Cussler came to writing the old-fashioned way: he had another career, and began writing for pleasure in his 30s. In this age of advanced degrees and experts without practical experience, it's hard to imagine the organic approach to writing, but like his other best-selling contemporaries John Grisham and Tom Clancy, Cussler's craft emerged from within.
The knock against Cussler's writing is a legitimate one: the writing is fantastical or hackneyed, the plots rely on deus ex machina, the characters are stereotypical and sexist, and the dialogue is wooden. All true.
But the feeling after reading a Cussler novel is one of exhilaration. You feel like you've been somewhere, met someone, and done something. There's no confusion after a Cussler novel. Cigars are smoked, sunsets are observed, evil is vanquished. No reader walks away from a Cussler novel intellectually hobbled.
That said, while I was reading Cussler's latest novel, Ghost Ship, I came across a passage that made even the most devoted Cussler fan wince:
Five foot ten, with hair the color of red wine, and smooth pale skin, Gamay was an athlete and in fantastic shape. She had a sharp wit that was usually used in jest, though you didn't want to be on her bad side, as she didn't suffer fools lightly. (158)
I have to admit, it was hard for my fingers to find the sequence of keys on my keyboard that created those words in that order. That's one of the worst passages of writing I've ever read, and I teach composition at the university level. Let's pick it apart.
"Hair the color of red wine." Um, no. First of all, there are dozens of different shades of red wine, from pinot noir to burgundy. Second, it's not a color that occurs on the human head naturally, so our friend Gamay is a bottle-babe. And that name: Gamay. Who would name someone after a grape used to produce beaujolais wine? Oh, right. It's 2014. It's probably trending on Twitter.
Next we come to "an athlete and in fantastic shape." This is an example of being specifically general, not to mention redundant. Outside of sumo wrestlers and NFL lineman, athletes are in good shape. But wait, he said "fantastic shape." So she's a fantasy, or remote from reality. Hello, sexism.
Next we hear about her "sharp wit that was usually used in jest." Too bad she didn't just open her mouth and show us that sharp wit. Maybe it's so sharp there's a risk of injury. Actually, Gamay speaks in the next paragraph. Here's what she says: "I see we're almost ready." I admit, it's kind of hard to see the sharpness, the wit, or the jest in that statement. Further study may be required.
Finally the paragraph wraps up with this gem: "(T)hough you didn't want to be on her bad side, as she didn't suffer fools lightly." This is a straightforward mixed metaphor, and there's nothing wrong with that, except it should say something. First of all, why break into the second person "you." Oh, I see: it's being used as an indefinite pronoun. That's an amateur flaw because it breaks the tension of the story. The suffering fools reference is just lazy writing, cliche and meaningless without seeing Gamay in opposition to a fool.
In all fairness to Cussler, this passage may have been penned by his co-author, Graham Brown. Brown has co-authored three other books with Cussler, and is the author of several of his own works. I haven't read anything by Brown before, so I can't say for sure this was one of his tropes. But in a genre known for rushing by facts and details, this one honked like foghorn.
Writing like this in no way diminishes the enjoyment of reading great yarns by a fascinating writing like Cussler. His imagination is unparalleled, and the level of research behind his writing is obvious. He's a marine expert who holds a Ph.D. from SUNY Maritime College for his nonfiction book The Sea Hunters. It's also the kind of writing that many people want to read, and while I'd never advocate writing in a certain style because someone else has had success there, the plotting and pacing of this style is enjoyable to read, and it's fun to write (see my previous blog post).
So treat yourself to some Clive Cussler before the summer's over. You'll giggle at some of the writing, but after you're done, you'll be hooked, too.
Cussler, Clive. Ghost Ship. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2014. Print.