Saturday, September 18, 2010

Who ‘Owns’ Political Thrillers?

This was originally posted as “Grumbling in a fit of Pique” on my other blog, in response to an article from the The New Republic (cite frequently below). As I’m getting ready for a slew of thriller reviews, I thought I would re-post it here, with some more thoughtful commentary and expansion.

CR used to be far more about thriller and crime novels than fantasy and science-fiction, and I thought it was time to focus a bit more on these genres for a bit. Ever since 2002, when I read James Patterson’s Violets Are Blue while living in Japan, I’ve been addicted to crime and thriller novels, always searching for new authors to discover and follow. (Before this, I actually didn’t read anywhere near as much as I do now, tending towards books by Terry Pratchett, Bernard Cornwell, Anne Rice, and the occasional other author who might be connected to these three.)

Thrillers (as novels, movies or TV shows) held so much for me: the realistic and varied characters; a puzzle to solve and (hopefully) make the reader think; and action to entertain. As someone who has always wanted to live in the United States, I read almost exclusively novels set in the US, therefore offering more insight and information on the country and its society, politics and people. Anyway, that’s just a little bit of background before getting to the main point of this post, which I’ll now turn my attention to...

BeckSupremacyZengerle Almost a year ago, I read an article about the ‘right-wing strangle-hold’ on political/spy thriller fiction. The article – “The Beck Supremacy: How a right-wing conspiracy hijacked the thriller genre”, by Jason Zengerle – bothered me a great deal at the time, and it made me think more about what the thriller market actually is, and what it requires from the authors. I decided to catch up with reading political thrillers, most specifically the novel Zengerle used as the bedrock of his article.

A good deal of what Zengerle writes is perfectly valid and hard to refute, but it is not without flaws. His article takes Vince Flynn’s Pursuit of Honor as the central ‘proof’ of his argument. That Flynn “is to the war on terrorism what Tom Clancy was to the cold war”, as Zengerle suggests, is probably true. His Mitch Rapp novels (as well as the stand-alone novel Fade) are brilliant, thrilling offerings of spy-and-terrorist fiction. His main protagonist is a CIA-trained assassin, involved in (pitch-)black ops, and quite possibly the hardest character ever written. The novels are thoroughly entertaining, and I rarely take more than a couple days to read each one as soon as I get my hands on it.


Zengerle’s article focuses on something from Flynn’s promotional campaign/tour for Pursuit of Honor. The author sent Rush Limbaugh (the obnoxious-in-every-way right-wing radio ‘personality’) a copy of the novel, and included with it a note trumpeting the conservative pandering call-to-arms in Chapter 50 of the novel. I’d be lying if I said this revelation was not a little disappointing, but then I thought about it and realised I didn’t care.

Zengerle makes a case that “Flynn appears to be angling for a new level of conservative street cred” with each new novel, and by pitching the promotion of the novel in such a manner certainly suggests this may well be the case. Is there anything wrong with this? I personally don’t think so. If Flynn is genuinely a fan of Limbaugh’s and is a staunch conservative... so what? Is the Zengerle’s point that conservatives only produce entertainment for other conservatives? This is an incredibly pompous assumption, and ignores the fact that many people of all political stripes read thrillers. Also, before reading this article, it never once occurred to me to even consider what an author’s political ideology might be.

However, this isn’t where I started to go off the author of the article. That happened when I read 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.”

24 Series 7 ( was shot for Series 6 but never used)
Keifer Sutherland
©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

I watch 24 because it’s entertaining (even if my interest has diminished with each new series). Entertainment is the same reason I read Flynn’s novels; not to mention Tom Clancy, David Baldacci, Kyle Mills, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, Alex Berenson, Ian Flemming, Joseph Finder, Andrew Britton (RIP), Mike Lawson, Sean Black, to name but a handful – it’s one of my favourite fiction genres. 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 (it would not surprise me at all if he only considered Pursuit of Honor because of this note to Limbaugh). While it is true that Rapp does have a particular skill at extracting information, frequently using extreme measures, 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, Nash, who seems to be cracking under the pressure of the job. So here is a supposed psychopath, caring for his colleague’s mental state because of the horrible things they have to do, not to mention one that does have second thoughts about having to kill, maim, or torture anyone.

There are certainly snatches of the novel that clearly exhibit Flynn’s (or, at least, the right’s) political preferences and views, including the snippet Flynn mentioned to Limbaugh, 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 also 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). Ogden is 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, a very important area of her constituency (see Robert Scheer’s The Pornography of Power for more on this). 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).

The second half of the article chills out, thankfully, 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 former producer of Newsnight, was upward-of-80% 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 Carré, 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 most of the authors writing in the genre today. Flynn is just as able (if not, actually, better 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. Just as many Republican/conservative arguments are as vapid if not more so. Perhaps the author who is most gifted at showing all sides of an argument is Kyle Mills, whose Mark Beamon series will have you thinking seriously about issues in ways you never thought you would – the war on drugs and religion in politics to name but two stand-outs – not to mention condoning (even if in just an armchair way) some pretty extreme policies.


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, and how the bickering and constant one-upmanship of D.C. politics gets in the way of proper governance:

“[the] 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. The 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 from Zengerle’s article 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 (see Glen Beck as a perfect example of this, if you absolutely have to...), but it was the George W. Bush administration that 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 the feel and temperaments of their times. Certainly Vietnam movies and books did and still do.

After all, consider the thematic tendencies of the genre. Frequent plot-lines focus on either an anti-establishment, maverick protagonist who has a tendency to buck orders and go his (or, occasionally, her) way, or on someone who is thrust into unfamiliar territory and has to overcome some deadly obstacles or whatnot. Invariably, there is a conspiracy of some sort (see Charles Pierce’s Idiot America for an excellent account of conspiracies and cranks through American history). The novels might take an anti-governmental or anti-corporate approach; or even take issue with Eisenhower’s biggest concern, the military-industrial complex. Other popular topics are human corruption and espionage (the classic, original focus of the genre). These grand themes always remain, in one form or another, regardless of the time in which the novel may be set. The human aspect of the story (personal struggle, predominantly) is the most important, with contemporary (geo)politics as a backdrop.

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, for that matter, given Clancy’s back catalogue) that has a “we’re bastards, and weak ones at that” approach?

Thrillers are meant to entertain – otherwise they would surely have to be called ‘downers’. Who cares if the author is a conservative or liberal? I have no doubt that there are some novels out there that lean overtly one way or another (maybe some that do so scarily), but in order to be a truly successful thriller, it will need to offer as much as possible for as wide an audience as possible.

If the novel is entertaining, and actually thrills, then I’m likely 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 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 devil’s 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 its own political agenda?

Zengerle at one point blames 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 don’t liberal news sources invite these authors? 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? That, frankly, is idiotic.

“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.”

The New York Times did, actually, once have a regular thriller/spy novel review column, but after the end of the Cold War it was stopped. 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 (literary for the main, unless there’s no way of getting away without a review – for example, Dan Brown). To pass up any opportunity to promote a book would be folly. If conservative talk-shows are all that’s left (an odd turn of phrase, in this case...), 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 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 is excellent at presenting convincing arguments for all sides.)

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 and thriller writers? Again, I think it’s more a case of the media pundits 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. This, of course, is another thing to take into account when considering the thriller genre: How many authors could ever hope to make a truly liberal or Democratic approach to almost any contemporary issue thrilling to read? I think it would make for a thoroughly boring book, totally lacking in thrills. [If you disagree, please point me in the direction of a novel that bucks this assumption!]

Zengerle, while he makes some very good points (Thor and Flynn, neither of whom were in governmental or military service, should not be called upon as foreign policy experts – it is dishonest and utterly irresponsible), 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’m not saying that I (or any other thriller fan) needs the violence in order to enjoy a novel, but there’s a reason action movies and these novels are so popular. That they focus on contemporary issues only makes them more relevant – in many cases, the authors are able to produce some excellent social and political commentary, lacking in many mainstream news media publications or broadcasts.

I am neither a nutty right-winger, nor an uneducated hick. I don’t think Limbaugh is worth the air he breathes, and Beck, rather than being the comedian he has been described as, is actually Fox’s biggest joke perpetrated on the American people. But, I love political and action thrillers. They’re entertaining, and at times thought-provoking. The convention of the genre existed well before Flynn and Thor, and while it is certainly possible to read thrillers through a conservative lens, there is no necessary connection between the thriller genre and conservative politics (or liberal politics).

I don’t always agree with the politics on display or the decisions characters take, but they do what we expect them to do. If they make the reader think more about political, economic, or social issues, then they should be applauded, not relegated to the same intellectually-stunted, ideological pile as Beck and Limbaugh.

[All page numbers from Pursuit of Honor are from the eBook edition]

1 comment:

  1. Hi CR,

    Just came across this, a little late! But a fascinating discussion.

    I agree that one can enjoy a thriller without the necessity of an ideological lens. But it is also certainly true that an author's political and ideological viewpoints inform the narrative. For example, when Thor states that:

    “I don’t even think President Bush went far enough in taking it to our enemies, Al Qaeda doesn’t abide by the Geneva Conventions, so in my opinion, they should not be afforded the protections of them." -

    it is clear that his plots and characters will "ideally" play by that ethos, which he admits readily in the same article. Depending on one's views of the Geneva Conventions and the ethics of torture etc, this can have an impact on the experience of the novel.

    Of course, it completely depends on how sophisticated the author in such cases might be. One can come from an ideological perspective, and yet frame it in the nuanced humanity of the mess of nation states dealing with terrorist groups. Or one can come from a more extreme and cartoonish idea of "right" and "wrong", and such novels will much more likely push away readers of the opposite ideology.

    I think the better writers have a deeper insight into the human condition, and while framing things from their own perspective, do less preaching than story-telling.