Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Thought Police and the Thriller

A disturbing story was making the rounds among authors and editors at this year’s Bouchercon: it seems that a segment of Lee Child’s readers are so enraged by antiwar statements made by characters who are Iraq War vets in his latest Jack Reacher novel that these readers are tearing out the offending pages, using them as toilet paper, and mailing them to Child.

Child found this reaction somewhat bemusing, given that he literally took quotes from real Iraq War vets and put them in the mouths of his characters. We all know that anti-war vets exist—they haven’t exactly been keeping quiet. Not only that, but it’s a time-honored tradition in fiction to have characters disturbed by their war experiences. So what’s going on here?

I first encountered this troubling mindset in some of the reactions to my Sebastian St. Cyr books. The fact that the series is about an Englishman in the early nineteenth century didn’t stop certain readers from objecting to statements my main character makes about things like the Napoleonic Wars and the American slave trade. That’s right; evidently having a character who is speaking in 1811 criticize the existence of slavery in the United States (while trying to wheedle information out of an ex-slave, no less) marks me as both liberal and unpatriotic. And as for the idea that Englishmen might have committed what we would today call war crimes or that a war veteran might be troubled by his experiences? How dare I suggest that anyone of Anglo-Saxon origins could ever be anything less than a hero in war, or that wars can be horrible rather than ennobling experiences.

So when Steve and I wrote The Archangel Project, we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. We could have written a safe, predictable thriller about Islamist terrorists, but the truth is, we don’t find the menace of terrorism nearly as scary as the threats to the American way of life that come from inside this country. So Archangel is about things like the Big Brother trends in modern government, the influence of giant energy and defense conglomerates on foreign policy, the dangers inherent in the privatization of the military and intelligence sectors, and the inevitable economic impact of militarism and empire building. And the bad guys? Basically, they’re people who are greedy, although they try to disguise their greed behind an exaggerated patriotism and neo-conservative philosophy. Given what they’re doing, it would be beyond implausible to have any of these guys profess to be a “liberal.”

But any reader who therefore leaps to the conclusion that Steve and I are “liberals” is making, well, an unsupported leap. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those people who considers the “L” word a dirty slur. But I’d like to point out that Libertarians also condemn the above-named tendencies as Bad Things, and they think of themselves as “conservatives.” In fact, Libertarians are virtually the only group that has been vocally against the war in Iraq since before it began. They run a great website called that provides links to all the news that is either never printed in this country, or is typically buried on the bottom of page F56. You’ll notice that is in the list of links on the right; it’s always been there. Does that mean I’m a Libertarian? No. The truth is, I’ve lived such a huge chunk of my life outside the United States that I don’t find I can identify too closely with any of the current parties.

Yet there’s no denying that Steve and I feel passionately about current trends and follow them closely; otherwise, the idea for The Archangel Project would never have occurred to us. The important thing to remember is this: our stories are STORIES. “President Randolph” is President Randolph, not President Bush; he will be in The Deadlight Connection next year, long after Bush is gone. We write dialogue, not polemics, and every word is there either to advance the plot, deepen characterization, or provide information the reader needs to make sense of the story. Some readers may find that the realities we choose to mention threaten some of their deeply held beliefs, but that doesn’t alter the fact that our purpose is not to challenge their beliefs, but simply to tell a story. Our female protagonist, Tobie, is actually a fairly apolitical figure; she’s never been particularly interested in history or current affairs, and it shows. Our male protagonist, CIA agent Jax Alexander, is keenly aware of both. But Jax is not a front for either Steve or I; instead, Jax, Matt, and Colonel McClintock are all inspired by the many intelligence personnel we have known over the years. Because the truth is, when you’ve heard your President get up and tell the American people something you know is directly contradicted by the report on your desk, or when you’ve been ordered by your superiors to go up on the hill and lie to Congress, you tend to get a little cynical. A lot cynical. This unblinkered realism is the reason so many veteran CIA agents have been forced out of the Company in recent years. And yes, we do touch upon that, too—again, not because we’re writing a polemic, but because in order for our story to make sense, this little-known reality needs to be stated—however uncomfortable some readers may find it.

Every writer inevitably brings his or her own particular ideology to their books. You can only write thrillers about the things that scare you. Certain modern American thriller writers whose names I won’t mention display such vitriolic bigotry and xenophobia that I can’t read their books; yet one rarely sees their racism criticized. Why? I suppose because if a writer’s basic beliefs and assumptions chime well with the popular passions of his age, the majority of his readers won’t even notice his bias. Back in the days of the Cold War, most American thriller writers took it as a given that the Russians/Commies were the bad guys and the Americans were by default the good guys. Only a few, generally British authors dared look at some of the things Western governments were doing and suggest that maybe overthrowing democratically-elected leftist governments and replacing them with right-wing dictators backed by death squads was both morally objectionable and stupidly short-sighted (can anyone say, “Iran”?). All you need to do is consider the reception given a few years ago in the United States to the film based on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to realize how far we still have to go in this respect.

So Steve and I expect The Archangel Project to rattle some readers. That’s okay; controversy is good for sales. But there’s a difference between controversy, and the kind of unreasoned hatred that once prompted angry mobs in Pakistan to burn Salmond Rushdie in effigy, or that leads partisans at a political rally to yell “terrorist” and “kill him” when the opponent’s name is mentioned. What has happened to the civil discourse we once liked to think characterized our country?

No writer should ever have to worry about what is going to show up in his mailbox.


Charles Gramlich said...

Personally, I always enjoy books that challenge my beliefs. It exercises my mind as I find ways to clarify my own position. That situation with people sending Lee Child torn out pages used as toilet paper is disgusting and so amazingly inappropriate that I hardly know what to say.

Steve Malley said...

About the worst thing an author can do is start turning the story away from areas that *might* offend. Once it starts, the process tends to take on a life of its own, and it's horribly difficult to nail down, let alone stop.

Comics lost an entire generation of possiblity in the 50's due to fears of censorship. Not censorship. Not actual outrage. Just the fear of censorship and outrage.

Lest a small child be scared or traumatized by reading something age-inappropriate in their medium, the cartoonists dumbed down their subject matter into pablum.

There are a good few folks in the States who would be happy to see that happen to books, as well.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Full agreement with the thoughts expressed here. . .

Moreover, the publishers do seem to be in on the censoring thing currently. Look what happened to Jewel of Medina.

And, would you believe, some editors of westerns want to "correct" nineteenth-century Anglos' attitudes toward Indians? More about that in "Can a Black Horse Be Noir?" at

Anonymous said...

Good post, Candy. Agree wholeheartedly.

On another note, I was in the DFW airport this weekend and saw a whole *stack* of freshly printed books in the HudsonNews Bookstore. The front of the book said "C.S. Graham" and then "The Archangel Project". They were prominently displayed right next to Lee Child's latest. :)

I didn't buy one, because I already have my copy.


Anonymous said...

I've read The Archangel Project and I was troubled by it. Though well written, it had every conspiracy theory that the left has put forth in the last few years. Do people make money off of war? Yes. Is that why we get into war? No. Yet that seemed to be this books take on most of the villains. I think people's opinion on the book will really depend on their political leanings. While not necessarily fair, I think it's an accurate assessment.

cs harris said...

Charles, Steve, Chap, it is troublesome to realize how many people don't really believe in the free expression of thoughts--although when it comes to the Jewel of Medina, I can't help but think that just because one "can" say something doesn't necessarily mean that one "should".

J.F., thanks for the "sighting report"!

Anonymous 2: On the true origins of war, you might be interested in reading William Pfaff's THE BULLET'S SONG: Romantic Violence and Utopians. Although be warned: you may find it challenges some of your most basic assumptions.

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