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My Favorite Author is a Hack

June 11, 2012
Angry Talk (Comic Style)

If you call a writer a hack, this is the response you might get. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Is it just me, or has Stephen King become a hack?” I asked a bunch of my peers in a writer’s group a few years ago. 

I’m often surprised at what makes people snap.  I had figured that if I stayed away from politics and religion in my group’s post-writing-critique discussion, that we  would be safe from any potential group-splitting controversy.

I was expecting an even-handed response (you know, because we writers have such stable personalities).  

Instead, another writer snapped at me, saying, “Stephen King has forgotten more about writing than you’ll ever know.” 

That was true, and it was kind of my point.  Yes, Stephen King had indeed forgotten a lot about writing, and he was demonstrating that in his recent novels. 

When I had started that discussion moments earlier, I was just asking the question, but once another writer (one whom I hadn’t liked anyway) disagreed with my premise, I suddenly became attached to my position that Stephen King was indeed a hack, and I got defensive, and the whole disagreement turned into a loud, profane reality show argument without cameras (in the back of a busy book store with a bunch of kids and angry parents staring at us), and several embarrassed writers quit the group afterward. 

Looking back, I blame myself.  I should not have used the word “hack.”  “Hack” has a negative connotation.  Most writers might feel insulted if they were described as hacks.  I learned that day that readers get insulted if writers that they like are described as hacks. 

I don’t have any problem with hacks.  If I ever have an opportunity to become a hack, I’ll take it.  A writer has an obligation to provide for his/her family, and if that means writing a lot of mediocre stuff to make a ton of money instead of a few masterpieces for a pittance, then so be it. 

Here are three qualities that I think make an author a hack: 

1.  The hack writes at least one novel a year, whether that book is ready or not. 

2.  The hack probably wrote a really great book (or a few great books) early in his/her career and is now coasting on lots of inferior books. 

3.  The hack writes the same novel(s) over and over again. 

WHO ARE THE HACKS? 

When I recently checked a couple bestselling book lists, here are some authors whom I have read that I consider hacks: 

John Sandford

John Grisham

Sue Grafton

Stephen King

Tom Clancy 

Here are some authors whom I haven’t read but am pretty sure are hacks: 

Janet Evanovich

Charlaine Harris

James Patterson

Nicholas Sparks

Nora Roberts

Mary Higgins Clark

Danielle Steel

Laurel Hamilton

Jeffrey Archer 

I bet if we check the bestseller lists five years from now, the hack authors won’t have changed much. 

MY FAVORITE HACK AUTHOR 

I’ve known for a long time that Bernard Cornwell is a hack.  I just didn’t realize until recently that he is my favorite author (if you judge that solely on number of books read). 

Bernard Cornwell may be a hack, but he is my hack.  He wrote a book called The Archer’s Tale (which was Book One in a trilogy), and then rewrote the same book and called it Agincourt (which is not part of a trilogy).  I knew after reading the first couple chapters of Agincourt that Bernard Cornwell had simply rewritten The Archer’s Tale, but I still read Agincourt, and I still kind of liked it. 

The Battle of Borodino as depicted by Louis Le...

I’m not sure which Sharpe book this scene was in (because almost all of the Sharpe books had a scene like this). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to read Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe books until on the fifth or sixth book (that I was reading out of order) I had the feeling that I had already read the book I was reading.  I checked my Sharpe collection, and I hadn’t read that particular book (I even forget which Sharpe book it was), but it seemed so familiar.  When I read another Sharpe novel and had the same feeling, I figured I’d better stop reading Richard Sharpe books. 

There are a lot of Richard Sharpe books.  There are so many Richard Sharpe books that even Sue Grafton thinks there are too many Richard Sharpe books. 

There are so many Richard Sharpe books that the French wonder if they won any battles during the Napoleonic Wars.

Bernard Cornwell wrote a couple books about the American Revolution from the British point of view, and I actually kind of rooted for the British, which is strange because I’m American and I always root for the United States, even (especially) when we start illegal wars.  Bernard Cornwell turned me into a traitor.  A hack turned me against my own country.  That doesn’t make me feel good about myself.

Bernard Cornwell has several other books that I really like, including one of my favorite King Arthur series, so even though he’s a hack, his writing has some qualities that I like (even though his novels are not always high quality).

*****

I don’t mind admitting that I read literature that is not of the highest quality.  In fact, I kind of take pride in that.  If I ever join another literary group (I probably won’t), and we start talking about hacks (I won’t be the one to bring up this topic), I will be better prepared than last time.  My hack is some author that few people have heard of, so chances are that nobody will get mad when I call him a hack.

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38 Comments
  1. I’m just glad to see you didn’t list P D James on your list of hacks. If you had, I would have had to come and hack you over the head with something sharp. Or heavy. :)

    • That’s really close to what the Stephen King fan said to me, except I think he meant it. I’ve never read a PD James book before, but I might have to try one.

      • Well, that’s the thing about those of us who are fond of that genre… There’s plenty to draw inspiration from. Yes, do read some P D James. She is great – and British. :)

  2. I am so glad I did not make your “Hack” list. Oh wait – are these just published writers? Never mind.
    Harlan Coben may be another hack, the jury is still out on the topic. I am reading a second book he wrote. So far, it is reading much like the first book I read. By the same token, a genre is a genre, and the plots match the genre.
    The term ‘hack’ may be a wee bit strong, as you suggested – but your point is clear.

  3. unfetteredbs permalink

    I’m a proud hack reader myself… entertainment is entertainment

  4. Somehow I feel like James Frey should be on your list, but then I realised he’s only released four novels.

    • I’m only aware of his Oprah book that he had to apologize for (I’ve forgotten the name of it). There probably should be a special derogatory word for (almost completely) lying in a memoir, but I can’t think of a word for that right now.

      • Prevaggerator? Has a nice ring to it.

      • A Million Little Pieces of Lying Attention-Whore Dysfunction. I think that was the name of Frey’s book.
        Thank God you have James Patterson on here. I will NEVER forgive him for Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas. I’m kind of enraged right now.

  5. One of my guilty pleasures is reading romance novels by hack, Johanna Lindsey. It makes me feel all warm inside when I can escape to a place where women are beautiful, men are rich (and hot), and all is well with the world.

    • “… a place where women are beautiful, men are rich (and hot)…” I think our genres have a couple things in common, but they probably approach these similarities differently (if that makes sense).

  6. Whitney Rains permalink

    Janet Evanovich is definitely my hack. I am addicted to her Stephanie Plum series and enjoy reading them because they are familiar and hilarious. BUT, I do understand what you mean. I have an intense and deep hatred of Nicholas Sparks’ books and movies. (Not the man, just the stuff he makes) I feel like they are just empty books, that fit a formula he knows women will read. Then he puts attractive male leads in all his movies and he knows women will want to go see them and watch them walk around with their shirts off for an hour and a half. I hope next time the issue of hacks come up, everyone just laughs and moves on and hopefully doesn’t offend small children and parents. Great post!

    • The only thing I’ve heard about the Stephanie Plum series is that the early ones are great, but the recent ones aren’t as good (love triangle going stale? I think), but that could probably be said of any sustained book series. I don’t argue loudly in public anymore (except maybe at football games), so I shouldn’t scare kids and offend any more parents in the future.

  7. Where does JK Rowling fit on your hack scale?
    I think if we had all brilliant books, we wouldn’t know they were brilliant. I definitely enjoy a hack or two now and then.

    • I haven’t read any Rowling. From what I’ve heard (and this probably means nothing), the tone of the Harry Potter books changed, so I’d guess she wasn’t writing the same book over and over again, so I’d guess (yeah, I’m very noncommital here) that she isn’t a hack (yet). You’re absolutely right, though. Not everyone can be brilliant.

  8. I would like to tell you, as someone who had read multiple books by the female authors listed, they are most definitely hacks. They coast by on the following that they have from books they wrote years ago, then, they start upping the price of their books and over marketing sub par books that are coming out. Makes me upset just thinking about it.

    • Thank you for letting me know because the only female author I’ve read was Sue Grafton, and I didn’t want to accuse (even tentatively) any author of being a hack, especially after the reaction I got a few years ago. I kind of get annoyed too at the idea of an author making a bunch of money by coasting, except I have my own hack, so I’m kind of a hypocrite when it comes to hacks.

      • It saddens me because you get so excited when you read their first book, you want to devour everything they’ve ever written…and then slowly it dawns on you…you’ve been had. It’s heart breaking. :/ I’m starting to develop a one book rule with the exception of amazingly engaging, lauded authors.

  9. Speaking of coasters…Fredrick Forsyth is who I nominate to keep my coffee table moisture-free. He should have retired when Solid Gold went off the air. And what about Tom Robbins? Am I the only one who doesn’t get him? Or am I making a mistake by reading him sober?

    • Frederick Forsythe? I forgot that he was still writing books. I think I read The Odessa File or Dogs of War a few decades ago. And I think I read a Tom Robbins book (with a really long title), but I don’t remember anything, and I don’t know if he was a hack or not. If he’s the writer I’m thinking of, he might have been too out there to be a hack (unless he was a fraud).

  10. Oh, kindred spirit! I run a bookstore, and your hacks are my hacks. And my bread and butter…. :]

  11. My initial reaction was, ‘Leave him alone, you meanie.’ But then when I saw your criteria for calling someone a hack, I knew exactly what you meant. I haven’t read any recent King novels myself, but grew up enamoured with The Stand and Insomnia.

    I think that there are a lot of parallels in music. I love R&B, and artists like Joe, Donnel Jones, and Jaheim haven’t made a song straying from their bread and butter in years. Does that mean I don’t listen to every new album they come out with? Hell no! I love the music they made in the nineties. Moreover, I don’t want them to make music that sounds different. Like the other commenters, I have my guilty pleasures, too.

    Jay Z made note of his fans wanting him to do songs like he used to when he said, ‘N***** want my old shit? Buy my old album.’

    The question is, does using the same formula for art diminish the artist themselves? I’m not smart enough to answer that one. My heart tells me that what an artist does is his/her choice, and if they sincerely enjoy what they’re doing, leave them be.

    • “Meanie” is a lot nicer than the term the guy in my writer’s group called me, but I probably deserved some of that too. You brought up some good points. When a writer or singer has so many fans, not all of us are going to be pleased. I just finished reading another Bernard Cornwell book, and it was a lot like his last few (Saxon) books, and I’ll probably read the next one in this series if he continues it.

  12. Hilarious post. Glad you stumbled on my blog and gave me some likes so I could have the pleasure of checking your blog out. I guess the powerful effects I’ve felt from my writing group can look forward to a possible curse out one day if I don’t watch my words! I’m also pleased to see you didn’t add Dean Koontz to your list of hacks. I’ve always preferred him to King but some people disagree. Either way, he writes a lot of books and not all of them are great. Thanks for the fun read!

    • Dean Koontz! There’s another author that I need to read, but I don’t think I’ve seen his name recently. One thing that helped me in writer’s groups after that disaster was to preface my bold statements with “I feel…” or “I think…” and then I could back off if I unintentionally upset somebody (which happened every once in a while) .

      • I’ve definitely used the “I think” method when predicting I had some sensitive listeners. It’s gotten me out of some jambs.

  13. I haven’t read much Stephen King, but I might have to agree that he’s getting away with publishing the same story over and over again. He’s got a big enough group of dedicated followers that they’ll pretty much take whatever he gives them and like it no matter what. I might argue that he’s getting to the point where he still loves to write, but is thinking more about the writing process than coming up with something completley new. I only say this becuase I recently read his book “On Writing,” and there was a lot of good stuff a beginning writer like me could tell the advice a seasond writer like him was giving came from experience, and wasn’t just speculation. Also, thanks for liking a post of mine!

    • I’m going to have to read On Writing. Since the writer that I argued with says that King has forgotten more about writing than I’ll ever know, maybe King wrote that book before he forgot so much about how to write (I’m kidding!). I agree about his recycled (kind of) stories. There were a few books in the late 80’s (I think) where the books lost their magic for me.

  14. Michael Sadowski permalink

    If “hack” means being over-productive, then I’d wear the title proudly. I was a TV hack for years and I’d be one today…in a minute…if the opportunity arose. TV “hacks” make obscene amounts of money. They are protected by a union that stipulates they MUST NOT WRITE a single punctuation mark before they have a signed contract in place. They have the best available health plans. They collect substantial residuals payments for the reuse or “re-purposing” of their material. The greatest part of their work is done verbally, in collaborative meetings; they rarely stare at empty pages or blinking cursors because they know exactly what they are expected to write before they even sit down at the computer. As to your Stephen King question, is he a hack? NO, he’s a cottage industry: both his wife and son are novelists. How much would you bet they collaborate and help him turn out those 1,000+ page novels every six months. James Patterson’s my fave hack because he turns out a book every fortnight. Obviously, he does not write them: he uses collaborators who can imitate his style and he edits their contributions. “Hack” is not necessarily a bad word. I would dearly love it if someone would call me a hack sometime…again.

    • I agree with you completely. If I ever have the opportunity to become a hack, I have an obligation to myself and my family to accept. It’s just that as a reader, I need to be aware when authors are or have become hacks and make decisions about whether or not I (still) want to read them.

  15. I read a handful of Stephen King novels a few years ago, mostly to appease my friend. I DID notice that every book I read was set in Maine and featured a writer as the protagonist. However, I recently bought his book ‘On Writing.’ Is that ironic? :)

    Thank you for dropping by :)

  16. “There are a lot of Richard Sharpe books. There are so many Richard Sharpe books that even Sue Grafton thinks there are too many Richard Sharpe books.”

    This is a line anyone who’s spent time in a bookstore can look at and choke-gasp whatever they were drinking when they happened to read it. Hilarious!

  17. There is nothing wrong with being a hack reader-just as long as that’s not the only reading you ever do. I for one am plagued by the ‘Hack’ Jodi Piccoult. Incredibly similar books, there’s no denying. And yet, I can’t seem to put the books down when it comes to a holiday with nothing to do…

  18. Chuck Muther-Flippin Palahniuk. I wanted so bad to love every novel. Yet, somehow, I was more disenchanted with each new release. I feel his success is the literary equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan’s. You hope for something intriguing, but it is generated by the same trite process.

  19. Patrick O’Brian. Despite trying very hard to make the detail / local colour / setting / history different for every book. Hollywood collapsed them into one, without a sequel. And yes, I read and enjoyed a number of them. Did get bored and wander away, but if there’s one left by a previous incumbent in a holiday cottage, I WILL read it. Besides, that’s how I found Oryx and Crake … thanks for the like.

  20. I realize that you haven’t read Danielle Steele, and therefore you are only alleging that she is a hack. I, however, have read most of her books (which I normally don’t admit in public). I can confirm, at least by your three prong test, that she is actually a hack. It works for her. We should be so lucky, right? Enjoyed your post.

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