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.