Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October is unlike any of his other best-selling novels for one simple reason: it was his first novel. Thus the importance of its success cannot be stressed enough. While it is very possible that if Hunt had been a failure, Clancy's subsequent novels could have been highly successful, it is obvious that the success of The Hunt for Red October established Clancy as a popular novelist and propelled him to fame and fortune. So it is important to understand why this novel, a first from the author, the first fiction novel from the Naval Institute Press, and a novel that received very little press upon release, managed to catapult onto the bestsellers list. What was it about The Hunt for Red October that helped to overcome staggering odds of failure? I propose that it was a combination of many factors. First, as is well documented, a public endorsement by President Ronald Reagan sparked interest in the book. Second, the book was published during the Cold War, is about the Cold War in part, and draws on the fears associated with the Cold War. This use of current events/current topics fueled interest in the novel, since people were interested in seeing their fears brought to life. Lastly, it essentially created a genre of popular fiction, the techno-thriller, which is a highly detailed depiction of a catastrophic event. The rest of Clancy's novels share this style of writing, and it has become his signature style. Thus, these factors combined to fuel interest in the novel, and are the reason for its success.
While it might seem trivial and insignificant at first, President Reagan's public endorsement of the novel was the reason that it first gained nationwide public attention. As I have said before, the book did not appear on the bestsellers list until well after its initial publication. While some novels are thrust into the limelight because of glowing critical reviews, endorsements by Oprah or other celebrities, this novel gained attention because the President of the United States said it was a great read and that it was "un-putdownable" and "the perfect yarn." The Naval Institute Press took a big risk in publishing Hunt as its first fiction novel, from a first time writer. For this reason it gained very little attention from the press. But after the President gave his endorsement, the book began to sell and gained media attention. In a letter from Tom Clancy to a friend, Clancy writes of the way the President got the book. He writes,
"Got a call from a lady named N??? C??? R???. She got a copy from a D.C. reporter, and was asked to deliver same to the US ambassador to Argentina. She read it on the plane, and proceeded to buy 27 copies before Christmas. One of which was under the tree of The President. She said that the President read about 1/3 of it Christmas Day, and very much liked it. She went on to say that she was trying to arrange my presence at lunch at the White House. Dear God." (A)
In this letter it is apparent that Clancy understands the magnitude of this information. This letter also reveals that the book had become popular among some high-level government readers in Washington, but it is not until Reagan endorses the book that it becomes a nationwide bestseller. This shows us one way that a book from an unknown author, with no actual experience in the subject he is writing about, from a small publisher (of which it was a first fiction novel) gain becomes a bestseller. Get the book endorsed by the President of the United States.
So once the book was given Reagan's endorsement, people were aware of the title. But this does not simply ensure that the novel will gain bestseller status. The rest of the country might not share the President's opinion. So it is important to note other factors that influenced the success of The Hunt for Red October. The 1980's was the heart of the Cold War, and Americans were well informed of the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union. The premise of the novel feeds on the fears associated with that information. Clancy presents the action in the novel in a highly detailed fashion, adding to the plausibility of the events. Clancy depicts the world in 1986, with the Soviets developing a nuclear sub that is undetectable by American sonar. The idea is that the submarine could sail undetected and set down off the coast of Washington D.C., and be a first strike weapon. The success of the novel hinges on the wonderment of readers, and their belief that such an event is a distinct possibility. But this premise, that the sub is going to attack America, is just the surface plot that gets the reader interested in the novel. In actuality, the events that take place in the novel are somewhat anti-Cold War. Captain Ramius, the man the Soviets place in charge of this new, hi-tech submarine has other objectives than to destroy the United States. While the submarine, Red October, is designed to be a first strike weapon, Ramius uses it for another purpose. His goal is to use the submarine to avoid detection by the Soviets, and defect to the United States. Thus, the sentiment of the Soviets as evil and dangerous gets turned on its head, and the Americans come to the aide of the Soviet officers wishing to defect. But in the end the Soviets are presented as bumbling and fumbling, and American intelligence and Western ideals are victorious in the end. But the entire premise of the story rests on the notion that readers will be captivated by a story that pits the United States against the evil empire of the Soviet Union. However, it is able to portray a personal side to some Soviets, those that want defection, and this added depth augments the success of the novel. With the success of Hunt for Red October, Clancy continued to use this Cold War, U.S. vs. the Soviets, in many of his other books. He was able to find something that readers latched onto, and he has stuck with that equation. Present a story where the threat of World War III is eminent, and readers will flock. So with Hunt, Clancy drew on the worries of the time, helping to nullify the adversity of being an unknown author.
Lastly, Hunt for Red October helped to establish an entire genre of popular fiction: the techno-thriller. Most of, if not all of Tom Clancy's novels follow the same premise as mentioned before: that there is some sort of international event that threatens the entire world, and in particular the United States. As mentioned before, the threat in Hunt is that a new nuclear submarine, undetectable by sonar, has been developed by the Soviets. This is not based on fact, and it is a product of Clancy's imagination. It is presented in such a way that the events seem plausible, and Clancy's presentation is credible, despite his lack of military credentials. The reason that readers are able to suspend their disbelief is because Clancy packs the novel with so much military detail that the reader has no choice but to accept the information. Clancy also includes no glossary of terms, something that was proposed, but was decided against. In another letter to a friend Clancy writes:
"Actually the idea of a glossary for all those impressive words and acronyms (Special Note: If verisimilitude is what you're after, and you're talking about the military, you have to talk wall to wall acronyms--just like docs, uniformed types speak in a special form of shorthand to baffle us dumb civilians) and one I (and others) proposed, but each time the idea was discarded as unnecessary. ASW means "anti-submarine warfare," by the way. A cast-of-characters page was also considered and dropped." (B)
Clancy goes onto to explain his attention to detail in a humorous way saying:
Don't be too impressed by the technical stuff?if you give the book a close look, there ain't very much-- just enough to make it look like I know something. All of this came out of easy, casual references into some books I own. Really. It's a lot easier to say the right word than to know what it means, y'know? I ain't no submarine driver. (B)
But there is no doubt that his details are what make the action in the book credible, and entertaining. There are sections in the novel, quite frequently, that have long descriptive passages full of military speak. An example:
Admiral Foster: "At this moment we have E-3A Sentry AWACS-type aircraft circling them along with Dan's Orions, both accompanied by F-15 Eagle fighters out of Iceland. By this time Friday we'll have a squadron of B-52's operating from Loring Air Base in Maine. These will be armed with Harpoon air-to-surface missiles, and they'll be orbiting the Soviets in relays." (C)
It is this style of writing that defines the techno-thriller. Advanced technological jargon, of which the reader has only a limited understanding of. But the reader is to assume that this is the actual "language" of military personnel, and it adds to the realism of the novel. With Hunt, Clancy was able to develop his own genre of writing, one that readers showed an affinity towards given its enduring success.
I feel that the Hunt for Red October is very unique bestseller. All of America knows who Tom Clancy is, what he writes, and how he writes. But it is interesting to see how his fame came to be. The novel had many obstacles to overcome. It was the first fiction novel by the Naval Institute Press, by an unknown author who had never set a foot on a submarine. I hope to have made it clear that the success of Hunt was a result of a combination of factors. The endorsement by President Reagan gave the book a national spotlight. But the success endured because readers latched onto the depiction of a world where the Cold War has blown up into a real war. And it is also important to note that this novel created its own genre, the techno-thriller, and a style that Clancy would use to continue his success even today.
A) Becoming Tom Clancy. Letters by Tom Clancy.
B) Becoming Tom Clancy. Letters by Tom Clancy.
C) Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October. Berkley Paperback. Pg. 110.