Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success

This essay is a development of two prior posts, "The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: The Boom Years" (August 22, 2019), and "The Secrets of Tom Clancy's Success: Surviving the Bust" (August 28, 2019)

In writing The Military Techno-thriller: A History I was primarily interested in the big picture of how the genre emerged and developed. When I discussed individual works I was more concerned with whether they were original or influential than with, for example, whether I found them more or less entertaining, or what I thought of the literary craftsmanship they displayed. Still, I certainly had my opinions about these matters when I first encountered the techno-thriller not long after its '80s-era heyday, and which did not change much when I revisited these works for my research--while recently reading Fuldapocalypse Fiction's characteristically incisive and entertaining anniversary review of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears had me thinking about that writer in particular.

As I have noted before, Clancy was far and away the biggest name in the field in the '80s (indeed, the highest-selling American novelist of the '80s, in any field). However, was he the best? I must admit I did not think so at the time. I thought others excelled him in various ways--and indeed, most of the ways that mattered to me then. Dale Brown struck me as the best at pure summer blockbuster-type action, while along with Brown, Stephen Coonts was stronger at mixing action and technology (in flying sequences, at least). Larry Bond was the one to turn to for grand-scale scenarios, intricately conceived and depicted, and briskly paced. And Ralph Peters was the most accomplished at such objects of conventional literary craftsmanship as prose and characterization. (For that matter, I cannot think of any Clancy adventure I enjoyed quite as much as I did Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid.)

All that being the case, one might wonder why Clancy came to eclipse the others with readers as he did. I see three significant factors working in his favor in the '80s, with one more coming along in the '90s.

1. Getting There First, and Not Just the First Time, But Again and Again
One point in Clancy's favor, certainly, was that as far as those names are concerned, he was first--which mattered all the more given the brief window of opportunity the genre's writers wound up having to make a really big name for themselves (the boom peaking in '89 according to my reading of the bestseller lists, and turning to bust afterward fast). Clancy's debut, The Hunt for Red October, arrived scarcely before the deep freeze of the Second Cold War began to give way to another thaw--the end of 1984, mere months before Mikhail Gorbachev became Premier of the Soviet Union, and not quite five years before the Berlin Wall was to fall.

The book managed 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, on which it rose as high as the #2 slot, firmly established him as a Name in the field, and making it easy for him to get follow-ups into print while those other writers were still looking at the emergent market, still shopping around manuscripts. (Dale Brown's first book, notably, was Silver Tower, but it didn't sell the first time around and he was told "Why not do a flying story?"--which had his debut coming only in 1987 with The Flight of the Old Dog, and Silver Tower not hitting the market until the year after that.)

As far as having that inside track went, it mattered that Clancy made the most of it, producing new novels almost annually at this stage. The result was that he had five novels complete before that event, whereas Stephen Coonts and Dale Brown were to have three, and Larry Bond only his first as a headliner (Red Phoenix), and Payne Harrison and Ralph Peters just their first efforts (with Brown's book only his first to get the New York Times' list, and Peters not making it at all, which may be of ambiguous meaning with regard to sales, but certainly clear implications when it comes to the publicity a place on the list offers).

This gave Clancy a greater opportunity to build an audience, which, again, he seems to have made the most of, not least by consistently being ahead of the competition with regard to the treatment of other major ideas. The team writing under the name John Hackett had already produced a work about a hypothetical U.S.-Soviet World War III in Europe way back in the '70s--but as of 1986 the work was eight years old, and anyway, it was written as a future history rather than a novel. The result was that Red Storm Rising looked relatively fresh in taking on that theme, with Harold Coyle and Ralph Peters only managing to follow later (in 1987 and 1989, respectively). When writing a novel pitting the hero of his original book against terrorists, Clancy had Patriot Games (1987) out before Coonts could publish Final Flight (1988); and when mixing up techno-thriller tech with old-fashioned espionage, The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) out before Coonts' The Minotaur (1989). Clancy was in the lead with regard to the drug war as well, getting Clear and Present Danger into print in 1989 (literally on the list as American soldiers parachuted into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking charges, which may not have been unhelpful), while Dale Brown's Hammerheads and Stephen Coonts' similarly drug war-themed Under Siege only hit the market the next year (1990), when everyone else was doing it.1

Each and every time, he had the book out first, which can only have helped his interest.

2. And Now for Something Completely Different . . .
Along with being the first on the scene, and putting out four more books in five years that, time and again, preceded the genre's other major writers to market with some salable theme, Clancy time and again varied the type of story he told. Someone perhaps disinclined to read a novelized war game like Red Storm Rising might have been ready to give Patriot Games (where he "cut back on the military detail to write a story focused on people . . . a personal tale of love and revenge") a chance--while much of the audience disappointed in the smaller-scale, much less tech- and action-packed Patriot Games would have been ready to give him another chance with Cardinal of the Kremlin, especially when they heard about its Strategic Defense Initiative theme. And so on and so forth. No one else shifted tacks to anything like that degree within that space of time, or had a chance to do so, and I suspect that this rather risky course, which might have been the more bearable because Clancy had such a large audience from the first, paid off as well.

3. Writing For a General Audience
Besides his being first, getting the novels out quickly in those early days, and varying the product, it seems notable that, compared with the scenarios of Brown or Harrison, Clancy's were, if not exactly plausible by real-world standards, then at least believable by the standards of this kind of thriller. Dale Brown's Silver Tower had the U.S. putting a massive battle station armed with a super-laser into space by 1992, and its becoming the key American asset in the war that broke out with the Soviets when they invaded Iran. By contrast in Cardinal of the Kremlin the laser-based component of strategic defense remains very much a work in progress. This disparity was even clearer in the drug war novels. Clancy's version of a more thoroughly militarized conflict had American commandos waging a secret war against the cartels on the ground (and a fighter plane occasionally shooting down a drug smuggler's aircraft). Brown had the country deploying high-tech oil rig-type offshore bases for patrolling tilt-rotor aircraft, which had the cartels striking back with MiGs and Mirages and Kitchen anti-ship missiles leading to dogfights in the air--all while serving up a great deal of comic book-ishness in Megafortresses, mind-controlled super-fighters (in Day of the Cheetah), and the like. And the technical detailing of this vast machinery, the intricacy of the colossal action sequences, could become very considerable indeed, rather more so than in anything Clancy wrote.

I enjoyed the extravagances of Brown's books. But I think they were too much that way for most readers (people who complain about the technical detail in a Clancy novel will probably never enjoy one of Brown's), the body of readers really up for these sorts of literary pleasures just a fraction of the proportion Clancy was able to get as a following.

It may also be that one of the features of Clancy's writing that a great many readers (myself included) have been less than happy with served him well here--not least, Clancy's tendency to lengthy exposition and rising action before the story really got going, heavy on detail not just about the workings of submarines but Jack Ryan's domestic cares. The slow build-ups, the abundance of the detailing, for all their shortcomings, may have lent the narrative a verisimilitude and a heft that it would not have had if he just rushed to the good part (or at least, the illusion of verisimilitude and heft that sheer slowness and mass can bring). Additionally, if I never took real interest in Ryan as a character, others seem to have been more responsive to him that way, especially that vast body of less-attached readers that Clancy managed to reach but which Brown did not.

All of these advantages stood Clancy in good stead into the '90s, particularly his readiness to vary his work, and his groundedness and accessibility, which may have been especially important as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made "big war" scenarios harder to think up, and generally less credible or interesting to readers--along with the fact that having so many readers in the first place, he could lose a good many and still be near the top. (The '90s saw Clancy not just remain a bestseller, but any new Jack Ryan novel taking the #2 spot on Publisher's Weekly's list of the year's biggest seller, and Clancy's overall output still making him one of the top five sellers of the decade.)

4. A Multimedia Boost
Significant as all this was, it might be added that Clancy's '80s-era success earned him a better opportunity than any of his rivals at multimedia success in the early part of the decade, which turned out to be serendipitously timed from the standpoint of his career. It is worth noting that Clancy's Clear and Present Danger had been at or near the top of the bestseller list for half a year when The Hunt for Red October hit theaters, with still a ways to go if the success of the prior Jack Ryan adventure was anything to go by. This by no means guaranteed the movie's success with filmgoers, but it doubtless helped it to become a $100 million blockbuster in a time when those could be counted on two hands with fingers left over, just trailing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and edging out the much-hyped Total Recall and Die Hard 2.2 Clancy's success in one area also boosted his success in another, as Red October's becoming a hit led to two more Jack Ryan movies (both also hits) in the next four years, with the film version of Clear and Present Danger still playing when Clancy's third book of the '90s, Debt of Honor, hit the market, just in time to benefit from both the movie's being in theaters, and from the Japanaphobia fad scarcely before Japanese stagnation and American boom made it seem passe. (By contrast Stephen Coonts, far less fortunate in this regard, was to see Flight of the Intruder flop in January 1991, ending any hope of a Jake Grafton film franchise, eliminating what could have been a significant prop to his sales as interest in techno-thrillers eroded. It seems worth noting, too, that Coonts' next techno-thriller, also Japan-themed--Fortunes of War--coming along as it did in 1998, arrived after the fashion had run its course.)

There was not to be another Jack Ryan movie until 2002, a gap that could not have helped--but the bigger fashion for techno-thriller movies may have lent him some support, with the success of Air Force One (the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1997) perhaps especially notable. After Harrison Ford's playing Jack Ryan twice, and Jack Ryan having become President in the books (at the end of Debt of Honor), seeing Harrison Ford as President of the United States fighting Russian terrorists on Air Force One one could have been forgiven for thinking Air Force One was another Jack Ryan movie--and indeed, I would be surprised if it did not provide some benefit to his sales, which were getting plenty of help from elsewhere. If inactive on film, the "Clancy brand" extended to "co-authored" paperbacks with the Op-Center franchise (just one of many such series' to soon bear his name, well before Coonts or Dale Brown were to have their own out), and from there to television (with a miniseries in 1995), and increasingly to video gaming too, with the signal moment the translation of his 1998 bestseller Rainbow Six into a first-person shooter video game--which had the advantage of coming at a time when video gaming was reaching an increasingly adult market, and at the same time, most of the big names in that genre were still science fiction titles (like Doom) or World War II titles (like Medal of Honor). Rainbow Six proved popular indeed, and while I do not think anyone has bothered to do a proper survey, I suspect that at least a few gamers were tempted by them to the books.

Thus the Clancy name remained a force to be reckoned with in the '90s.

Of course, looking back over this, one might be struck by how much sheer happenstance there was in these events--to the extent that they made all that much difference, about which, again, I can only speculate here. The book deal Clancy made that got his book out first was an unusual one--Red October accepted by the first publisher he hit, without an agent, even though the publisher in question (the Naval Institute Press) did not do fiction at the time. Had he been forced to follow a more typical course, Red October might have only got out years later, and things been very different as a result. Even without that, that the Cold War's end would happen when it did, making his lead over his rivals the more significant, was obviously not something that could have been planned. And getting the film adaptation of that book out just as his latest novel was becoming its decade's biggest seller was also far beyond his control. Even where those things he could control are concerned, it is far from clear just how much of it actually involved calculation on his part, like the style of plotting he adopted, or the changes of course with regard to Jack Ryan's adventures, especially in those critical early days.

Considering that I find myself remembering Patrick Anderson's 1988 New York Times Magazine article on Clancy, in which he remarked Clancy's insistence on "dumb luck" as a factor in his personal success. Given all that I have raised here his success seems far from inexplicable. Yet, that the pieces fell into place for him when they did, as they did, and went on doing so long after '88, turning a bestselling novelist into a major multimedia brand still going strong with new Jack Ryan novels and co-authored paperbacks, with new video games and a TV series on Netflix and perhaps more films on the way, can seem to mean that he had far, far more dumb luck coming his way than he had seen or knew back then.

1. In November and December 1989 Clear and Present Danger had five straight weeks on the #4 rung of the New York Times' bestseller list. On the December 31, 1989 list, covering the week after the invasion, this book with 18 weeks on the list already behind it rose to #3, where it stayed for three weeks before rising another notch to #2 (January 21, 1990). Given the ambiguity of bestseller list rankings one cannot make too much of it, but the timing of the rise when the book had been on its way down is suggestive nonetheless.
2. There were just nine $100 million movies in 1989 and 1990, eight in 1991. By contrast 2018 had 34 movies making that much or more.

No comments:

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon