Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dunn, continued

TG is taking some heat for giving Matthew Dunn's book, Spycatcher a good, if qualified, review. TG's wife (TGW) read it and took great pleasure in reading aloud the clunkier sections of dialogue while making noises of great disgust. Others have written to say that TG is an idiot. Oh well, it's not the first time.

Almost everyone (checkout the slams on http://Amazon.co.uk/) starts off by mentioning a scene right at the beginning of the novel where Dunn's hero, Will Chochrane, takes three slugs to the gut during a firefight in Central Park. A couple of days later and Will is on an airplane headed for London with barely a complaint about any medical difficulties. Readers are crying foul. Impossible! Ridiculous! Totally unrealistic! Yes, TG would agree wholeheartedly. When TG read that, he thought much the same thing, but where most readers found this a fatal flaw, TG just thought, “Oh, so that's the sort of book this is: a superhero spy who will do near superhero deeds.” Indeed, TG was looking for a scene late in the book where Will's extraordinary physical abilities are shown to be of biomedical or some other fantastical property. In other words, TG decided at that point to just strap in and go along for the ride where many (most) others decided that they weren't having any of it. These are both perfectly reasonable responses.

One of the dangers publishers face is over-touting an author's background and capabilities. Much was made in the business about Dunn's five years as an MI6 professional with 70 missions, which was announced on the back cover of the book. Right away, that seems to be an inflated number, averaging out to be more than one a month. Or perhaps some were just mini-missions? The reader certainly doesn't know. And then after a few pages into the book one reads of Will's serious wounding with little noticeable result. It's too much, too quickly for most folks, so they complained bitterly.

TG wonders, though, if readers are sometimes unfair this way. Most thriller readers, especially of the military/spy variety, are quite willing to read through innumerable scenes where the hero is able to dispatch legions of evildoers in the most fantastic ways. These readers not only don't question these supernormal abilities, but relish them. Incredible feats of strength, endurance, marksmanship, stealth and man-killing go by with nary a quibble. But a guy gets shot and these same readers expect the author to take his hero through three months of medical procedures and rehab before the story can get back on track? All in the sake of realism? So why, you might argue, have the hero shot at all? Because that's what happens to heroes, they get shot because they shoot a lot of people, and you figure at least every once in awhile one of them has got to get hit. After all, are you looking for realism or not?

TG thinks this disconnect may come because of the way readers think as real human beings. They know they have no abilities when it comes to man killing and performing feats of daring, but they know what it feels like to get hurt. You fall down and you hurt yourself, you get a damn paper cut and it hurts, you twist your back weeding the lawn, bang your head on the car door, all of these things hurt. So what must it be like to get shot? It's your everyday hurt multiplied a gazillian times. The point being, we can relate enough from a small hurt to imagine what we would feel like with a gigantic hurt and we know that if we have to lie down and rest after a hard day working on the lawn that we sure as hell aren't going to be on a plane three days after taking not one but three to the midsection. So it's OK for the hero to perform extraordinary feats of physical prowess except when it comes to physical damage? That's the point where the reader feels justified, and even smug in crying foul? Maybe, but it seems a little ingenuous to TG.

But TG is probably over-thinking this. Readers say they want realism in their fiction all the time. We conveniently overlook the fact that 99% of spying is sitting in cars, standing on street corners, drinking in bars and chatting up people at cocktail parties, to say nothing of listening to thousands of hours of phone recordings and untold hours of reading the Internet. Only the biggest blockhead would want to read that sort of realism.

So maybe TG cut Dunn too much slack. Is he a great writer? Not by a long shot. He gets the job done while using more than his fair share of cliches and awkward dialogue. So do a hell of a lot of other writers, many of them best sellers. His hero's romantic moments are sometimes silly, his background is needlessly tortured, the villains are absurdly villainous. All the same “sins” perpetrated by legions of the same bestseller writers. Trust TG, he reads more thrillers in a year than any reader of this blog, and he knows how bad this stuff can be. And yet many of the same books TG reads sell in the hundreds of thousands and millions of copies. So do thriller readers really care about realism, much less good writing? They seem to when it comes to details about the hero's medical maladies. But they're also able to swallow any number of other absurdities for the author's they love.

Here's the lesson, Matthew Dunn: you can make your hero able to leap tall buildings, but beware of having him bleed. At least excessively. TG may let you slide, but your Amazon reviewers are taking you to task.

1 comment:

  1. You make a frighteningly good point there. I don't think I'd ever thought of it quite like that. Selective realism, I guess would be an apt name for it. It's rampant in crime novels. Lots of reviews praise accurate forensic techniques and realistic medical know how, yet every complex serial killer case is wrapped up in a few weeks, invariably after the genius killer with a taste for young women decides to inexplicably go after the middle aged male cop/his partner/his family/his dog at the end.

    I write some pretty outrageous stuff, but getting shot three times in the stomach and barely being affected is too extreme for me. That said, I think I'll still read it. In fact, knowing that incident is coming will probably help make it easier to accept.