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Staring from the frontispiece of Helen S. Garson’s newest book is the half-smirking mug of techno-thriller author Tom Clancy. Though the photo is a publicity shot Clancy’s aides mailed to Garson in lieu of an interview, one can easily imagine Clancy radiating that kind of smug perplexedness upon seeing Garson’s book, a scholarly study of Clancy’s oeuvre.
Published by Greenwood Press in August, Tom Clancy: A Critical Companion is part of a projected 25-volume series that proposes to subject “popular contemporary writers” to the sort of scrutiny Flaubert, Whitman, or Joyce usually get. To sate the growing number of college courses about popular writers, the series ruminates on a motley crew ranging from borderline artistes (Gore Vidal, Tom Robbins, James Michener) to veteran potboilermakers (Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King). Of the lot, Clancy may well be the pulpiest.
The Reston-based Garson, an emeritus professor of English and American studies at George Mason University, caught the eye of the people at Greenwood through her previous articles on mysteries, spy stories, and suspense writing, as well as her pair of books on Truman Capote. Garson agreed to do the Clancy volume even though she had never read any of his jargon-heavy books except The Hunt for Red October.
“I haven’t met many women who’ve read more than one or two Clancy books,” she says. “I hate the word, but he’s a man’s writer. So I talked about it with my husband Neil—he’s an ex-military man. He said, ‘No problem. I’ll help you.’ So I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’”
Garson’s book is full of the kind of analysis that would surely push the macho, right-wing Clancy to apoplexy—Debt of Honor given a feminist reading, Patriot Games seen as a fairy tale, The Cardinal of the Kremlin dissected by the new historicism. But Garson unfailingly takes Clancy’s work seriously, and she refuses to be goaded into belittling him directly.
“We’ve become a technological country, so a writer who deals with that has a place,” she says. “I would not necessarily call his books great works of literature, but given the trends, he deserves a place in history.”
That said, Garson does offer Clancy some friendly advice. “He should get a good editor,” she says. “His books are much too long. As any number of book reviewers have said, he’s an explainoholic; there are pages and pages of information that serve to destroy the suspense of his work. And as he’s written one book after the other, he’s become more didactic and preachy. He should focus more on his characters and tighten his plots.”
Garson worries less about blowback from Clancy than about the possibility of sluggish sales. She says that some librarians have told her they already have her volume in stock when what they actually have is The Tom Clancy Companion—a Clancy-authorized vanity effort. More reason, perhaps, for Clancy to continue flashing that cockeyed grin.