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Critical Essay by Helen S. Garson
SOURCE: "In the Popular Tradition," in Tom Clancy: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 25-39.
In the following essay, Garson examines the combined elements of the conventional thriller, science fiction, detective fiction, and the techno-thriller in Clancy's novels.
For a long time Tom Clancy insisted he writes political thrillers, totally rejecting the term "technothriller" that numerous critics have bestowed on his work. But perhaps in recognition of the inevitable, he has finally given in. When Larry King on his 22 August 1994 television show introduced him as a writer of technothrillers, Clancy made no protest. As for labeling his work, a case could be made for both the large designation—thriller—and its subheading—technothriller, and also for spy/espionage fiction. Properties of all these types are easily found in Clancy's writing. Additionally, some book sellers, such as the Book-of-the-Month Club, list his novels under a more expansive and general category: Mystery/Suspense Fiction. This broad, all-encompassing term may be useful for libraries. However, it does little to help the reader distinguish the real differences between Clancy's work and the detective stories of Agatha Christie or the uncanny fiction of Stephen King, which are often placed alongside Clancy's in such indeterminate classifications.
When his first published book, The Hunt for Red October, appeared, reviewers found the technical aspects of the novel so impressive and unusual that it seemed that a word had to be coined to describe the type. Although nobody seems to be able to pinpoint the origin of the term "technothriller," Patrick Anderson of the New York Times gave that label to Clancy's work in 1988. In Anderson's review, Clancy became the "king" of such fiction. In that same year, Evan Thomas of Newsweek described Clancy as the "inventor" of the technothriller, although Clancy himself has said that Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain is the first technothriller. Nonetheless, Clancy is considered both inventor and king of the genre by many of the reviewers and critics who have interviewed him or written about his novels. The "king" has gained much more territory since the title was first bestowed on him by Anderson. Numerous technothriller books have been written by other novelists, often imitating him, but Clancy does not feel at all threatened by disciples. Within the decade following publication of The Hunt for Red October, similar novels became part of literary history. Publishers are eager to print technothrillers for a readership which has a large appetite for the type of fiction that Clancy has made popular. Still, among the crowds of technical writers, Clancy, from 1984 to 1995 the author of eight novels, continues to hold clear title to the crown.
A few critics have suggested that Clancy is a science fiction (SF) writer, comparing his work to that of the legendary French novelist Jules Verne. Verne is the parent of technological fiction, although today his fiction is classified as SF. However, it is the technological aspect that has led to the comparison of his novels with Clancy's. Clancy, however, flatly rejects the idea that anything he has done is in the SF mode.
H. G. Wells, perhaps the most significant figure in SF writing, scornfully labeled Verne "a short-term technological popularizer." Because of Wells's description, there is some ambiguity about the use of the terms "technological" and "SF." Verne and those who followed his example used advanced technology but also worked with elements we associate with SF, for example, projection into the future. Even though Wells seems disdainful of Verne, he and other innovative and seminal science fiction writers did very much what Verne had with advanced technology, enhancing plots which would be unsuccessful without such technology.
The beginnings of SF go as far back as Plato and continue throughout the centuries with the work of Thomas More, Swift, William Blake, Verne, Wells, Asimov, and many other writers. Science fiction appeared as "fortunate island" stories, Utopian and anti-utopian fiction, marvelous voyages, planetary novels, and political works. Although SF has changed throughout the centuries, certain key aspects hold. Science fiction is different from mimetic—imitative and observed forms—of literature in time, place, and character. It has any possible time—present, past, or future. There may be forms of religion and mythic situations, political philosophy and social structures, but they are outside the norm or the known. Although SF is a form of fantasy, within the limits set by the author the story is not ultimately impossible of fulfillment. It is "a realistic irreality, with humanized non-humans" and "this-worldly Other Worlds." However, supernatural elements of horror, that is, the gothic, are not part of SF.
Science fiction writers reject the ordinary world of reality, creating instead new and strange worlds. Such writers (and many scientists) assume that there are other worlds inhabited by other forms of life. Within the conventions of SF there is no requirement that the writer be positive or negative toward the characters or their worlds, no preconceived notion of success, failure, or achievement. The search is for the unknown and for knowledge that goes beyond learning about character, about who we are or the world we live in. Science fiction characters and their surroundings are imaginary; yet the writer treats them factually and writes of them scientifically, perhaps bringing everything about science into play. Thus, SF is concerned with scientific philosophy, its politics, its psychology, and its anthropology. There is scientific logic in SF, so that it cannot go beyond nature. Although the material may be unrecognizable and unfamiliar to the reader, it is never so estranged as to be impossible to comprehend.
Clancy and Science Fiction
Because other worlds do not enter into Clancy's novels, he sees no fantasy in his work. What he creates is "real" to him, and he insists on his obligation to readers to write about reality, possibility, and probability. No matter that much science fiction has elements of possibility and sometimes probability; Clancy repudiates any resemblance to his work. Yet, examples abound. Clancy writes of some submarine equipment and experimental aircraft as if they were real; yet they do not exist. Further, he suggests that the Russians have developed a system to eliminate U.S. reconnaissance satellites (SDI in Cardinal). He treats these as operational actualities, though most experts would quarrel with his interpretation.
In Red Storm Rising, the reader accepts as possible, perhaps "real" in an SF sense, the projection of time into a future when a third world war is under way. The novel is both futuristic and scientific. Without the use of every type of technological information superior to that of the enemy, the forces of democracy could not defeat those of totalitarianism, the Soviets. The fact that the enemy is the USSR makes the plot plausible and also acceptably realistic (in a non-SF sense), given the state of the cold war in 1987, when the novel was published. The combination of elements lends itself to at least a partial classification of SF.
From early on, reviewers have spoken of Clancy as prophetic, as one might of a SF writer. Clancy's novels, like SF and some technothrillers, appear prophetic about current and future possibilities of scientific technology. In addition, SF books often involve politics, as do Clancy's, which have a political agenda along with scientific technology and prophetic characteristics. What seems unlikely today in a Clancy book, a science fiction novel, a work of political intrigue, or a technothriller is the reality of tomorrow. What if, as in Verne, a vessel could survive underwater? What if, as in Clancy, satellites and an SDI system could affect future wars and even determine outcomes? There is, however, one major difference between Clancy and SF writers. In science fiction "destiny" is not on anyone's side, although it looms large in technological fiction such as Clancy's, and that is an important distinction between his work and true science fiction.
Critics, reviewers, writers, and teachers have difficulty pinning down the word "thriller." Often we use it interchangeably with the terms spy/espionage story because of the many overlapping characteristics. Just as the technothriller may be subsumed by that more general term "thriller," so too may the spy story. However, not all thrillers are either spy or technological novels. They may be both or neither. They are also murder, suspense, or psychological stories. Terminology sometimes can be slippery, and labels often indistinct.
Ralph Harper calls the thriller "crisis literature," claiming that the crises always are about war. Other scholars, though, see additional subjects, often personal and with a variety of landscapes. The landscape may even be limited to the mind of a character. Thriller subjects may range from global situations (suspense thrillers, political thrillers) to individual disturbances (psychological thrillers), from an attack on a vast region to the murder of a person. Nevertheless, according to Harper, the basic issue in the thriller is "death and responsibility." Hostile acts are planned and executed, bringing violence and death as the story is played out. Resolution follows, though not invariably in the form of retribution or punishment.
Scholars disagree about the function of language and the importance of characters in thrillers. Some criticize the simplicity of language and form and the lack of character development typical of most thrillers. As a result, they believe too much attention is given to plot and not enough to character. Yet, another scholarly view holds "that in a thriller 'too much character clutters up the plot.'" Because of the differences it is useful to separate thrillers into categories of "entertainments" (popular fiction) and "high art." For thrillers by such writers as Graham Greene and John Le Carré, the classification "high art" applies because their interest is more in character than in plot, and in style more than suspense. Technothrillers by their very nature are popular fiction. Although at times the two types—popular fiction and high art—merge, generally they are separable.
Few thrillers are high art. Rather, most are popular entertainment and should be evaluated as such, with different measurements applied. Style is as changeable in the two types of thrillers as in unlike genres. Usually the most successful popular thriller style is simple and unsubtle. For the reader to be drawn into the story immediately there must be sufficient familiarity with language and form. Then too, thrillers have particular language patterns. The violent emotion, which is a vital characteristic, requires a flatness of tone with a dual function. It "underlines the violence" as well as serving to contain it. In the most exciting thrillers, the sentences are short, the structures imitative of news reports, frequently with a brevity suggestive of news bites.
Characters in popular art are familiar to readers, and because of their lack of individuality they border on stereotypes. To make them interesting and provocative, yet still generic, the author must create memorable and attention-getting figures, with qualities that attract readers and hold their attention. For that reason thrillers usually have heroes (heroines less often) who are exceptional, even fantastic people with whom most readers want to identify. Brave, dedicated heroes (heroines) represent the reader against deceitful and vicious enemies. Like us, heroes are vulnerable, but, unlike us, they overcome all odds. Heroes have developed over a long period of time and have changed little in basic ways from classical mythical figures to medieval knights to nineteenth-century adventurers. In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular fiction the heroes of adventure/suspense/mystery fiction were not professional detectives, policemen, or spies. They were amateurs, perhaps dilettantes, caught up in a situation they previously knew nothing about. Few of them had training to engage in the activities that became their lot. However, the hero was always someone with multiple skills learned perhaps in wartime or in some branch of service. Until shortly before and after the time of World War II, professional agents or investigative figures were rarely depicted in fiction, but the growth of police departments and defense and undercover agencies throughout the century helped create a somewhat different type of hero. Modern warfare also played a part in making the hero an informed and knowledgeable professional. Nevertheless, the contemporary thriller hero still carries the marks of the traditional figure.
Thriller heroes rarely take on their tasks for money, even though they are paid for their activities. Some become involved for excitement, some to protect people, some to fulfill their sense of duty or social responsibility. But the major function of the thriller hero usually is the righting or prevention of wrongs, whether his country, a group, or an individual has been attacked or injured. The hero's role may change from novel to novel and even within the same novel. He may be either the hunter or the hunted. (Clancy's heroes fill both roles.) Whatever task he has, he is expected to perform honorably and loyally, even if he has to commit acts he may not approve of, be forced to play a deceptive game, or get involved in the deaths of innocent people. In one way or another, the hero is a vulnerable man. Guilt, as well as danger, is something he may always have to live with. No matter how he attempts to avoid danger, he is never free. Not only can he not escape his own fate, he may bring danger, pain, and suffering to those he loves.
Clancy and the Thriller
In a number of ways, Clancy's novels make a perfect fit as thriller, even though "technothriller" is a more exact term. Most of his novels have the large landscape of war that Harper considers a requirement for thrillers. His wars may not invariably be shooting wars, but wars they are. There is the cold war of The Hunt for Red October. The wars of terrorists are central to Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears. Drug wars propel the action of Clear and Present Danger, and both drug wars and a shooting war are at the heart of Without Remorse. Economic war is related to actual warfare in Debt of Honor. Furthermore, Clancy's pages are brimming over with death and responsibility, elements that Harper considers essential. In all Clancy's work, violence in some form brings on death to large or small groups of people. Responsibility for hostile acts is always clear, so that the reader knows from the start where the blame lies, and it is never with "us"—the "good guys."
Clancy's novels, like most popular thrillers, have certainty in them. A single-minded philosophy puts the United States, its military, and preselected individuals in the good category and the opposition in the bad. No shades of gray are sketched in. Although Clancy's world is technologically complex, his "friendly forces" characters, as well as the private and public world they live in, are not. They are "our" people, knowable and dependable. We can count on them to bring about justice as we understand it.
The heroes of Clancy's fiction risk their lives in the manner of medieval knights, even though at first nothing signals their special qualities. They may prefer to stay at home in a safe environment, doing familiar, enjoyable work, but when duty requires something else, they do it bravely. Toland in Red Storm Rising is an example. Ryan, the major Clancy hero, may be terrified of flying, but he does it anyway, just as he automatically risks his life again and again in dangerous situations. Ryan behaves that way from the moment he is introduced in Red October and on through each successive novel. There are also examples of ordinary, decent men who do not seem at first to have any of the makings of a hero. Yet, when events test them, they become leaders of men and saviors of women. Edwards, the meteorologist in Red Storm Rising, is that type of man. He would rather die than be a James Bond who secretly thrills to the idea of "the tang of rape" (Casino Royale). Clancy's heroes do not have such thoughts. They are men set apart from others, superior to those around them. Nevertheless, almost always they work within the establishment.
Jack Ryan, though individualized in memorable ways, comes through the traditional line of thriller novels and is an amalgam of traits of prior figures. Like sleuths and agents of early suspense fiction, Ryan has not chosen as his vocation any form of secret or investigative work, but it finds him. Although he differs from the low-key hero of some of the 1920s–30s Golden Age English detective, he does have a number of resemblances. (It is not surprising that we think of English figures, for both author and his hero show great affection for all things English.) The famed English writer Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, is rich, intelligent, well educated, a university graduate. He served and was injured in World War I, is an amateur sleuth but plays a role in government intelligence. Jack Ryan is also rich, well educated, successful even when he least expects it, a failure at nothing, a former marine, and involved in intelligence. In yet another bow to the English heroes, Clancy has the queen reward an exploit of Ryan's by dubbing him Sir Ryan.
When introduced in Clancy's first thriller, Ryan thinks of himself as an average citizen, a teacher/scholar. Of course the experienced thriller reader knows and expects him to be anything but average. With each book Ryan becomes more like the superstars of other thriller novels. He soon gives up his enjoyable teaching position to work for the CIA, and his exploits begin to rival those of any thriller hero. Not only does he place himself in harm's way but unwittingly does the same with his family. Family attachments also put him in greater danger. In Patriot Games when wife Caroline (Cathy) and daughter Sally are seriously injured by terrorists seeking vengeance on Ryan himself, he takes actions that he would not have followed had they not been attacked. Like other thriller heroes he refuses to let the law do all the work, and he throws himself into the center of action. He wins out, but there is a price, and over time, that is, over a ten-year series of novels, he changes. The quiet, cool-headed man of the first book becomes secretive, extremely active, and even explosive as he ages. With each novel we also see a more cynical Ryan, the result of his exposure to evil men and philosophy.
The Spy Novel
Another applicable description of Clancy's work is "spy novel." Lest someone protest that Clancy is not a spy writer, we have only to consider LeRoy Panek's judgment that a work is a spy novel if there is a single spy in it. Furthermore, that view is bolstered by Marc Cerasini's essay in The Tom Clancy Companion. In writing about "the birth of a genre," Cerasini describes Clancy's fusion of "military fiction with near-future apocalyptic science fiction, touches of espionage fiction, and a large dose of social realism." Those "touches of espionage fiction" in Clancy's work require consideration of the features of spy stories if we are to place it completely.
Critics assign different dates to the "first" or most important British spy novel, which is the true ancestor of American espionage fiction, even though occasionally someone will name the American James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821) as the earliest example of the genre. Historians have said spying came about as early as the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, actual spies did not have the romantic aura that fiction conferred on them with the development of the spy novel in the nineteenth century. Scholars agree that spy stories are linked to the Industrial Revolution, which occurred in Great Britain and parts of Europe before the United States. As Britain became highly industrialized, its weaponry, naval power, and eventually its airplanes were seen as a threat, as well as a source of envy to foreign powers. Spying took on an important role in reality and in fiction.
Modern thriller/espionage writers (as well as detective story writers) are indebted to a number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors who created the form. According to some scholars, the prolific novelist William LeQueux is said to have provided the major guidelines of the spy novel, in spite of the unreadability of most of his work. LeQueux's importance to the development of espionage fiction also comes through what Panek calls his "pseudo-histories." These resemble war prophecy novels and argue "for military preparedness." Although LeQueux was writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, his indirect effect may be seen in later writers who in turn influenced Clancy. LeQueux's work also suffers from what Panek calls "the worst brand of Victorian sentiment." Sentiment, however, is not unique to LeQueux. Inasmuch as he is hardly the only author whose novels become mired in embarrassing mawkishness, we can't trace that tendency in Clancy back to LeQueux alone.
Also among the forerunners of the modern spy novel is the work of E. Phillips Oppenheimer, which provided one particular type of motif we find in Clancy. That is Oppenheimer's variation on the war prophecy novel, "prediction of an averted war instead of an actual one." Oppenheimer's spy fiction takes on issues common to both the war prophecy novel and the averted war novel, issues that Clancy makes use of also. Both novelists show concern about the sufficiency of defense, the strength and weaknesses of military preparedness, and secret weapons.
Most scholars agree that the first "good" spy fiction is a war prophecy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, written by Erskine Childers in 1903. Critic/novelist Julian Symons states it is that novel which established a double standard for spying. Enemy spies have evil motives, whereas "we" have only worthy intentions. (Depending on who the novelist is, the "we" may differ. In Riddle of the Sands it is the British, and in most spy fiction by English or American writers, their compatriots are the worthy "we.") Symons claims that the duality of the moral problem—we are good, they are bad—existed only through the first few decades of the twentieth century, coming to an end with the work of Eric Ambler. His position is belied not only by a reading of Clancy's novels but also by an examination of the varieties of fiction of the years following World War II.
The most important writer for our consideration of the "development of the spy novel or the detective novel" (and for examination of Clancy's relationship to them) is John Buchan. "The modern novel of espionage simply would not have developed along the same lines without him." Even today his novels continue to exert their influence on mystery—spy/thriller/adventure novels, and "in its best manifestations the spy novel returns to him." Even novelist John Le Carré tips his hat to the great earlier writer by using a Buchan title in one of his own books.
Like thrillers, all spy fiction is not the same. Several literary historians have called attention to two clear divisions in the spy fiction genre. One is in the heroic, conservative, traditional camp. The other is realistic and ironic, in the mode of modern fiction. The first, as defined by Symons, supports "authority," asserting "that agents are fighting to protect something valuable." He describes the other type as "radical, critical of authority," with claims "that agents perpetuate, and even create, false barriers between 'us' and 'them.'" Other critics note that the traditional archetypal form has more violence, as well as more vitality and hope than the later one. The earlier type generally has a happy and conclusive ending, much like the novels of the Victorian Age. All loose ends are tied, all issues settled, if only temporarily. The realistic spy novel with its antiheroes, its darkness, and sense of despair is much closer in tone to modern and postmodern thought. Not surprisingly, the spy novel that utilizes traditional motifs (even with updated variations) is the one that is most successful commercially even though it is the other type that literary pundits find more meaningful.
Clancy and the Spy Novel
By the 1980s the time was right for Clancy's unique blending of modes, the uniquely modern and the traditional. In traditional ways his work bears multiple resemblances to Buchan's. Both Buchan's novels and Clancy's are realistic in their use of actual historical events, but both mix them with fabricated incidents. Buchan's chief character Richard Hannay is, like the later Jack Ryan, a series figure. The two, who look and sound like the typical English or American reader, are a meld of romantic and ordinary figure. Buchan's fiction is a form of "Victorian" schoolboy literature, that is, it focuses on adventure, morality, heroism, and friendship. These same characteristics, though updated, are central to Clancy's work. Also notable in Buchan's novels is "the absence of believable, complete women characters." Though hardly a remarkable characteristic in any spy novels, it is another resemblance between Buchan and Clancy's fiction. Finally, one small link that seems appropriate to Buchan but somewhat entertaining in Clancy: Buchan's characters have memories of grouse shooting. Sir Jack Ryan also has such memories.
Critics combined the words technology and thriller into "technothriller" to give a more precise definition to another variation in genre. The term "thriller" by itself does not suggest the differences in technological fiction. Although there is much overlapping of characteristics, the technological novel has some distinctive traits of its own.
Technothrillers are not completely the product of the modern age but have become significant additions to popular literature with the phenomenal advance of technology in the second half of the twentieth century. Contemporary writers have made use of technology unknown before the Second World War. These technothriller novelists build their work around technology that is both current and projected or futuristic. Every manner of complex machines, usually real but sometimes imagined, is fodder for the work. The technothriller may focus on any area from ocean to outer space. It may concern all forms of nuclear weaponry, missiles, submarines, aircraft. Perhaps it foregrounds computers that reach beyond human ability to solve problems. Laboratories with scientists—biologists, chemists, physicists, archaeologists—study unknown and as yet unsolved questions of existence, DNA, germs, viruses, extinct species.
In addition to the resemblances of technothriller to thriller fiction, there is sometimes the reminder of SF, and not only in the futuristic element. Still, some important distinctions exist. Unlike SF, the technothriller world is earthbound although its machines go out into space. It is the world the reader knows, even if its complexities are baffling. It is not the estranged world of SF. Scholars point out that characters in technothrillers are usually less interesting than the technology. However, people in technothrillers are recognizable humans, different from the fantasized, imaginary, or robotics figures of SF.
Although people are necessary to put things into motion (the thriller aspect), the plot in a technothriller depends more on advanced technology than on human character. Technothrillers are often a form of military fiction, with players who are soldiers, sailors, pilots. The novel serves as a subordinate backdrop to display advancements and projections of weaponry and war. Actual war, possible war, or averted war is fought on the pages of the technothriller. However, war is not limited to mass destruction of a martial nature. There may be other kinds of war, perhaps a financial war, dependent on modern technology, which could destroy the world economy. The crises and solutions in most technothrillers are mechanical. People may make mistakes, but the focus of the plot is on the machinery not on human limitations. The "good" characters in technothrillers are clearly delineated, are on the "right" side and, in the military fiction, are superpatriots. Invariably, the cast of characters is large. Although there may be a single traditional hero, the wide scope of the playing field requires a great many people, so many in fact that often they seem as faceless as their machines.
Clancy and the Technothriller
No matter how much technology dominates his books, Clancy's basic formula comes from the thriller. The fact that he sees himself as a writer of political thrillers further emphasizes the point that the thriller model is the primary one he has followed. Yet, his fiction has some SF connections and is especially close to espionage novels in its inclusion of spies, and, as critic William Ryan calls them, "other mavens of espionage." However, Clancy's enjoyment of gadgets, his early reading of SF stories, including those filled with gadgetry, his monitoring of scientific developments, his fascination with computers, his admiration for all things military, and his very strong sense of patriotism connect him to the technothriller.
Marc Cerasini provides some background for Clancy's work, by describing the fiction and films that preceded his novels. He tells of the changing attitudes of the second half of this century: "Traditional war novels, tales of personal heroism and self-sacrifice that reinforced higher values of social responsibility, the type of fiction characteristic of the years following the Second World War, were replaced with a fiction of cynicism and defeat." Antiwar novels and movies became popular for a time, one result of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. But, even during the war, SF writers were creating promilitary novels and cleverly disguised war films. Cerasini writes that "Star Wars" is really a "reincarnation" of "unabashedly patriotic films of the 1940s." Filmmaker George Lucas, claims Cerasini, made "the villains clear-cut fascists, the good guys honest and noble." Similar films proved popular, and novels moved in the direction of technology and politics.
By the 1980s the time was ripe for the fiction of Clancy. All his novels employ technology, even Patriot Games, which the novelist considers a love story. Like the work of other technothriller writers, almost everything in Clancy's plots and their central episodes depends on advanced technology. For Clancy, like many other contemporary technothriller writers, that technology involves military matters. Because of that identification he has been described as "the novelist laureate of the military industrial complex."
His multiple characters are often flat and subordinate to the technology. Aside from his alter-ego character, Jack Ryan, and his other favorite, John Kelly (Clark), Clancy's people are types rather than individuals. Some reviewers also classify Ryan and Kelly that way, comments that anger the author greatly. He is exasperated by critics who describe his machines as more interesting, complex, and lifelike than his characterizations. He angrily defends his portrayal of characters. Even if he scoffs at the word "literature," and at critics, he wants to be known as a writer who understands everything about his creations. In his determination to make his people real, he provides family background, wives, children, a few friends. However, the same flatness of characterization pervasive in most technothriller writing holds for these. Rarely do the families come alive. The wives and children are too perfect, friends too understanding, invariably good-humored and supportive. But the humanizing element in his characters (and a quality that adds to suspense) is that they can occasionally make mistakes. They misread, or overlook, or make a poor judgment that leads to serious consequences. Still, the effect of such action is seen to propel plot, not to alter or develop character. The military and government agents in the author's drama do not change with success or failure.
All the many facets of Clancy's work may explain the esteem in which it is held by readers, and also the less praiseful attitudes of most literary critics. While Clancy is an innovative and exciting writer in modern technological ways, paradoxically he is at the same time a traditional one. It is not pejorative to call his work formula writing. The entertainment technothriller, thriller, spy story always adheres to formula in language, plot, images and symbols. We readers like the assurance of that familiarity, while at the same time we want something new added in character or situation or "filler." (The filler is sometimes called "unbound motifs," that is, absorbing and interesting information but unnecessary to the progression of the story.) The pleasure readers gain from formula writing is the repetition of something we have experienced and enjoyed before, but with the excitement of newness. It might be the new plot or setting, or more about the serial hero, of whom we know much, yet never enough. We want to be told what he eats, drinks, drives, wears, what he feels about the world in which he functions. And, with all that, in such entertainments there is the promise of a complex world made comprehensible.
In Clancy's novels political views arc central and powerful. He stirs old and new fears of the Russian bear, the Red menace, creeping communism, Asians and Latins, all these personified through evil characters. The enemy is known wherever or whenever he or she appears. The reader's apprehensions and the writer's become one. They are voiced by Fleming Meeks, who tells us Clancy plays on our "deep-seated geopolitical fears" as he "spins scary scenarios of world chaos." Works become popular when the reader shares or sympathizes with the point of view and feels a kinship to all or most of the values. Clancy brings about most of these responses in readers, who cannot wait for each new book to appear.
Then why the attacks of some reviewers on such popular material? To answer that, we might consider a comment made by Kingsley Amis about hostility to the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. They, the critics, are angered, says Amis, by the "attraction of something one disapproves of." But few readers disapprove. For most, the use of formula brings the reassurance of safety even as the real or fictional world explodes. Our various repressed needs and longings are served. Many of us have an unconscious desire for danger and excitement, perhaps even violence, though in reality most of us do everything to avoid involvement. Through thrillers/spy novels we can cross the boundaries of actual life into the world of the forbidden or unattainable. In our escape into the fantasized world we find wish fulfillment. We can confront our foes, knowing someone else will act for us and win. Our hero—ourself—will live to fight another day. Then, as the poet A. E. Housman tells us, we'll "see the world as the world's not" and ourselves as "sterling lad[s]" ("Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff").
The experience is cathartic. Whether we can finally decide that there is a single label for Clancy's work doesn't matter. Rather it is our understanding of the ways the pieces of the puzzle fit together to make up the world of Clancy's fiction.
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