How To Write a Forgettable Novel

Step One:  Imitate Michael Crichton.

Step Two:  Refer to Step One.

Harsh, I know.  Yet, in the past year, I’ve read two of Crichton’s books and have forgotten about them within days.  Seriously – I can remember basic plot elements and the fact that ‘characters’ did things in the story, but not much beyond that.  A year ago, it was Timeline. Right now, I can tell you that it had something to do with time travel.  I think to France.  But nothing else comes to mind.  Seriously – not a single thing.

Last week, I read Crichton’s Prey. Since it was only a week ago, I can fill in a bit more information than I can about Timeline.  Prey was about little nano particles that learn to take the shape of humans.  And they traveled by kiss.  I remember nothing about the main characters – not their names nor their occupations (although I would assume that some had to be scientists considering it’s a book about science) nor their relationship to each other.

There’s a special talent in this.  There are other genre writers who can’t seem to write characters with more depth than a Kleenex and who can’t manage to put together a sentence without including either an unnecessary cliche or an inappropriate adverb.  Dan Brown immediately springs to mind.   Yet, I can remember Dan Brown’s books including his preposterous characters.  They’re silly and cartoonish, but in some way memorable.   Whatever quality bestows any faint trace of memorableness is entirely lacking in Crichton’s work.

When I was 11 or 12, Jurassic Park was one of the first ‘adult’ books that I read.  I thought it was just about the coolest thing anyone had ever bothered to put on paper.  I still remember details from that book, even though I haven’t looked at it in more than fifteen years.  I’m wondering, however, if I would feel the same about Jurassic Park were I to read it for the first time at this point in my reading life.  Or, like many other authors whose early work was quite good *coughJohnGrishamcough*, did Crichton just stop trying.

Does anyone have any insight on this?  Why, specifically, are Crichton’s books so forgettable?  And, has this always been the case or did he start calling it in, so to speak, in his later novels?

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12 comments

  1. This doesn’t really answer your question, but what I remember most about Timeline is how the entire book seemed so cinematic. I could picture every single part as a movie scene. Not surprisingly, it was made into a movie (also utterly forgettable, as are most movies that have Paul Walker in them).

    1. I didn’t even know it was made into a movie – although I suppose that Crichton’s entire repertoire has made on screen by this point in time. Prey was the same way, almost as if it was written for the expressed purpose of later being adapted to the screen.

  2. been a long time since I tried a book by him & I am honestly trying to remember which one it was, with no success, I’m guessing it was a popular one as I think that I possibly bought in germany to pass the time, possibly.beyond that I can’t tell you more & based on your post I can understand why.

    1. I went for years without reading any of his stuff. When I do pick him up (or Grisham, for that matter) it’s usually because I have a long slag through airports and train stations.

  3. Heya Pete! Why are you slumming with Crichton novels? LOL

    Seriously, I’ve read most of them and feel as you do…there’s something terribly blah about them. One person told me they thought Prey was terrifying. I thought it was a yawn.

    The only explanation I can figure out is that there are no surprises, with characters that whose quirks are predictable and therefore no longer quirky! Sometimes I think he’s trying to grasp at meaning or some purpose for the fiction and thus misses the point. It’s as if there is no tension in a scene where he’s trying hard to achieve it. I think Grisham is similar in that I don’t remember much, but I have enjoyed his earlier works while I read them. With Crichton, even then it was chore to finish.

    Then there’s the possibility that you are simply a book snob. In good company!!!

    Amy

    1. Haha, slumming it. I do that occasionally, more than I’d like to admit.

      I’m the first to admit that I like a good, fast junk food read. But, there’s something about Crichton that goes beyond other genre fiction writers. I won’t say his books are worse – I don’t hate them while I read them. I just can’t remember what happened when they’re done and I can’t figure out what makes him so special in this regard. I remember Grisham books, I remember Dan Brown books, I remember Dean Koontz books. Crichton books just slip away.

      It’s almost impressive.

  4. I don’t think they’re written to be particularly memorable books anyway – they’re just techno thrillers, written for no other reason than to provide shallow escapist entertainment for people who don’t like to over-analyze what they’re reading. Just like watching the latest hollywood shoot-them-up movie. There are times when I’m in the mood for books like that, especially when I’m on vacation or just slumming it. I just want a throw-away story that entertains me for a time, without cluttering my psyche up.

    1. Thanks for the comments! I agree that they’re not written to win any prizes, nor are they supposed to be mind-blowing in any particular way. And, I don’t necessarily dislike them; they are useful for exactly what you described – sitting by a pool, waiting in an airport, decompressing without thinking too much. I am, in fact, a fairly regular reader of such books and that’s why I’m struck by how forgettable Crichton books are even when compared to other genre writers such as John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, and company.

  5. You know, I totally agree with you. I remember reading Prey, Next, and Jurassic Park. I could give a general description of what they are about, but I couldn’t tell you the specifics of their plots if my life depended on it. I feel like he is the Jodi Piccoult of the sci-fi action novel. They both seem so “issue of the month” to me, which I think might be what makes them so forgettable.
    Another thing I’ve noticed about Crichton is that, for a man who makes his money writing sci-fi, he sure does seem to dislike science. The only thing I remember about Jurassic park, aside from the fact that the movie was better, was that Ian ended up being a microphone for the author to preach his distrust of science to the audience. Prey has scientists being grossly blind to anything but profit, and Next is all about how science and information technology lets those in the know mess up your life. Honestly, as a science love, that really annoys me. Does he have no way of dealing with science except through fear? It doesn’t seem like he can, and that is, to me, a sign of a bad author.

    1. Thanks for the comments Emily. I’ve never read Jodi Piccoult so I can’t agree or disagree with that comparison, but, if she’s anything like the Crichton of her particular genre, I probably won’t be rushing to read her anytime soon.
      That’s a good point about the fear of science aspect in Crichton’s novels. To tell you the truth, I’ve never actually thought that hard about his books. But, now that you mention it, it does seem that he plays on fear a bit. I wonder how much of that is his actual fear of science and how much of it is just playing into the narrative conventions of the genre. Some element of fear is what keeps people going through a novel like this – if everyone was noble and nothing scary happened, his books would be reduced. Still, its an interesting point to ponder.

  6. I’m glad you mentioned John Grisham, because I’ve read a lot of his books this year and can’t remember a major plot point for any of them. Fortunately it’s pretty easy to sum up most of his books: there’ll be a recent and still idealistic graduate of law school, some attractive women, a soulless corporation or law practice and, at end, a lawyer abandoning the practice of law. (perhaps to write novels about it?)

    1. Haha, I feel like that for a lot of Grisham’s work. His earlier stuff, however, is completely different. I can probably retell A Time To Kill with a pretty high level of accuracy, names included. That was such a wonderful book. And the three that followed – The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client – were pretty darn good, too. It’s a shame he couldn’t keep up the quality as his output increased.

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