The Sum of All Fears was not Tom Clancy's best selling book, however it was just one in a long list of bestsellers by the former insurance salesman from Maryland. Clancy has become the renaissance man of modern pop literature, as his writing has gone beyond the realm of the "techno-thriller" novel and into the world of film, video games, and non-fiction books as well. How did this unknown become such an icon in the fifteen years since his first novel, The Hunt for Red October hit the market and the #1 spot on the bestseller list? As Rich Cohen of Rolling Stone states "Indeed, Clancy seems to have saturated the national consciousness, creating a new American style, a hybrid of rugged individualism and high technology." The answer to this question seems to be a combination of many factors, namely a unique writing style, an infamous public persona, and simply creating this new genre at a time that caught the public's interest. The Sum of All Fears fits neatly into this explanation, by nature of it's style, topic, and use of a fictitious yet likely story that "caught the attention of the reading public everywhere." In fact, the only area in which this novel might not fit is in length:
"[Clancy] ignores the cardinal rule of potboilers: Action keeps the pages turning. Sure, the action he delivers is gripping. But it doesn't begin until the last quarter of this nearly 800-page tome." (Williamson)
Although Tom Clancy is well known for his excellent action sequences, in The Sum of All Fears he went about developing the characters and plot a bit too long, leaving many to feel that the actual story took place in the last 200 pages, with 600 pages of (sometimes unnecessary) background before.
The literary qualities of The Sum of All Fears are the first things to consider when pondering the question of why it was a number one bestseller.
"Clancy not only relies on expert advice and his talent for research but also works hard to improve his writing. Most anyone who has read all of his books realizes that his writing has sharpened over the years. His prose is punchier, his themes more august and perhaps most important to him, his characters have redder blood." (Zaleski).
Tom Clancy's writing style has always been unique to him, however as he has volume of output has increased, his writing style has also improved. Thus, The Sum of All Fears being one of his later publications, it became the benefactor of this refined writing style. This style, the "techno-thriller", is well known for it's detailed description of machinery and weapons, it's well-woven plot lines and sub-plots, and it's life-like characters. "[The author] makes his multiple sub-plots vivid by creating a set of characters to bring each one alive" states the New York Times Book Review. By using internal monologue, Clancy manages to bring each of his characters to life, and then weave them together so subtlely that the reader barely notices. By doing this, several different views on a particular current event can be portrayed and served up for the readers consideration.
Through The Hunt for Red October and his successive novels, Clancy not only created his own genre, but also revisited that of the military thriller. Within a few years after the debut of The Hunt for Red October, the lists were crowded with like-minded authors writing in the same style. These include Harold Coyle, Dale Brown, Stephen Coonts, and Larry Bond (Zaleski). However, Clancy's name still stands alone as the predominant author of his genre:
"Unprecedented knowledge of military technology, plots of rousing adventure and taut suspense, and themes that address current international concerns have combined to make Clancy one of the most popular authors in the country." (Streitfe)
When the question of why Clancy inevitably sells to the #1 position, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Putnam states:
"The reason [is that] Tom is Tom, aside from the fact that he constructs really good plots and that he can take the reader into a work like nobody else can. He has access to the people who know things, which is why his novels are so much ahead of the curve." (Zaleski)
This quote brings up an important fact. Aside from the fact that Clancy is a quality writer, his public persona just increases his popularity. His well-hidden family life and his larger-than-life public image add up to form a mystique that interests people and draws them toward his writing.
"In a way, Tom Clancy has become Jack Ryan [his protagonist in many novels]: he lectures at the FBI; he dines at the White House; he has been asked on numerous occasions to run for public office; he attends meetings at the CIA, and like his friends there, he seems almost comically obsessed with leaks and the flow of information." (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Tom Clancy basically lives the American dream: an unknown, lower income person becomes extremely wealthy and famous, seemingly overnight. A writer of hardcover novels has become an entertainment tycoon, with his name extended into a variety of media, including film, multi-media, and non-fiction writings. Today, Tom Clancy is more than an author, just as Walt Disney was more than an animator. He is the producer of a distinctive and innovative body of work, a brand name much like Disney (Zaleski). "I'm trying to work on what I call 'Clancy brand'. I think there are certain authors that are a brand and they have to be treated [and marketed] a little differently than a normal author" states Michael Ovitz, a former agent and friend of Clancy's (Zaleski). Even if a person has never heard of Tom Clancy, he/she has most likely seen or heard of one of the three feature films that evolved out of his novels. This kind of widespread exposure to the public would definitely increase the population's interest in the writer, lead to increased book sales, and thus a #1 slot on the bestseller list.
Clancy's use of relevant contemporary events makes up a large portion of the interest in his work as well. As Robert Gottlieb, Tom Clancy's business representative explains, "Tom's books and interests coincide with a lot of changes that have taken place in our society." (Zaleski) In The Sum of All Fears, a global crisis unfolds, and as Clancy propels the reader to the conclusion, he confronts some of the political and technological issues facing our world today (Phillips). Tom Clancy says of The Sum of All Fears:
"It is my belief that nobody has ever seriously examined the subject that I'm examining, has ever really looked at it carefully and accurately. I think this is the first intelligent book about a very, very serious subject, and that subject is nuclear crisis management." (Publishers Weekly)
Frequent topics in Tom Clancy's fiction make use of the former Cold War between the United States and Russia, terrorism from militant groups in the Middle East, and counter-terrorism in response. These issues apply to the present and near-past world that we live in, thus making these novels pertinent to political issues of today. In these novels though, one thing always remains the same: there is the "comforting certainty that our side will win (Kondracke). These novels also include a glimpse into the secret world of the CIA, the FBI, and the inner workings of our highest government positions (Contemporary Literary Criticism). Clancy, making use of his excellent research and inference skills (i.e. using information from declassified Naval documents and shaping them into plausible stories) feeds the curiosity of the reader for a life they will most likely never lead. This privileged feeling of knowing something you aren't supposed to know satisfies the reader and keeps them coming back for more. In this way Tom Clancy increases his readership and flaunts his knowledge of history and government, all while pleasing the reading population.
As novels go, The Sum of All Fears is not the most distinguished and not the most unique book of Tom Clancy's many Jack Ryan novels. This novel has received very little space in literary overviews of Clancy's work. This could be the result of a plot line departs from the standard "Russia versus the United States" theme and a somewhat confusing story line. However, as a novel in the public arena, The Sum of All Fears pulls together many of the characteristics of a "good read", thus garnering it's own popularity on a both a literary basis and through it's author.
In conclusion, some books become famous simply by literary virtue alone, however, The Sum of All Fears enjoyed a majority of its popularity because the name 'Tom Clancy' was on the front cover. Tom Clancy writes blockbusters. His books are announced with huge publicity campaigns and fanfare, and they jump to the top of the bestseller lists almost immediately. When a person purchases a Clancy novel, he has a clear sense of what he is going to get: a Tom Clancy novel. Clancy books are a known quantity; they are books you purchase "when there is no one with the credibility to tell you what else you ought to read" (Gladwell). Just as John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell's books are likely purchased for the name on the cover, Tom Clancy enjoys the same benefits, and some additional ones as well. These benefits come from a history of quality, satisfying novels featuring plots that interest the up-to-date reader, and a name known all over due to the movies, video games, and other marketing ventures that include the name of their creator, Tom Clancy.
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Gladwell, Malcolm. "The Science of the Sleeper". The New Yorker
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Kondracke, Morton. The New York Times Book Review. 28 July 1991: 9.
Phillips, Christopher. "Red October's Tom Clancy: after
the hunt". Saturday Evening Post Sept.-Oct. 1991: 16-18.
Tom Clancy Web Files. Home page. 14 November 1999.
Williamson, Ted. "Long Fuse to Doomsday-Clancy's New
Thriller has Explosive Ending". Detroit Free Press. 28 July 1991: FTR-7Q.
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