Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Breaking Rules

Debby here, posting on Wednesday. Wow, what a delicious stew to dive into. As I read Rick’s blog, my mind went to the book I’m presently reading. I’m about ten pages from finishing Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man, and there hasn’t been a murder yet. Though there still might be—don’t tell me. I’m going to finish it tonight, and I can’t wait.

Since we’re talking about John LeCarre, there isn’t much doubt that his publisher will let him break the rules. Is there? Let’s assume there’s not. This is a political book, no question, and I am enjoying it for that fact among many others, among them LeCarre’s knowledge of the spy world and his insight into competition and antagonism between allegedly cooperating organizations. LeCarre, which is a pseudonym for David John Moore Cornwell, served in the British Army’s Intelligence Corps and MI-5.

Just to see what everyone else thought, I checked out the reviews of A Most Wanted Man on Amazon. Today there are 154 reviews, a whole lot more than I get, alas, but what surprised me was that this book averages only 3 ½ stars. I would have given the book at least 4, possibly 5. Here are some snippets from the reviews:

Quote: “Politics Getting in the Way of Fiction” (title of the review);

Quote: “The book is a love letter to the Muslim community, sickeningly considerate of their views, while cursorily dismissive of "the West" (Britain, Germany, and the big bad wolf, America) and its legitimate security concerns. The writing is fantastic - when isn't it? the man is a literary genius!! - but at the same time, disgustingly contrived. Worst of all, he commits the cardinal sin: the story is a bore.” (I don’t think so)

Quote: “In a word, "A Most Wanted Man" (sic) lacks literary value. And, worse, it is only mildly entertaining. I vastly prefer Alan Furst's work, the very author that the NY Times asked to review this book. He praised it - sort of. I don't quite understand what's so hot about Le Carre. I've read a couple hundred espionage thrillers in my time, and this one ranks in the bottom half of the pile.”

Because of the “sort of” in the above review, I looked up Alan Furst’s review of A Most Wanted Man. Here’s part of it: “And, coincidentally, a few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible. What the hell got into him? Well, not quite 9/11, more its aftermath.” ( That doesn’t sound like “sort of “ praise to me. I’d love a review like that from Furst. (His books are terrific, by the way.)

There are five-star reviews, too, but there are enough negative ones that I wonder if many readers are disappointed because they are seeking the same “spy novel” formulae that many publishers look for.

So what can we, as authors, do about this? I wish I had the answer, believe me. I also wish I had 154 reviews, but I figure I just have to keep working at it. Labanon, Terry, and Charles make good points. We have to write what resonates with us. The publishing business is in upheaval, which makes the big corporate structures more desperately rigid, and that inflexibility is destructive. But hold on, changes are on the horizon. Some of them are electronic, and others are with small, open-minded publishers. There are still millions of readers who love a “good” book, a book that challenges readers’ judgments, reveals new worlds, and exposes the treachery of political hierarchies and ambitions. Bring on crime fiction, in all its forms.

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