Intuition vs. Deliberation, as Seen Through Janet Evanovich

With FINGER LICKIN’ FIFTEEN now in stores, Janet Evanovich is on quite the media blitz of late. She spoke with the Globe & Mail’s Sarah Hampson while in Toronto to promote the book and the topic of discussion starts right away with her face-lift (Oh, I had a little work done”). That said matters quickly turn to the books and more specifically, the careful way she set out to sell a lot of them:

“I made a choice that I was not going to be a pretentious writer,” she
responds without hesitation when asked how she deals with the
perception that she is a mass-market, low-brow novelist. “I work real
hard so the reader doesn't have to. I don't want them to have to look
up words. And there are no flashbacks. This is a linear novel.”

…She studied mystery writers, from Sue Grafton to Tom Clancy, and
figured out a hole in the market she could fill. “I wanted to take what
I liked from the romantic genre – the sexual tension and positive
characters and the humour – and move that into the mystery structure. …
Sue [Grafton] and others brought the female detective to the front of
the stage but they were still pretty hard-boiled, and my lady was
soft-boiled. She is a girly girl. She is a Jersey girl.” Stephanie is
actually a composite, Ms. Evanovich says, of herself (she grew up in
New Jersey, the daughter of a factory worker and a housewife) and
people she knows.

“I became very deliberate. What I realized halfway through writing
romance is that you start out intuitive, and you make all these choices
mostly based on yourself and what you like and what talent you have,
and … if you want to have any quality control over your product, you
have to stop being intuitive and start being more of an analyst.”

Now let’s go back to her view that she “works real hard so the reader doesn’t have to” because this rationale is at the crux of David Montgomery’s excellent review of FINGER LICKIN’ FIFTEEN for the Daily Beast, which pokes some fun at the critics who “wouldn’t touch Evanovich with a 10-foot pole—she might sully their tweed jackets” while reminding them “if what Evanovich does is so easy, then why do most of her imitators

fail so miserably? We could dismiss her success as being just another

example of the lousy taste of the great unwashed, but we’d be wrong.”

I’ll say this: I stopped reading the Stephanie Plum books after book seven, I think, once it became apparent that the ping-ponging between Morelli and Ranger would be a permanent state of purgatory for Ms. Plum. I’m pretty sure I’ve made Jules & Jim jokes in the intervening years in discussing Stephanie’s ultimate romantic fate with other crime fiction readers and fellow reviewers. But if television viewers can wait for the non-revelation of the unknown title character of How I Met Your Mother or (justly) preferred it when Maddie & David’s sexual tension remained unresolved in Moonlighting*, then the situation comedy that are Evanovich’s novels should follow similar lines.

The sitcom comparison is no accident, because sitcoms have to be scripted beat by beat, joke by joke, and what remains constant are the stars and supporting cast even as they don’t necessarily follow a motivational arc. All of Friends’ episodes were titled “The One With…”; episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond are, at least to me, interchangeable. At their best, sitcoms give the viewer half an hour of pleasure that doesn’t require much brainpower but does entertain and make ‘em laugh. Which brings me to Montgomery’s penultimate paragraph:

Evanovich understands on a fundamental level how to tell a good story
and that’s something that is all too rare in today’s fiction, whether
you’re talking about genre, literary, or otherwise. Along with her
sense of story, Evanovich’s greatest talent is her ability with
characters. In the Plum series, she’s created a likable collection of
players, most of whom appeal because they’re so much more screwed up
than we are. Unlike the heroes in most suspense novels, Stephanie Plum
isn’t smarter than us or better than us or braver than us. Instead,
she’s just like us: lazy, indecisive, selfish, lonely, and apt to go to
the store in sweatpants because she’s too damn tired to get dressed.

And hey, I may have quit (for now) after book seven, but I didn’t stick with Night Court – one of my all-time favorite sitcoms – for every single season, either. But here’s the thing: Evanovich’s continued success sets the stakes for writers to knock her off her perch, and I wonder if the reason scant few can even come close to doing so is because they forget how mightily difficult – and deliberate – it is to create new situations for Stephanie to get mixed up in, and that even the sameness of situations still requires a high degree of technical merit.

*I know Moonlighting isn’t really a sitcom, but it often felt like one to me, especially when the episodes got odder (hello, Rhona Barrett?) because of offscreen problems.