Critical Roundtable: THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER (Part II)

(This is part two of a critical roundtable that began yesterday.)

Sarah Weinman: My thoughts may be a bit jumbled but I’m going to try to incorporate

initial feelings and others’ comments to date. First, Hallie made a

good point in respond to one of my possibly muddled questions, which is

that “I think this is [Anderson’s] book, not mine to second guess what

he could have done in 400 pages.” Very good point, and actually

pinpoints one of my main criticisms of the book, which is that

ultimately, this is a book about Patrick Anderson’s opinion on

thrillers, and very subjective. And even though I was expecting as much

– he is a very opinionated critic – I also hoped there would be more

insight and a little less reliance on rewriting reviews that had

appeared in some form in the Washington Post.

Subjectivity, too, entered with regards to which writers got

more attention and which ones did not, especially when Anderson was

trying to prognosticate who the “next big thing” authors will be (as in

the section on Karin Slaughter, Charlie Huston and Peter Craig.) All

have very different publishing fortunes at the moment, and I think I

would have liked to see a bit more insight to that regard. Same, too,

with his thriller history sections, which while I found them

entertaining and good for a lot of food for thought, neglected many of

the publishing-related influences that were instrumental in the birth

of thrillers as we know them. He was right, IMO, to pinpoint 1981 as a

major shift, but to talk about Gorky Park’s success without

acknowledging the book’s publication history (as in, one of the first

to get a seven figure advance, Cruz Smith’s declaration that he was

done writing pulp fiction under house names, that sort of thing) seemed

a bit disingenuous. And also, the word “thriller” has, more and more,

become a publishing term, a marketing tool – a way for publishers to

signify that this is a BIG book worthy of mainstream attention, not

just ghettoized genre attention. To my mind, there wasn’t enough

development of this idea, and I would have been curious to see where

Anderson went with it.

I did like his rereadings of earlier authors, and how

Hammett, Chandler and Christie have stood – or not stood – the test of

time. And of course, they are basic underpinnings for thrillers as we

know them, but perhaps less than Anderson gives them credit for. And as

Hallie said, many of his favorite authors are mine as well.

I’ll address the “women in crime fiction” idea in a separate post but it definitely bears further discussion. More soon.

Jerome Weeks: On the second question: I would have wanted “The Triumph of the Thriller” longer only if that extra space led to more analysis, more conclusions drawn — and not simply the addition of more authors.

On the third question: I’m somewhat baffled by the unwillingness of many critics and editors to run negative reviews — at all. I realize, given the space crunch, the question becomes why give a bad book the time and print? Yet readers judge a critic by the things he won’t put up with as much as the books he values. If all we do is praise, then why not simply re-print the book’s blurbs?

Mr. Anderson’s definition of the thriller, as noted, is “inclusive,” so indicating SOME boundaries he wouldn’t cross was important. His book wasn’t going to be just a collection of touts; he’s not simply a fan. In fact, pointing out Tom Clancy’s more appalling qualities (“Not since Raymond Chandler has a major American writer so shamelessly pandered to prejudice”) led to some of Mr. Anderson’s sharpe  writing. If his treatment of James Patterson’s “The Beach House” (“it unfolds like an unspeakably dumb comic book”) was little more than an irritated dismissal, that’s about all Patterson merits. Patterson isn’t even interestingly shallow.

Which only made me surprised, then, when Mr. Anderson clearly enjoyed something like “The Da Vinci Code.” As Sarah noted, “The Triumph of the Thriller” is self-confessedly subjective. I don’t mind opinions without analysis, provided there’s a degree of self-awareness involved. That is, Mr. Anderson extolls such dark, brooding authors as Dennis Lehane, yet earlier, he complained that he can’t wholeheartedly enjoy Ross McDonald’s novels because they strike him as too serious, as humorless. It’s easy to embrace inconsistency when you have only fuzzy personal guidelines.

Dick Adler: Jerry’s last phrase said it all for me. I’ve never met Patrick Anderson, but I read him every week – not so much for his self-confessed “middlebrow” tendencies which tend to flop around loosely, especially when it comes to the historic bits. Were Dickens, Collins and Doyle consciously playing to the crowd – or isn’t it that they really thought writing this kind of book made it more fun to read?

Lehane but not Ross Macdonald? Let’s get real.