What Happened To Men’s Adventure Novels?

So, what happened to the likes of “men’s adventure novels”? If the technothriller declined enormously after 1991, the smaller “men’s adventure” series seemingly just dissolved completely. But now, from my own readings, and from looking at Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction and reviews/commentary of later “men’s adventure” books, particularly on Glorious Trash, I think I might have found it.

They did drop dramatically after the 1980s, and the reason, from pretty much everything I’ve heard and readabout, is economic. They were just too low margin. I should refer you to this post by thriller author Jack Badelaire about the details, and he brings up another reason I agree with, which is that visual media got better.

But whatever the why, what happened? Well, cheap thrillers did not stop being written by any means, as Lee Child can attest. Someone comparing Jack Reacher to a classic men’s adventure hero would find more similarities than differences. But as for those dime novels, the surviving ones sort of – shifted. A look at everything from page counts courtesy of Serial Vigilantes to review commentary to my own study finds three main things.

  • They grew longer and their MSRPs grew higher.
  • They became increasingly “militarized” for lack of a better word (another connection to technothrillers), a process that started with the team-based novels of the 1980s and grew more and more prominent.
  • They increasingly began piggybacking on the names of big-time authors.

Yes, what happened is that the men’s adventure book became the “Tom Clancy’s” book.

Nuclear World War IIIs

So I figured: How true was my stereotype of “conventional” WW3s? I decided to take a look and see. For this exercise, “yes” means a full nuclear exchange, “partial” something like say, Hackett’s infamous plotnuke, and “no” means the war stays completely conventional. This is an incomplete, unscientific list, but still.

  • Hackett-PARTIAL
  • Red Storm Rising-NO
  • Team Yankee-PARTIAL
  • Red Army-NO
  • Chieftains-YES
  • Black’s “Effect”-PARTIAL
  • Kirov-YES
  • Arc Light-YES
  • Red Hammer 94-YES
  • Bear’s Claws-PARTIAL
  • Cauldron-PARTIAL
  • War That Never Was-NO
  • Ronsone/Watson’s Red Storm-PARTIAL
  • Zone-PARTIAL
  • Weekend Warriors-NO
  • The Red Line-PARTIAL
  • Andy Farman’s Armageddon’s Song-PARTIAL
  • Wingman-YES

Besides the possibility of me remembering wrong, the line between “Partial” and “Yes” is sometimes blurry-for instance, I had a hard time deciding whether or not to include Arc Light as “Partial” or “Yes.” And in Team Yankee, which follow’s Hackett’s plot, the nukes are offscreen. Still, it was a little surprising how few outright “no’s” there were and how many “Partials”. It’s just the biggest “no” was Red Storm Rising.

The Worst Book?

While looking for bad books, I came to this post in the Imaginary Museum blog by Dr. Jack Ross. An excellent piece of writing (even if I didn’t know who frequently mentioned David Lodge was), this paragraph in particular rang extremely true for me:

“Ever since I started writing novels myself, I guess I’ve been a bit more chary of parlour games such as this. There is, however, no accounting for tastes, and it can come as a shock that something you mildly enjoyed yourself can be right up there on someone else’s hitlist. A lukewarm response is the worst fate any book can receive, in any case, so I don’t think being on a list of world’s worst novels is likely to do lasting harm to any of the books (or authors) mentioned above.”

Being a writer and knowing the effort it requires dampening a lot of the previous snark? Check. (I’ll put it this way-I don’t think being a critic has helped me with being a better writer, but I think being a writer has helped me with being a better critic). Tastes differ? Check. (I learned of Jon Land from a massively negative review of one of his books). A mediocre reaction is the worst? Often very true, especially for reviewing as opposed to simply reading.

Onto the main subject, Ross sets out very good criteria for “worst book”, something I’ve used very cavalierly in the past (to my dismay now).

You can’t pick a novel you didn’t manage to finish

You can’t pick a novel by an author you entirely despise

There’s no point in selecting something completely obscure

Since I’ve had a tendency (although it’s waned somewhat now-I’m dropping books I find dull at rates I haven’t in the past) to finish books, the first isn’t an issue. The “obscure” part is, however. I don’t want to get dragged into a fandom war or pick a too-easy target, so I’ll go with “did it appear in mainstream bookstores.” While William W. Johnstone had that honor, the second rule strikes him out.

Thankfully, I’ve long had an answer. Not surprisingly, it is…

Ready for it…

Executive Orders by Tom Clancy. It’s one of the most successful authors ever, so I feel no guilt about slamming it. It’s an exceedingly bad book that almost certainly could never have been published by a first author. And while I’ve been critical of Clancy’s entire catalog, his earlier books were significantly better. It all “clicks” into being my choice of the worst.

(And yes, I’ve heard The Bear And The Dragon is even worse, but I haven’t read that and have no desire to-remember the rules)

If I had to give a second choice, it would probably be Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. That’s another literary big name, I finished it, and it comes across as significantly worse than his later novels after reading them. Those at least can do the “gilded cheap thriller soap opera” better and have lots of out-there set pieces. All Midnight has is just romance novel stereotypes (that I could instantly tell despite barely knowing the genre) stumbling around for the entire book.