Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Gets To Be a Thriller?

by Sophie


I'm just back from Thrillerfest, the writing conference for aspiring and published Thriller writers held in New York City each year. I'll be posting some pictures soon - I'm still a little bit zombielike and exhausted from nearly a week of late nights and extended cocktail hours - but for now I want to tell you about a session I went to called something like "Thrillers - Can They Be Both Smart AND Exciting?"

Now the main reason I went to this panel was that my brother, Mike Cooper, was on it. So was Andrew Pyper, a Canadian author whose work I love and who deserves a LOT more attention.

Then there were a bunch of other guys.

Sorry so blurry, but that's Mike, me, author Joe Finder, MWA president Margery Flax, and Andrew Pyper. Someone with even fewer phone skills than me took the shot

I mean them no disrespect when I say that their comments - all considered, all earnest - did not do much for me. Everyone agreed with the quickly established thesis (yes, in fact, smart+exciting is not only possible, but recommended) so there went any possible dramatic tension. What happened, instead, is that everyone started holding up exactly the same example of how to write every possible facet of a thriller.

That example is Lee Child and the Reacher series, which is a fine, fine collection of books. But it's pretty damn narrow for defining success in a genre. Must, then, all our heroes be uncommunicative yet stunningly resourceful in life or death situations? Must all our prose be staccato, our dialog terse, our action scenes robust? Without the qualities of a Reacher novel, will our own fail or pale in comparison? (Would you guys like me better if i had a british accent and a better wardrobe?)

I kept thinking of books I considered smart and exciting that did not cleave to this model at all - Mr. Pyper's, for one, but also novels by Richard Price and Barbara Vine and Joe Hill and Dan Simmons and all kinds of other oddball wordslingers. Now I'm sure that the panelists had other examples too (Mike did mention a wide swath, in fact) but I do think there is a danger in deciding that we know what a genre should look like based on what we've seen of it in the past. This could apply to any genre, of course, but because thrillers are a relatively recent phenomenon (fast-paced suspense novels can be found going way back in history, but the term itself is newish) I think it's especially dangerous to decide we know all about What Should Be based on a small sampling of books.

I might be especially sensitive to this because I don't really stick to a single genre when I write. In fact, I was sitting in the audience having a whole silent internal conversation with myself (as usual, when bored, i gave everyone imaginary haircuts and brow waxes and fashion makeovers; yeah, it's damn shallow of me but what else are you going to do in a windowless hotel ballroom?) when it occurred to me that I don't really write thrillers. AFTERTIME is kind of sort of a zombie thriller, I guess. And my young adult books are thriller-y-ish. But they're also part romance and part paranormal and part urban fantasy and part other parts. People take lots of breaks from being chased around to do a considerable amount of navel gazing (I like to think it is lyrical navel gazing, but still...) This type of plot, uh, device (if one can call it that) is well outside the norms of the thriller genre, and I guess I was feeling a little inadequate to consider my book held up against a standard it cannot possibly meet.

So...a toast to Reacher. But also a toast to Pyper's self-loathing addict hero Bart Crane in LOST GIRLS, Price's mean and bloody but often contemplative streets in CLOCKERS, and Simmons' THE TERROR, in which a monster that may or may not exist and a pair of ships and the frigid landscape of the north are as deeply drawn characters as any in the ensemble cast. Toast these, read these, and please don't exclude these from any defining of the Thriller canon.

One little plea to my fellow Pens...I *hate* Michael Jackson's "Thriller" - everything about it from the music video to the thumping bass to the girlish whooping to the shoulder pads. God, I hate that thing. So if you're gonna post about it I'd appreciate a little advance notice so I don't get that odious wreck stuck in my head all day.

...and on that grumpy note I think it's time for bed! I missed y'all!


Sophie Littlefield said...

oops, minor errors, i mixed up a few panels in that post - told ya i am sleepy! Joe F. is not the least bit a slacker when it comes to smarts. just in case i implied otherwise.

Adrienne Bell said...

I'm so glad that you got to have fun with your brother in NY.

But consider yourself warned...there will be Michael. oh yes, there will be Michael. I've already scanned in the picture of me at 7 y/o with my red leather jacket .

Juliet Blackwell said...

Welcome home!!! We MISSED YOU!!!
I appreciate your thoughts on defining an entire subgenre with too fine a line...I love the idea that we can have thoughtful, even lyrical thrillers. There are plenty of thrilling books not labeled thrillers, and plenty of thrillers that are lyrical and thoughtful.

daisy said...

Personally, I think that if someone tells you that a true thriller cannot be thoughtful and lyrical, you should shout "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold!", smack them upside the head and run away.

In related news, I don't get invited to a lot of parties.

Mysti said...

I keep thinking about something I read somewhere--that when asked, American men most often say the thing they fear most is being laughed at, but the thing American women say they fear most is being killed.

So I think thrillers are working out the fear of being laughed at (unmanned?) using the physical world because the emotional is too scary. A "woman's" thriller then would be something that plays out in a vicious, fast-paced emotional field, standing in for the physical death we fear. That makes the Social Network a woman's thriller...?!

Doesn't really sound right, does it? I'll have to work on it a bit more.

Nicole Peeler said...

When you sit in the audience of something I'm at, and mentally make me over, can you write everything down so I can get on it? Mama needs help. ;-)

Unknown said...

What are genres except little boxes invented by marketing (although I *do* understand the need for marketing-no disrespect meant!-it can be limiting). What matters is limiting our own imaginations to stay within those boxes. This concept could really be applied to any genre. We don't want our children to be labeled...why should we do so to our work?

Sophie Littlefield said...

lisa, you're right, of course - this *does* apply to every genre. and to every frustrated between-the-genres writer too, i suppose!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Nicole, oh baby, pencil me in for shopping (remember you're taking me to the makeup store) - just as soon as my big break :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

mysti: that was one of your smartest observations yet. and that's sayin something.

Sophie Littlefield said...

daisy, adrienn, juliet - thanks you guys :) there was head-smacking for sure - even if only in my mind

L.G.C. Smith said...

Great comments, Mysti. Lots to think about there. :)

Sophie, so glad you're home again, and I love that you and Mike are both such wickedly good writers.

Susan Tunis said...

Hey Sophie,

I was in that session, too. The things that bothered you didn't bother me. What I liked was that "Panel Master" David Liss kept things lively. There was a lot of interaction amongst the panelists, and overall the discussion was entertaining. Was it Joe Finder that sometimes played devil's advocate? I can't remember, but the panel was definitely more lively and humorous than others I attended which were really static.

I think Lee Child was cited as an example for several reasons. For one, he's widely enough read for most people to understand the reference. Also, it was less self-serving to mention this highly-respected author than one's own books. Also, Lee wasn't present at the conference this year, which sort of made him fair game to be referenced in absentia. Finally, it was mostly a running gag. There were other writers mentioned throughout the panel.

I need to blog about T-fest this week, but I'm so exhausted I don't know where to start. Rest assured, you and your lovely brother Mike will be repeatedly referenced. It was lovely to spend time with you both!