Prose style with mass appeal?

notes-514998Recently, ReasonTV posted the below interview with thriller author Brad Thor. Thor impressed me as smart, and Nick Gillespie’s praise for The Hidden Order intrigued me — because Thor had apparently built an entertaining thriller on the history of the Federal Reserve and monetary policy(!).

So I acquired a copy and have now read it. And something about Thor’s writing has been nagging at me.

The prose style doesn’t quite get to “clunky”; although looking at it as a new editor, there are a few issues that I, personally, would flag as needing to change apart from what I’m about to examine.

[The one that really yanks me out of the story, as a reader, is shifting viewpoint within a scene. Thor writes in third person limited (perfectly standard for mass market thrillers), and shifts between characters every chapter or three (same deal: bog standard), but sometimes he shifts viewpoints within the same scene for a paragraph or two, and it’s jarring. He’ll narrate things from his protagonist’s p.o.v., then for a paragraph narrate what the woman his protagonist is talking to is thinking, or fill in her background for the reader in a very obvious way. He signals it clearly when he does it, but it just rubs me wrong.]

But that only happens a few times in the book, and it isn’t what was gnawing at my backbrain for the first third of the narrative.

I think I’ve homed in on three aspects of what Thor is doing that was setting me off.

Over-explaining rather than showing.

Spelling out even the most obvious subtext.

Giving his characters thoughts that are banal, if not clichéd, but which are meant to resonate with his intended audience.

Let’s begin with an example of that last:

While there were lots of bureaucrats in the intelligence community whom Harvath [Thor’s protagonist] didn’t care for, there were also many exceptional Americans who risked everything day in and day out for their love of the United States.

The phrasing just makes this sentiment trite, and I about rolled my eyes. This is Dan Brown territory here, frankly, though Thor is generally a much better writer than Brown.

If this were written in corporate-ese, it’d give somebody a Buzzword Bingo almost instantly.

There are “many” (how many? In what proportion to the others?) “exceptional” (exceptional in the intelligence community? What is this, Lake Wobegon?) “Americans” (Um, yeah, US intelligence doesn’t generally staff with foreign nationals; this is just used to get some flag-waving going in a fairly anti-government book) “who risked everything” (Sorry, but the vast majority in the intelligence community are desk jockeys, and are manifestly not risking their lives every day. Field agents, okay, but that’s not “many”) “day in and day out” (Gosh, somebody should give them a vacation or something) “out of their love for the United States.” (By jingo!)

The whole sentence is just ear-rippingly trite. It’s something aimed at people who are not readers, because if they don’t read much, this sort of thing won’t jar their ears much.

But as painful as it is to read, this isn’t accidental or a sign of lack of attention. This is the twelfth book in the series, and the series sells very well. This style is purposeful.

Here’s an example of over-explaining instead of showing, with some cliché tossed in for good measure:

She was a very perceptive woman, an important trait for a homicide detective, or any detective, for that matter. You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to put one over on her and even then Harvath was not sure how successful he’d be.

Perceptiveness, the reader apparently didn’t know, is an important trait for a homicide detective. Who knew!?

Indeed, being very perceptive is important for any detective. Wow!

The “you’d have to get up pretty early in the morning” thing has been a cliché for a century, if not longer, in standard American. It put me in mind of a Laurel & Hardy bit where Babe says “You have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool a Hardy!” Stanley replies: “What time?” and Ollie starts to answer, “Oh, about half-past— What time!”

That was in a Hal Roach-produced comedy in the 1930s.

Brad Thor uses it without irony or originality in the 2010s.

And, again, painful as I find it to be, he’s doing it this way for a reason. Which is that it seems to work.

When Ryan asked her mentor what favor the DNI owed him, McGee only said, “We both owe each other a few debts that neither of us will ever be able to repay.”

The solemnity with which he spoke told her the debts very likely involved tremendous sacrifice and possibly, human life.

This is a “flashing arrow“, and over-explaining. This is spelling it out so that even the dullest, most socially inept reader understands. This is making subtext into text, and doing it as obviously as one possibly can do so.

It brings to mind fictional author, visionary, dream weaver, plus actor Garth Marenghi’s brilliant observation: “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards.”

I’m of two minds about this.

On the one hand, I want to have as many fans and readers as possible. And it appears that one of the keys to selling lots of books is to do as much work for the reader as possible, spelling out subtext and implications overtly at every step. This doesn’t apply just to Brad Thor, either.

To varying degrees this “explain everything directly” style can be found (in decreasing degree) in Dean Koontz, Stephen King, John Grisham, and several other reliable best-sellers. For the record, I consider each of those to be a pretty good writer, each for different reasons, with Grisham being possibly, at times, a master prose stylist, in that he has at least a few times achieved the ideal Asimovian “so clear you don’t even notice you’re reading” style.

On the other hand, I find it disheartening that asking the reader to do even a little work seems to be a barrier to success. A literate, light, elegant style that’s easy to read can still leave a lot going on in the active reader’s mind without bludgeoning him with Every. Last. Detail. Lois McMaster Bujold is one example, but she only recently hit the bestseller lists, and she’s been publishing since the ’80s.

On the gripping hand, I actually believe that this Thor’s style is the easy path, but not the only one. Robert A. Heinlein, for an obvious example, slugged his way from the pulp ghetto to the NYT Bestseller lists when SF was “just not respectable” by, in part, writing in a style that easily fit with the way many people think and observe. He, in most of his writing, skipped the mind-numbing stuff and left in only the good bits, the interesting, important bits. That’s not especially easy, at least until you train yourself to it.

Here’s reason‘s interview with Brad Thor: