In the world of academia, I am told, there is a rule passed on to law students known as the iron ass rule. It goes something like this: The most outstanding lawyers, those who are most often successful when they enter the courtroom, are those who do the research, look up the precedents, read the literature, do the work. In other words, they follow the iron ass rule.
‘The Appeal’ (2008), John Grisham’s latest, follows the iron ass rule. It is well researched, well plotted, persuasive, and timely. The reader of this novel feels better prepared to understand and analyze contemporary politics and the judicial process. Everything is marketing. Almost everyone is for sale. It is a grim message, packaged in a compulsively readable and gripping plot. It is a novel with everything to recommend it except the one thing I expect and anticipate in a good novel – character development.
At one point, some years ago, I read through Grisham’s novels, including ‘A Time to Kill,’ his first. I enjoyed his subsequent novels but I never felt as if I were in the transforming environment of a novel that is bigger than the story it tells. I kept hoping that he would give me the gift of another story like ‘A Time to Kill.’ John Grisham was invested in that first novel in a real and vital way. In his subsequent novels he has been, I feel, more of a seasoned professional – an advocate, both legal and literary, of the iron ass rule.
I have heard that a key difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that the former is character based and the latter is plot based. Perhaps that is too simplistic, but it expresses the distinction I would make between ‘A Time to Kill’ and the many accomplished but more craftsman-like novels that Grisham has since published.