Sorry for the blog outage—that was my longest in a while, huh? Mainly I’ve been working on my dissertation, and that doesn’t give me much blogging material: partly I don’t want to bore anyone, partly I don’t want to write anything twice if I can help it. Plus, Acephalous casts a long shadow over anyone wanting to write something entertaining about their dissertation reading. But enough throat-clearing, here I go already:
As I may or may not have mentioned, I’m writing about spy literature in the early twentieth century. Some of what I’m reading is interesting in its own right, and some of it is just interesting as material for the project—it’s the laughing with/laughing at distinction, basically. It turns out that some thrillers lose their ability to inspire over ninety or a hundred years. In general, the appalling writing I’ve seen takes one of two forms.
The first is the “Tom Clancy Effect,” where the author abandons the pretense that what you’re reading is a novel, and just makes it an earnest argument for increased British military spending—imagine an episode of 24 that just consisted of Jack Bauer reading an article from Foreign Policy Magazine. Here, from William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1906), is an exchange between two young Englishmen following the shocking revelation of the German invasion of England:
“…to-day is surely the blackest day that England has ever known.”
“Yes, thanks to the pro-German policy of the Government and the false assurances of the Blue Water School. They should have listened to Lord Roberts.”
The second type of bad writing masks its rhetoric and predictability with exotic characters and details. The results at least look much more like what you expect from a thriller, except when, pardon the cliche, the author jumps the shark. Late in E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Mysterious Mister Sabin (1902), Mr. Sabin’s Chinese servant Foo Cha (who is introduced quite out of the blue 3/4 of the way through the book) reports some suspicious activity that he’s observed:
“Master, I was followed from the house of the German by a man, who drove fast after me in a two-wheeled cab. He lost me on the way, but there are others. I have been into the street, and I am sure of it. The house is being watched on all sides.”
Sabin tries to reassure him, but apparently doesn’t do a good job, because not only is Foo Cha still agitated, he forgets how to speak English:
“Me afraid,” he admitted frankly. “Strange men this end and that end of street. Me no like it. Ah!”
Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, if you were wondering what your books would look like a century from now, wonder no more.