James DuMarsque Clavell writes such lengthy novels that a case can be made for categorizing him in any number of ways. Books that generally range between 700 to 1500 pages and have the added virtue of being bestsellers can often be placed in more than one category. It could be convincingly argued that he writes a formula better than Dick Francis, intrigue as well as Le Carre and screenplays that would blow away Michael Creighton. Tai Pan is a novel that contains plenty of sex, violence, crime, intrigue, power struggles and natural disasters. A great many of the world's bestsellers contain some or all of these elements. For example, Tai Pan could be categorized with popular romance novels, reasoning that the forbidden love between Struan and his Chinese mistress is what attracts readers and makes it a bestseller. On the other hand, one could surmise that Tai Pan is an adventure novel and the high seas piracy depicted in the book is what draws the readers. One domineering quality that permeates throughout all of Clavell's books, however, from King Rat to Whirlwind, is the expert knowledge that he assumes about his topic, and this may be the most attractive feature of the book from a reader's point of view.
The trick of a writer assuming expert knowledge, however, is something used by a great many best-selling authors. It is possible to say that every author displays some sort of expert knowledge. Otherwise, what exactly are they writing about? The expertise I am referring to in the case of Clavell-and others like him, is specific and in-depth knowledge about a particular historical period-in short, it is a very well researched book. The main ingredient in this sort of book is expert knowledge in a field that is not well known to a majority of the readers. For example, it is no good trying to sell the Devious Chinese story to the Chinese. The key for the author is to convince the reader that while the story is fictional, everything else is authentic and this is how it could have happened.
One important factor to consider is that Clavell writes mainly to a western audience that has very little knowledge of the Orient. The level of detail that he brings into his work, in addition to the confident assertions he makes is more than enough to lull them into believing that in this author they have found the key to unlock distant and mysterious cultures. In Tai Pan, Clavell serves as a modern day Marco Polo, translating and dramatizing the far eastern mind for western readers, bringing to light all the jewels of a time and culture that would otherwise be inaccessible to us.
Clavell's expertise on the subject matter is evident to a reader through several points. First of all, the sheer length and depth of his novels supports his knowledge. Only a very foolhardy author would dare to write over 1000 pages on a topic they had only researched on the discovery channel. A second point in his favor is King Rat. King Rat is a true story in the sense that Clavell himself was imprisoned in Changi POW camp for three years. King Rat was his first book. It was a bestseller, and established him as an author with first hand knowledge of the eastern mind. This sort knowledge, born of pain, is never questioned, just as no one would question the suffering of a Jew who had survived Auschwitz. In Tai Pan, Clavell portrays the founding of Hong Kong and the colorful lives of the traders that run the opium triangle. His novel is not historically accurate, and he has a tendency to depict all Chinese as devious, subtle, scheming characters incapable of direct action. (This may well be true-he certainly convinced me). The great detail that he gives us on Machiavellian Chinese business practices, as well as the dirt on British foreign policy-making in the east can easily convince the reader that he, in fact, knows a lot about the topic. Some of his main Chinese characters are actually seen plotting one, two hundred years into the future, when their plans will finally bear fruit. (Clavell actually has great continuity because he picks up some of these threads in his later novels, such as Noble House). This sort of insight into the Oriental mind represents insider knowledge, and suggests that Clavell is, actually, an authority in his chosen field.
All of Clavell's novels have been bestsellers, and they all share this similar characteristic. Most of them are focused on the Orient, with novels such as King Rat, Tai Pan, Shogun, Noble House and Gai-Jin. Whirlwind deals with the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, but all of these novels tell the reader about a specific time and place. The stories may be fictional, but Clavell describes the social and political climates of the times with great depth and surety, so that the reader can actually feel they are learning something from it. All of his novels are very well researched, as well, and his knowledge of the Orient is very strong, so that he is able to reveal minute facets of Eastern culture that the reader would have no other way of knowing.
Within the oriental field, there are several other western authors who have produced bestsellers. Eric Lustbader, for example, is an expert on sex and violence. Every twenty pages there is a sex scene, followed by a violent fight. What sets him apart, of course, is that all this is set in the Orient, and all the characters are expert martial artists. Lustbader, however, generally dispenses with all cultural aspects of the East and focuses only on martial arts. Even then, his repertoire of martial art techniques-not to mention foreign words-is not very large, and he returns with distressing regularity to the stock character of the ninja. At times, Clavell and Lustbader are very similar, especially in Tai Pan where Clavell includes a lot of 'fight scenes'. Their main characters are also somewhat similar, in that they all tend to be dynamic, Sun-Tzu quoting men of action. The primary similarity in this category though, is that Lustbader and Clavell both bring the Oriental world to the reader in some fashion: Lustbader can just be considered much cruder and more formulaic than Clavell. It would be unfair in this respect to align Clavell too closely with Lustbader, since Clavell displays a much wider knowledge of the Orient, and also concentrates on big business in the East, as opposed to simply exploiting the obvious western fascination with karate kid. It would be interesting to note, however, that both Lustbader and Clavell shared careers in the media, with Clavell being a noted screenwriter and producer, whilst Lustdbader was an executive in the music industry.
One author who displays some of the same expert knowledge as Clavell, albeit in a different field, is Arthur Hailey, writer of bestsellers such as Airport, Overload and Hotel. The similarity in Clavell and Hailey lie in the fact that in both their works, the setting is pivotal to the plot, and something that is very well researched. Hailey concentrates mainly on different professions, and spins his story around a particular position: for example in Hotel, he tells the story of a famous New Orleans Hotel during the 1960s through the eyes of the assistant manager. In Overload, he delves into the big power companies by telling the story of an executive in a power plant in California, whilst in Airport, he tells the story of an airport controller. There might not be an obvious connection between Clavell telling stories about the Far East and Hailey writing on different professions, but the fundamental quality of their books is that both writers portray the grit and details of a world that the reader is only superficially acquainted with. The story, in a way, is not as important as the sense of authenticity that each author is able to provide to the reader. The reader responds to the fact that the author is displaying genuine knowledge of a particular field, and that they are able to enjoy a good story and learn something.
An author much closer to Clavell in this category is Colleen McCullough, author of The First Man in Rome, The Grass Crown and Caesar's Women. McCullough's area of expertise is the Roman Republic and the Triumvirate, and her novels carry more detailed history of the era than most textbooks. McCullough essentially writes historical fiction, which, in a loose sense, is what Clavell writes in Tai Pan. Both of them write huge novels, with myriad characters and plot lines, plus detailed descriptions of a particular time and place. McCullough places more emphasis on the history part, whereas Clavell uses a historical backdrop to fuel his own plot. One of the reasons that McCullough is successful as a bestseller is because her characters are famous-the likes of Caesar, Sulla and Gaius Marius, and she is able to portray them in a realistic manner. Clavell moves away from her in that respect because he is not dedicated to writing semi-fictional biographies of historical figures. In his novels, the time, place and the characteristics of the people in general are of paramount importance; accurate reports of specific historical people or events are not as important, however, as the plot of his own characters. In his own words, Clavell claimed that his novels basically involved putting his characters--ordinary men and women--into difficult situations and then extracting them.
Expert knowledge aside, however, there is a secondary characteristic that runs throughout most of his novels, which may be used to categorize him. Big business is a running theme throughout his novels, and the cutthroat nature of the wheeling-dealing makes Barbarians At the Gate look like a tea party. The only reason I consider this a secondary characteristic is that two of Clavell's most successful and critically acclaimed books-King Rat and Shogun-had nothing at all to do with big business. King Rat was devoted exclusively to the survival of British POWs, whereas Shogun dealt with the political turmoil involved in the formation of the Shogunate. Big Business, however, is what drives the plot in Tai Pan, as Dirk Struan (the principal character) tries to ensure the dominance and future survival of his trading house through the dangerous profession of opium smuggling. This theme is carried on through Noble House, Gai-Jin, and Whirlwind, where members of the same house fight tooth and nail to protect their company against the plots of rival trading houses. Clavell's sense of continuity is marvelous, because even the villains of the modern novels can all be genealogically traced back to the villains in Tai Pan.
In this category, Clavell can be compared to a lot of other bestsellers that deal with business back up by force. Mario Puzo's Godfather series, for example, can be placed in the same category as Tai Pan. Both stories have extended plot lines, where the main characters are trying to control a business empire through any means possible. (Puzo is also comparable to Clavell in the primary category, in the sense that he possesses expert knowledge in a particular segment of society, namely, the Italian Mafia). Jeffery Archer, for example, wrote bestsellers such as Kane and Abel, and The Fourth Estate, both dealing with larger than life players of the corporate world. The similarity here with Tai Pan is that all three novels share strong willed central characters trying to gain immense power and wealth. This category can be defined as bestsellers that deal with the struggle for money and success. Writing style, time period and settings are all different between these novels, yet they share a single characteristic that readers seem to universally respond to: money and power.
The two most pervasive themes running through this 700 page novel are the emerging culture of China and the struggle for money and power between piratical businessmen. What Tai Pan can teach us is that both of these themes strike a chord with the target audience. I think that Tai Pan and the many other bestsellers in these two categories teach us that readers respond to several universal themes. If the author can convince a reader that he or she knows a lot about any particular topic, the reader will respond better to the book. Aside from simply enjoying the plot, readers will probably feel that they are also taking away knowledge that has added value to the entire experience. In a sense, they have gained something tangible from reading the book. In the case of Tai Pan, the novel gives readers a lot of knowledge about the formation of Hong Kong and the interaction between the British and the Chinese. In regard to the overall plot of the novel, the struggle for power and wealth is something that most people can relate to. The escapist nature of the novel allows readers to experience the thrills of the richest and most powerful men during a period of great opportunity and turmoil. This, essentially, is the function and appeal of all fiction-to let a reader see and understand something that is out of the ordinary for them. Thus, Tai Pan and indeed, Clavell's other books, can be considered to be a combination of escapism and travelogues. A reader who would not read nonfiction such as a history book or a travel guide can enjoy this novel because of its grand, sweeping storyline. Conversely, the reader who is interested in learning about foreign cultures and historical times can also gain something.