile and unreadable.
Until, a few days ago mum came home with the latest Reacher novel, “The Midnight Line” as a gift.
While I was touched by the gesture, my mind immediately flew to an excuse I could use to avoid reading it. I had nothing. Half-way through another book at the time, I was able to put off the inevitable for a few days. I finished that book last night, and thus, when I woke this morning, it was time to begin. I padded into the kitchen, made a coffee and sat down to reacquaint myself with my old friend Reacher. I tried to be open minded and give it a chance.
Barely thirty pages in I had grown sick of his lazy descriptions, halting sentences and cheesy dialogue. I packed it back onto the shelf next to several other unread Child novels. Then I started to wonder — had Child once been good and progressively gotten lazier and lazier until we reached the point we are at now? I decided to browse through the Reacher books I had and inspect the quality of his prose.
I found that while his writing was never very good, it has certainly regressed over recent years. Some sentences made me laugh out loud with their ridiculous, juvenile language. It became a fun exercise. I leafed through Child’s novels and marked down some of the more bewildering phrases and sentences that made it to publication. There are many more examples, I couldn’t tolerate giving the pages more than a cursory glance. It is true that if one is nit-picking you could find poor sentences in most popular novels, but these are a regular, common occurrences in the work of Child.
Any aspiring writer should take this as encouragement and motivation — if he can be a best-selling author, so can you.
A Horrible List of Horrible Sentences
- “The old homestead was both old and a homestead” (The Midnight Line, p.163)
- “It was about as distinctive as the most distinctive thing you could ever think of” (Killing Floor, p. 356)
- “Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through a city. Or, maybe the easiest.” (One Shot, p. 11)
- “The plan was covered in the architects handwriting. Which looked like every other architect’s handwriting.” (Personal, p.289)
- “Ten o’clock meant ten o’clock. Therefore exactly one hour before meant nine o’clock” (Personal, p.310)
- “There were no people inside, as far as Reacher could see, which fact the back part of his brain seized upon” (Make Me, p. 187) Huh?
- “It wasn’t a particularly big empty box. But it wasn’t small either” (A Wanted Man, p. 357)
- “Don McQueen breathing slow, not quite asleep but not quite awake either” (A Wanted Man, p.68).
I found these by spending twenty minutes flicking through my collection. I can guarantee there are myriad better examples. Though, you can find them at your own leisure if you are so inclined. The above quotes are but a sketch of the complete image of what is so dull and infuriating about Child’s lackadaisical prose. But it teaches wannabe writers a valuable lesson — anything can be forgiven if you create a compelling character that people care about, you study your market and genre, and you provide somewhat original stories and settings.
My critique in mind, I do owe Child a massive thank you. His books encouraged my love of reading and helped pave the way for the further reading I have undertaken. He helped kickstart my love of reading. For that, no matter how asinine I now find his writing, I owe him eternal thanks.
Lee Child is not a great writer, but he never promised to be — he is however, a best-selling one.
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Thanks for reading!