My Favorite Author is a Hack
“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:
Here are some authors whom I haven’t read but am pretty sure are hacks:
Mary Higgins Clark
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.
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.