[Warning: This post is not my best, and somewhat rambling]
A little while back, I read an article about the right-wing strangle-hold on political thriller fiction. I’ve taken some time to cool down, but the article still bugged me, and now that I’ve caught up with my reading of political thrillers (one of my all-time favourite genres, as can be seen from my fiction review site).
The article in question is from The New Republic, perhaps my favourite news magazine/journal from the US. It’s title? “The Beck Supremacy: How a right-wing conspiracy hijacked the thriller genre”, by Jason Zengerle, and from the December 2nd 2009 issue of the magazine.
Now, a lot of what Zengerle writes is perfectly valid and hard to refute – that Flynn “is to the war on terrorism what Tom Clancy was to the cold war”, is very true. Flynn’s note to Rush Limbaugh, for example, trumpeting the conservative pandering in Chapter 50 of Pursuit of Honor is disappointing, and certainly helps Zengerle’s case that “Flynn appears to be angling for a new level of conservative street cred”. However, I do take offense at his characterisation of thriller fans:
“[They are] the type of reader who, like Limbaugh, watches the TV show 24 not just for entertainment value but also for political lessons.”
I watch 24 because it’s entertaining. Which is the same reason I read Flynn’s novels; not to mention Tom Clancy, Kyle Mills, Daniel Silva, Ian Flemming, Joseph Finder, Andrew Britton (RIP), to name but a handful – it’s my favourite fiction genre. Here’s another thing I have a problem with:
“the protagonist of Flynn’s novels, CIA counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp, exhibits such a talent for maiming, torturing, and killing Muslim bad guys that he makes Jack Bauer look like a simpering ACLU attorney”
This makes me think Zengerle has not, in fact, read many of Flynn’s books. First of all, yes Rapp does have a particular skill at extracting information, frequently using extreme measures, but Flynn is very clear about Rapp’s psyche – he is not a sociopath or psychopath, who derives enjoyment out of doing any of these things. Indeed, in the first 100 pages of Pursuit of Honor, Rapp is explicitly described as doing only what is necessary, not what he enjoys. Not only that, also early in the novel, Rapp is concerned about his protégé who seems to be cracking under the pressure of the job.
There are certainly snatches of the novel that clearly exhibit Flynn’s (or, at least, the right’s) political preferences and views. Including this snippet, when Rapp is being grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee:
“This is where we not only say it’s perfectly okay for a doctor to kill a full-term baby, but we think taxpayers should help pay for it... And you call me a barbarian.”
Zengerle seems to take offense at Rapp/Flynn’s characterisation of Carol Ogden, a senator in the novel who bears a resemblance to Barbara Boxer of California – a senator who, as Rapp puts it,
“moved in the elite circles of her party, listening to the trial lawyers, academics, and the nuttiest of the crazy special-interest groups”
Well, this isn’t exactly unfair. Whether or not Boxer was the inspiration for Ogden, it has to be said that many Senators and Congressmen are beholden to special interests – Boxer herself is rather beholden to the defence industry, which has a considerable presence in Southern California (see Robert Scheer’s The Pornography of Power for some of her concern for the little people). As for the “nuttiest of the crazy special-interest groups”, well this could just as easily be directed at the nuttier wing of the Republican Party (which appears to be growing).
Zengerle then goes on to blame Right-Wing talking heads for the success of political thrillers. Well, this one I’ll happily give him – liberal talk shows just don’t invite thriller authors. Joseph Finder, in the same article, says this and says it’s disappointing because he’s not a conservative. Why? Is it a case that liberal presenters can’t allow themselves to enjoy books like this as entertainment, because it doesn’t contain the same values they espouse on their shows? Now who’s the party more interested in political purity?
The second half of the article chills out and starts to pay attention to the more left-leaning thriller authors, but by then the damage is done. If you consider that most articles are never finished (last statistic I was told, by a producer of Newsnight, was 92% are never read to the end), this is really quite unfair and irresponsible. If he was only interested in dispelling the idea that thrillers are right-wing, or only appeal to arch-conservatives, why didn’t he say so earlier?
After getting to this point, and pointing out a couple of left-leaning authors (John le Carre, Robert Ludlum), as well as identifying Allen Drury as the “arch-conservative” originator of the genre, Zengerle says that
“while Drury, le Carré, and other thriller writers of their era may have let their politics inform their fiction writing, they did not allow their politics to dominate it”
Well, neither do the authors of today. Flynn is just as able to articulate an intelligent liberal position or perspective as he is a conservative. His liberal characters are not buffoons or cartoons of liberals, unless they absolutely have to be – i.e. if he needs a political enemy of the CIA (who, as a whole, seem to be of the liberal ilk). And what’s wrong with identifying bad arguments? Many liberal arguments are thin sound-bites poorly argued by someone just interested in getting more face time on the morning talk-shows. Republicans are the same. There are far more statements in Pursuit of Honor that are general jabs at government as a whole, bipartisan in their direction and intent, and his negative (bipartisan) opinion of Capitol politics:
“partisan game that everyone wants to play in Washington. Republican versus Democrat… liberal versus conservative… none of that matters… the only thing we’re supposed to concern ourselves with is national security” (p.148)
In some ways, Flynn has done a better job here than Zengerle has. This above quote is but one instance of Flynn’s characters bemoaning the state of American politics into a right-versus-left battle for influence and political stardom. There are other times when it feels like Flynn is merely saying what we all wish we could say, but are afraid to because of the hyper-PC environment in the US (and the UK) – particularly when Rapp complains about how it drives him crazy that “there are people in [Washington] who think the way to peace is to afford tolerance to an intolerant group of bigoted Muslim men” (p.222).
Here’s another passage that’s a problem for me:
“But there is an underlying fear and paranoia running through Flynn and Thor’s political thrillers that was missing from Clancy’s. It’s that sense of menace — as much as any sense of reassurance — that accounts for these books’ popularity with right-wing talk-show hosts, who, after all, are in the business of convincing listeners and viewers that both they and their country are in constant peril.”
Yes, right-wing hosts are in the business of hyperbole, but it was the George W. Bush government who pushed this sense of fear and menace to begin with, more than anyone else. (And let’s not forget all the liberal media outlets who bought into it following 9/11). Is it so strange that authors, writing about contemporary events, are using the sense of the times? World War I and II novels, Cold War novels (not to mention movies) also had a certain feel of the times. Vietnam movies and books, too.
Zengerle says Clancy’s novels were overtly ideological – exhibiting a “We’re the toughest guys in the world, and our guys can beat their guys” mentality. Is this really ‘ideological’? Who actually wants to read a novel (or, many novels) that has a “we’re bastards, and weak ones at that” approach?
Thrillers are meant to entertain – otherwise they would be called ‘downers’. Who cares if the author is a conservative or liberal? If the novel is entertaining, and actually thrills, then I’m going to read it. If Jason Zengerle doesn’t understand this, then he really has no business writing about the genre. He does understand this, though, as he explains how Flynn and also Brad Thor’s novels have a comfort value to them – they make us feel better because the ‘good guys’ beat the ‘bad guys’. There are so many instances in the article when Zengerle sits on the fence or plays devils advocate that it’s difficult to really understand the point of the article. Is he trying to get the liberal media to pay more attention to thrillers? Or is he genuinely arguing that the right-wing has taken over the genre to advance their own political agenda?
“Political thrillers are seldom reviewed in The New York Times; and, while their authors used to pop up for interviews on the Today show or Larry King’s old radio program, those days are gone. Meanwhile, the new breed of liberal television pundit isn’t interested in hosting political thriller writers, either.”
This seems somewhat disingenuous of Zengerle to write, pointing the finger at other liberal hosts and outlets. It’s not, after all, like The New Republic has reviewed many thrillers, or has much time for the genre in general. (To be fair, TNR is somewhat politically neutral or ambiguous, which I like.) In fact, their fiction reviews tend to focus on books most people have never read, never heard of, and probably will never read. To pass up any opportunity to promote a book would be folly. If conservative talk-shows are all that’s left, then you go where you can.
Fair enough, Flynn’s pandering to Limbaugh and Beck is off-putting to someone who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot (to take Al Franken’s words) and Glenn Beck is a cretinous buffoon, and may certainly suggest that Flynn is trying to push a political agenda. But, as I’ve mentioned, if you read the book this is clearly not the case, unless you really want to see it. Kyle Mills, for example, is probably left-leaning in his politics, but his novels are so well balanced that you can’t help thinking that all sides are reasonable and on to something. (Mills’ Mark Beamon series in particular, is excellent.)
Here’s Joseph Finder (author of Power Play, and most recently The Vanished) on thriller authors:
“Most thriller writers tend not to be politically identified — not publicly, anyway, because they want to sell books and not turn off potential readers,” says Finder. “But I’ve noticed that those few who are open about their politics tend to be conservative, largely because the market favors that.”
Is it the book-buying market or the media market that favours conservative politics? Again, I think it’s more a case of the media pundits that find it easier to sell thrillers to conservatives, because of the clichéd belief that conservatives are the only ones who like to take action, rather than sit around and have a casual chat to sort things out. That would make for a boring book, totally lacking in thrills.
Ok, this rant has veered off on its own trajectory, so I shall bring it to a close here. Zengerle, while he makes some very good points (Thor and Flynn, neither of whom were in governmental or military service, shouldn’t be called upon as foreign policy experts), is not clear what he’s actually trying to achieve with the article. He also clearly doesn’t ‘get’ the political thriller genre. There are lefties out there, writing thrillers. But, if they’re not thrilling, then they don’t belong in the genre. Action and violence are key staples of popular- and mass-entertainment: just look at Hollywood, the favourite whipping-boy of the Conservative right wing of American politics and the number of action movies they produce every year.
I am neither a nutty right-winger, nor an uneducated hick. I don’t think Limbaugh is worth the air he breathes, and Beck should be considered a national joke. But, I love political and action thrillers. They’re entertaining. Let them be.
[All page numbers from Pursuit of Honor are from the eBook edition]