Would “The Hunt for Red October” be a bestseller today?

One of my projects as a writer learning all he can about the thriller/suspense genre is to read the early novels–first novels in particular, if I can find them–of today’s recognized best-selling authors. The authors I’ve read/am reading so far include Tom Clancy, David Baldacci, Dean Koontz, and Robert Ludlum. I intend to read first and early works of James Patterson, John Sandford, Ken Follett, and others as I can find them.

These are books that were first published anywhere from twenty to forty years ago, and marketed to an audience that did not own cell phones, iPods, modern computers, have access to hundreds of cable TV channels, and had no idea that Twitter and Facebook would come to dominate their everyday lives. In short, this was a reading generation that did not suffer from short attention spans and the need for instant gratification.

To be sure, that generation of readers is much closer to today’s reader in comparison than the readers of centuries past compare to the latter 20th century reader, so short attention span is a relative term. Still, I think there’s enough difference between today’s reading generation and the previous reading generation to make some interesting comparisons.

That said, I’ll make the case that Tom Clancy’s bestseller, ‘The Hunt for Red October,”published in 1984, might not have sold very well if it had been published in the past few years. “Why?” I hear you ask.

Most obviously, the pacing is slow and the middle is laden with backstory, technical details, and introduces a plethora of characters who come and go in a matter of pages, sometimes even paragraphs.

Before you challenge me on that point, make sure you aren’t recalling the movie version of the book, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. That version’s plot is quite different from the book plot. It’s much faster-paced, leaves out most of the laborious middle section, and features a climax that is more “Hollywood” than the book’s climax.

I don’t mean to denigrate Mr. Clancy’s work. He’s a fine writer. I’m sure all readers with a military background were impressed with his technical accuracy and detail. I’ll bet they also appreciated the inclusion of all the “small characters” who would have performed their roles in such a situation, but whose mention in the movie would have added at least an hour to the film’s length.

To dissect the book in more detail, the opening sentence, paragraph, and page are nothing extraordinary and certainly don’t comprise the “agent-grabbing” impact that we aspiring writers are told repeatedly we need to craft with our first page. However, the first chapter is masterful in introducing the reader to Marko Ramius, giving us enough of his backstory to understand his motives later on, and sets the plot in motion by having Ramius kill his political officer and lie to make it seem like his death was accidental.

Secondly, one of the main characters, Jack Ryan, is introduced early on and is developed well, but then goes missing in the book for about 80 pages (more than 20% of the book) while all the “behind the scenes activity with minor characters” happens. Then he abruptly pops back into the story.

Lastly, all the behind the scenes machinations suffer from jargonese too, especially when all the various fighting ships and planes are mentioned and/or described on top of all the codes and terms. Personally, I have a hard time juggling more than a few bits of jargon, codes, numerical descriptions, etc., at one time. The reader is bombarded with CINCLANT, DCI, CIA, SLOC, typhoon-class, Los Angeles-class, Alfa-class, ASW, SAR, C-5A Galaxy, YAK-36 Forger … You get the idea. Military folk and technology geeks no doubt lap this stuff up, but I’d think all the terminology would be a bit off-putting to a casual reader.

My conclusion: a thriller/suspense novel structured as THFRO was would struggle to get agented today, let alone sell very well. The takeaway is that an author who wishes to be a commercial success MUST write to the wants and needs of his audience. If one doesn’t strive for commercial success, then go ahead and write whatever you want, however you want, but don’t complain if your novel doesn’t sell or doesn’t even get a good look from an agent. Discover who your audience is and write for them, as well as yourself. Good luck.

Do you agree or disagree? Are you hoping to achieve commercial success with your writing, or do you write purely for your own enjoyment?

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