Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Jeffrey Archer gets beaten up

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but I'm actually in danger of feeling sorry for Jeffrey Archer. Why? Because he just got beaten up in the Sunday Times.

Of course, now that I come to think about it, I realise that there may well be lots of readers who have no idea who Jeffrey Archer is. He is almost exactly my age, and so I have been reading about him for decades, but there are those who know nothing. Lucky, one might say, them. But here is a quick summary.

Jeffrey Archer is an Englishman who, early in life, began to make his mark on the world. In fact 'make' is the operative word there. 'Man on the make' is a phrase which might reasonably describe him.

At the early age of 29 he became a Member of Parliament. Then, when he thought he might be made bankrupt, he resigned and took to writing commercial fiction instead. He proved to be remarkably good at it, and over the years he has sold a great many books in both the UK and the USA. He went back into political life and ended up with a life peerage from Mrs Thatcher -- i.e. he is a member of the House of Lords and is known formally as Lord Archer. A success then?

Well, sort of. At every stage of his career, Archer has been criticised for taking shot cuts, and for being, shall we say, not entirely honest and trustworthy. Scandals occur at regular intervals -- scandals legal, sexual, financial -- none of them appearing to diminish Jeffrey's self-confidence or bounce. However, in 2001 his luck finally ran out. He was convicted of perjury and was sentenced to four years in the slammer. As usual, he got out in two. And he went right back to doing what he does best, namely talking his way out of trouble and writing books.

Now he has a new novel out. It's called False Impressions. Last week the Sunday Times carried an interview with Lord Archer, said interview being conducted by another politician/novelist, Roy Hattersley. The headline stated that Archer 'still can't sort fact from fiction'. And this week False Impressions was reviewed by Tom Deveson.

I don't know who Deveson is, but he's a careful reader and he doesn't like cliches. He has been through Archer's new book and listed every cliche, every repetition, every banal thought, and so forth. And has set them out before us. Archer gets mugged. Knocked down, kicked in the balls, stamped on, spat on, vilified.

I imagine that every word of the review is fully justified, from a certain point of view. And I'm not an Archer fan. But his previous work (whoever wrote it, and there have been stories) has always struck me as being above average of its kind. Its kind being airport books. You buy one in New York, read bits of it with some amusement and interest on the plane, and then chuck it in the bin at Heathrow.

I am not at all sure, frankly, that if I was introduced to Jeffrey Archer I would be willing to shake his hand. Because I regard him in many ways as a total creep. But I do think the review is a little bit harsh. And it surely misses the point.

Commercial fiction is intended to sell lots of copies. And you don't sell lots of copies by aiming your book at the top 1% of the cultural UK elite. You aim it at a reader with an IQ of, say, 110. People with an IQ of less than 100 probably don't read books anyway, so aiming your masterwork at 100 IQ or lower is probably counter-productive, and a target of 110, plus or minus 10, is, I suggest, somewhere about right.

What do such readers want? Well, if we knew that, precisely, and could bottle it, we would all be rich and famous. But my best guess is that they want a story. One that moves along at a fair old pace, does not confuse the reader with fancy flourishes, and has a satisfactory ending.

Tom Deveson, in reviewing False Impressions, lists a whole succession of features of the book which are, to him, unacceptably crude and simplistic. The use of cliches; cardboard characters (as he would say). Repetitions. Unrealistic dialogue. And so forth.

But you see, while the literati despise cliches, the truth is that, in certain contexts, they serve a useful purpose. You and I, being sophisticated folk, probably would not use a phrase such as 'avoid like the plague' in writing; and maybe not in conversation. But to many readers/listeners, such a phrase communicates an idea instantly and effectively.

Instant and effective communication is what commercial fiction is all about. And to criticise an artefact for being eminently suitable for its purpose seems to me to be unreasonable.

Ditto for 'cardboard characters'. Which might more fairly be described as broadbrush, or well defined characters. And ditto for repetitions of key facts. Modern readers, as I keep on saying, are not reading their books for two hours at a stretch in a peaceful ennvironment. They read commercial novels, in particular, in snatched moments, on crowded trains. Giving such readers a few reminders of key facts is not a practice which is deserving of criticism. On the contrary.

And so on.

Jeffrey Archer is a man who has made numerous enemies, in several different fields of activity, and mostly with every justification. But if we are going to kick him up the arse, we ought to do so for the right reasons.

14 comments:

Thomas said...

This is a very insightful post. It occurred to me as I read it that if I wanted to write the kind of pot-boiler you describe, I wouldn't know how. I've barely read the genre, and haven't examined it at all. All the rules would change.

I can't say your description of it makes it appealing, though. If one wants to make money that badly, there's a lot of better ways to do it nowadays.

JodyTresidder said...

I personally dislike Jeffrey Archer for an excellent, if soggily self-pitying, reason; he once took immense satisfaction in making me cry in front of some prep school pupils when I was covering a speech he was giving for my first evening paper many years ago. (Archer was having a rough time with impertinent national newspaper journalists at the time and slyly decided to make a public example of me as a very young senior reporter on his local rag. The prep school boys were, to their credit, appalled).

I would also only take one of his "novels" on, say, holiday in the same spirit a traveller I once read about habitually packed a tin of pickled liver in his rucksack: so he would ALWAYS have something left to eat.

Nevertheless, the "serviceable, honest crap" defence of his work is a fair one. It also contrasts perfectly with your recent irate post about Freedland/"Sam Bourne" - since Freedland/Bourne was guilty of producing dishonest crap - by several objective measures.

- Leopold said...

Didn't know about this guy, but quite a nice post.

Still, should we excuse bad writing merely because it's marketable? It only contributes to the bottom denominator. People are stupid because we give them ample opportunity to choose to be stupid. In every airport rows upon rows of stupid choices, then maybe a few half-decent ones. It's the acceptance of stupid and mediocre that lets people like Jeffrey Archer thrive.

Iain said...

The GOB is spot on.

Jeffrey Archer's work isn't really for me, but the fact that I've read four of his books must mean something. For what it's worth, I quite liked First Among Equals and the first volume of his prison diaries, but not his short stories or his first novel Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (the worst book title in history, incidentally, bar only Robert Byron's First Russia, then Tibet.)

Nothing in his writing explains why Jeffrey Archer's work should attract so much more obloquy than that of other highly successful popular novelists.

It won't do to say that he is a man of dubious character: no one has ever suggested that Dylan Thomas's selfishness and irresponsibility should cause us to think less of his literary ability.

The more you think about it, the odder it is. There must be many writers whose work could be torn apart the way that Archer's so often has been, but they get away with it.

I suppose it may just be that, Archer being who he is, people are called on to review his work who would not normally choose to read pulp fiction. All right, they are free to say they don't like it. But why should it make them so angry?

I suspect (though I wouldn't dare say it if I thought I might be traceable) that Archer's critics suffer from envy. Here is a successful athlete who marries a beautiful woman (Mary the Fragrant), and becomes an MP before he is 30; when all goes wrong, financial disaster is effortlessly averted by fabulous literary success; back to politics, and a smooth climb to near the top of the greasy pole; all goes pear-shaped again, and this time he goes to prison . . . and comes out fighting, with still more literary success.

Jesus, I could just about envy the bugger myself . . .

Andrew said...

Here in the colonies, of course, scoundrels are guaranteed excellent reviews.

I was far more intrigued by your breakdown of IQ's among readership.
Given what I see displayed on the front counters of books stores, I would differ with you and suggest most of the reading is being done by those well under 100 (with their lips).

Amrapali Rai said...

Well, I had always thought of Archer's novels as kind of boring,something you had to work your way through. Something that made you consciously read and not effortlessly read. The review is certainly on the ruder side and will end up winning sympathies for Archer even if the intention is otherwise.

Anonymous said...

well, of course, we have NO IDEA who you are, 'Iain'!

JodyTresidder said...

For Archerphiles - an amusingly "balanced" profile in The Independent today, including a GOP-ish semi-defence of his novels. Say what you like about him - I certainly do - but he's an incorrigible little....ferret!

http://news.independent.co.uk/people/profiles/article348277.ece

archer said...

No one kicks a dead dog... Jeffery Archer must have something that made him the one he is..

.... I actually like his fiction, his personal life is not my concern.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoyed Jeffrey Archer's books...until this last one. There are so many holes and inconsistencies in False Impressions that I'm not sure who should be blamed: the author or the publisher for allowing this to be printed at all. Probably both.

Pravin said...

I liked his last book (just like I liked the others). Else I am not bothered about what happens in his life, like he is not affected by mine ;-)

Anonymous said...

Most of you sound pretty satisifed with yourselves. I have never read this author but it seems to me there is a great deal of sour grapes going on. Whoops, how banal of me---a cliche.

What law in GB says if you go to jail for a felony you may never write a best seller? Why is the ability to please the 110 IQ group such a despicable thing. It's ok to read something that is fun.

Why wrong to get of politics becuse you can't afford the life style?

Stop whining and just read the books you like and the let the rest of the world read what pleases them.

PS. some folk w/ a lower IQ do enjoy reading even if their level is that of a child or teern. STOP JUDGING.

If you don't like the author don't read him.

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ian darling said...

This is an ancient post but wanted to comment.I'm not really interested in giving Jeffrey Archer any sort of kicking but i do feel that you are being a bit kind to Archer in saying that he is an "above average" popular novelist- than Stephen King or Ruth Rendell or Elmore Leonard or Georges Simenon? Compare Archer's writing to these is to contemplate an enormous gulf in talent insight and ambition.Jeffery Archer is a below average Edgar Wallace- who at least inspired a superb biography by Margaret Lane!