Attention Conservation Notice: I pay far too much attention to disposable pop-culture from Jodi Picoult and Lee Child, comparing their relative merits and speculating on why it is their books fly off the shelves. SPOILER ALERTS UP THE WAZOO.
Who are these guys?
Both Picoult and Child are insanely successful novelists with a large back catalogue, the sorts of things you find on the bookshelves of people who read only for Pleasure (not Edification) and not too much that it would detract from socialising/tweeting/conspicuous consuming that is Westerners’ privilege and duty these days. You also find plenty of copies in charity shops, since these are not books that many people will bother to read twice.
Picoult, according to Wikipedia has been writing since she was five. Child worked in television (and it shows – I don’t mean that as a criticism)
Why are they so successful?
Well, let’s not discount hard work – these 400 plus page books don’t write themselves you know; the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of a chair. And they’ve been churning them out, one or two a year, for a decade or more.
But obviously there is a Market for their product. And, in possibly the most banal observation I’ve ever made (stiff competition), I’m gonna say that they are both expert providers of wish-fulfillment fantasies to their respective audiences. (I know, stunning insight. That’s why you read this blog eh, the exceptionally incisive nature of the litcrit).
Picoult’s (main) narrator in “Perfect Match” (2002) gets to have it all – she has her youth, her high powered job Protecting The Innocent, her husband who is an Honest Craftsman and her Adorable Moppet Son. Alongside that she also has the good-looking childhood sweetheart who Holds a Candle for her, the understanding boss and No Money Worries (though it’s never clear why not). Life is perfect, and simple (Parents and Parents-in-Law? Never mentioned (neither dead nor alive)).
No matter how bone-headed she is (and in this novel SPOILER ALERT the protagonist
a) falsely accuses her husband of molesting their kid,
b) shoots an innocent priest in the back of the head in a packed courtroom,
c) shags the childhood friend,
d) throws herself on the mercy of the court because a retrial would be too much suffering for others) she nonetheless manages to Get Away with it All, to Have It All. Her husband knows about the infidelity but accepts it, and himself takes on the job of murdering the real perpetrator (a different priest). The childhood friend conveniently lights out for the territory. The kid seems fine. The judge lets her off with a … suspended sentence. The only thing that doesn’t seem to happen is she doesn’t get her old job back. Life is hard, isn’t it?
Really, this is totally batshit crazy.
It’s really not helped by Picoult’s relentless insistence on telling rather than showing, and her cringe-worthy efforts to “get inside the heads” of other characters, and to provide a subplot about redemption between a 6’5” prosecutor and his wayward son.
Speaking of 6’5” avengers, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” provides the same psychic safety valve for male readers (I assume that there’s a pretty clear gender distinction as to who reads what with these books).
Reacher is a Wild West tough guy/healer for the 21st century, who cuts through the crap about complexity and intractable problems by, well, shooting people mostly.
He, (as the Americans like to see themselves), never starts looking for trouble, it always finds him. He doesn’t start fights, but heck, he sure ends ‘em. Reacher lets his male readers have invulnerabilty (to age, fear, pain), freedom (aka rootlessness) and total competence at all times. Heady stuff…
I did read a couple of the early books, but it was a struggle (and long ago, in another country). Well, either Lee Child has gotten better (plots more complex, macho-chest beating dialed back to the ‘less is more’ setting) or I’ve gotten dumber (or both?), but “61 Hours” and “Worth Dying For,” his most recent efforts, were both satisfying reads, if you like your heroes big and tough and intermittently pre-emptive. Child is nowhere near as florid and purple as Picoult -
“We lie in bed that night with the weight of a full moon pressing down on us. I have told Caleb about my conversation with Fisher, and now we both stare at the ceiling, as if the answer might appear, skywritten with stars. I want Caleb to take my hand across the great expanse of this bed. I need that, to believe we are not miles apart.
but balanced against Child’s superior writing abilities is the eventually tiresome way in which Reacher kills roughly 8 to 10 people per book (with at least some of those in cold blood) without batting an eyelid, and without any follow up investigation by the State or the media.
This is an interesting commonality the two novelists share; the inability to portray a world where the media is all over any scandal, especially one involving violence, digging and churning and following up. In the real world, even if Reacher survived each of the free fire zones that he wanders into, the resulting publicity (dead cops, huge explosions, cars with cooked corpses in ‘em, torched houses, crippled goons) would make him quite well-known at the next shit-kicker town he rode into.
But then, in the same way porn movies rarely if ever (so I’m told) involve the wearing of condoms, these books aren’t about the real consequences of violence, of life; that would spoil the fantasy.
See alsoKeep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (on what purpose is served by these books)
Coupla excerpts -
Janet Salter nodded: “It was called Pervitin. A German refinement of a Japanese discovery. It was baked into candy bars. Fliegerschokolade, which means flyers’ chocolate, and Panzerschokolade, which means tankers’ chocolate. The Allies had it, also. Just as much, actually. Maybe more. They called it Desoxyn. I’m surprised anyone ever slept.”
page 116 61 Hours by Lee Child
Holland left to take a look at Knox in his cell. It was an urge that Reacher had seen before. It was like going to the zoo. After a big capture people would show up just to stare at the guy. They would stand in front of the bars for a moment and take it all in. Afterwards they would claim there was something in the guy’s face they always knew was wrong. If not, they would talk about the banality of evil. About how there were no reliable signs.
Page 122 61 Hours by Lee Child