Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
CC2K examines the foibles of best-selling authors and what they can teach us about good writing.
If we look at how best-selling authors like John Grisham and Stephen King are bad writers — both in crafting their novels and their prose — we’ll not only gain insight into what makes good and bad fiction, but we’ll also lay bare a lot of what makes bad literary criticism.
Disclosure: I’m partly writing this to explain why I like Grisham’s novels so much. He’s been a guilty pleasure of mine (and a lot of assholes) for some time, and I clearly need to explain myself. I’m also a King fan, like everyone else on the planet, but he’s a much better respected writer than Grisham.
First, I’d like to savage bad book critics. Yeah, it’s easy to dismiss them as failed writers who enjoy shitting on the success of best-selling juggernauts like Grisham and King — but my unhappiness toward them goes way deeper. Literary critics have a laundry list of cliches they trot out when telling us a book sucks, yes, but they also will very often over-praise a hack like Grisham when he makes the most cursory efforts to improve his writing. In other words, bad lit critics suck at telling us why a book sucks, and they suck at noticing when a book still sucks.
In the interest of straw-man-avoidance, who am I talking about? No one in particular, really. The critical sins I’m talking about are close to universal. They’re easy to deploy in a moment of laziness. Only a few really great critics avoid them entirely.
In the interest of not sounding like a bitter unpublished novelist who’s shitting on the work of best-selling juggernauts like Grisham and King, I’ll disclose that I’ve written one novel, almost finished number two and am hard at work on a few others. Please feel free to leave a comment or start a forum thread slamming me, and I especially encourage you to go as ad hominem on me as you like.
What are the cliches du jour that so irritate me? Phrases like “cardboard characters” or the simple, dismissive, “He’s a hack” bug the shit out of me because they don’t tell us anything. So, let’s talk about cardboard characters, why they’re cardboard, how to avoid writing cardboard characters (in my opinion), and how otherwise sensible book critics mistake more bad writing for good writing.
Grisham, like Stephen King, is a master of creating “dramatic pinballs,” a phrase I submit as my own shorthand for cardboard or cookie-cutter characters. Most best-selling authors rely on readable plots, right? Grisham is great at coming up with overall plotlines for his books. King, incidentally, is much better at hooking us with shocking or compelling opening scenes that he somehow transmutes into entire narratives. King’s gift for hooks often leads him to write novels that lose narrative momentum, forcing him — as most King fans like to joke — to come up with some reason to blow everything up at the end. Grisham not only appears to see more of his stories further in advance, but he also employs nothing of the supernatural in his novels. Both of these choices lead to more satisfying endings for Grisham across the board.
But I digress. My point is that Grisham and King come up with great stories — simply, interesting series of events — and they fall into the trap of populating these interesting series of events with characters who can only react to these events.
Seriously, if we imagine, say, Mitch McDeere of The Firm or Stu Redman of The Stand as real people, a lot of what they do is dictated by what’s happening around them. If we were to drop an actual, living, interesting person into a Stephen King or John Grisham narrative, there’s a decent chance they would react the same way as a typical “cardboard” character, because the human instinct to survive is so strong.
But notice I only said “a decent” chance. That’s where the problem lies, and that why writers like Grisham and King have no excuse for writing dramatic pinballs, because they have both written successful characters when they weren’t looking.
OK, how do I define a successful character?
Like this. Successful characters:
1. Have personality.
2. Have an interesting back story.
3. Most important: They make interesting choices as a result of their backstory.
Let’s break those three traits down:
1. Personality. If a character has personality, that means you can describe what they’re like. I’m not saying you can tell me their favorite color or favorite food — we’ll get to that crap later — I mean you can describe what it would be like to hang out with them. If you can’t do this, then the author has written a dramatic pinball. J.R.R. Tolkein wrote several dramatic pinballs into his Lord of the Rings cycle, most notably Merry, Pippin, Legolas and Gimli.
But of course Tolkein’s masterwork also features triumphs of personality in Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn and Theoden, to name a few. CC2k staff member Lance Carmichael has argued that Frodo and Gollum jointly stand as Tolkein’s greatest achievement in character because both stand for different sides of experience with the Ring of Power, and I’ll humbly endorse that argument here.
That said, let’s mention Grisham’s and King’s entries into this pantheon of personality:
For John Grisham, in the baker’s dozen of his novels that I’ve read, I’ve seen only two characters with personality. That’s pretty bad. You think with the sheer volume of writing he does that he’d — I dunno — fuck up and conjure more personality from time to time. Whatever the case, they are:
Mark Sway, The Client. I grew up in the south, same as Grisham, and I met dozens of disaffected, mean, tough and deeply frightened kids like Mark while growing up. Growing up white trash must suck, and Grisham packed all of that sadness and suck into this kid.
Cowboy (that was the character’s sole name), A Painted House. This novel was Grisham’s attempt to write To Kill a Mockingbird. Like King, his conscious attempt to write Mockingbird failed, while one of his potboilers came much closer. (For Grisham, The Last Juror came closest. For King, IT.) As for Cowboy, Grisham kept this virile heavy away from the novel’s foreground, but Cowboy wound up emerging anyway as the kind of redneck sociopath that, again, anyone who grew up in the south has met on dozens of occasions, usually while having the bad luck to pass a bar right after last call.
That said, though, while Grisham has few totally successful characters on his roster, he has dozens of vividly drawn southern oddballs in his supporting casts. There’s not much to these characters besides their quirks, but they make for fun reading and entertaining performances in the legion of better-than-they-deserve-to-be film adaptations of Grisham out there.
Because of this, Grisham shares esteemed company with another southern writer whose specialty is the “get a load of this guy” introduction, Ferrol Sams. Sams has only written three novels, a largely autobiographical trilogy that follows the life of the author’s proxy, an irascible and precocious little guy who is physically incapable of making a mistake. (The notion of Sams avoiding all the mistakes that plagued me in youth was really starting to annoy me while reading these books until I realized that I had bought them, after all, in the fiction section.)
If you’re feeling daring, I highly recommend reading Grisham’s The Last Juror and then Sams’ The Whisper of the River. (River is the middle chapter in Sams’ trilogy — don’t sweat it.) If you read these books, you’ll meet dozens of kooks that Sams, without exception, introduces with an exhaustive examination of these weirdos’ every personal tic and bizarre physical feature. You will also, in Grisham’s leisurely thriller — yes, he managed to write one — meet a recurring oddball of Grisham’s, Herry Rex Vonner. Grisham introduced Harry Rex in his first novel, A Time to Kill, but it wasn’t until The Last Juror that Grisham really put me to shame as an aspiring novelist who wants to follow in the same southern gothic footsteps as Larry Brown and, to some extent, Grisham. In The Last Juror, Harry Rex hosts a party called a “hog roast,” and it’s one of the most vivid, smelly and authentically authentic scenes of redneckery I’ve ever read — and I grew up with rednecks from both the dirt poor and ultra-rich ends of the spectrum.
I also mention The Last Juror as an example of Grisham’s impoverished imagination as a novelist, and I’m not talking about the novel’s story — that’s great — but its structure.
Here’s the pitch: Back in the 70s, a southern jury sends a privileged southern boy to jail for murder. While being led out of the courtroom, he promises to kill all the jurors. In the modern day, the murderer gets out of prison … and the jurors start getting killed, one by one.
Great pitch, right? By reading the jacket for this novel, I instantly imagined a structure for the book:
• Modern day: The murder scene of the first dead juror.
• 1960s: Lead character arrives. Tell story up until the murder.
• Modern day: More jurors die.
• 1960s: The trial. End with the murderer’s promise to kill all the jurors.
• Modern day: More jurors die. The final twist. Justice is served.
Instead, Grisham wrote the novel in straight-up chronological order, which stuck him with the need to include useless swaths of prose where he recounted what was happening in the town as the years rolled by.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.