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Legal thriller Death Match: Grisham vs. Turow!

March 11, 2010

Scott Turow

Scott Turow invented the modern legal thriller in 1987 with Presumed Innocent. But John Grisham took it to the heights of popularity with The Firm (1991). So who’s the best? The serious minded pioneer, or the mega-selling page-turner?

Now’s a good time to consider this question. Turow picks up the first annual Lawrence A. Sanders Prize at Florida International University tonight. In May, he’s finally coming out, more than 20 years later, with the long-awaited sequel to Presumed Innocent.

So what’s Turow got to say about his rivalry with Grisham?

“John sells more books and I have better reviews,” Turow says. “John’s a wonderful storyteller and a wonderful guy. He has a much wider readership than I do. He’s happy to be read by people in junior high school. I’m trying to write serious novels that don’t have as broad an appeal.”

Don’t feel sorry for Turow, though. His books may not sell in Grisham numbers, but all his novels (among them Burden of Proof, Reversible Errors and The Laws of Our Fathers) have been bestsellers. And Presumed Innocent, his biggest, has sold more than 4 million copies.

Plus, One L, Turow’s nonfiction account of his freshman year at Harvard Law School, has become a classic, continuously in print since its publication in 1977.

“I don’t think of this as a printing press for money,” Turow says of his writing. “I’m lucky to have a pretty broad audience. I’m trying to be a serious writer by my own lights. I want these books to mean something, to me if not to other people. So far, it’s working.”

The new novel, Innocent, comes out May 4. Rusty Sabich (played by Harrison Ford in the 1990 movie version) is now a judge, but he’s under suspicion of murder (a-gain?!), and this time the victim is his wife — who played such a big part in the earlier novel.

“I started thinking about this sequel in 2005, and I was thinking about it a lot,” Turow told me by phone from Chicago. “I don’t know why exactly I wanted to go back to Rusty Sabich.”

Turow is perfect as the inaugural recipient of the Sanders Prize, which carries a $5,000 award. Named for the late Lawrence Sanders, a bestselling thriller writer of the 1970s, ’80s and 90s, it’s intended to show that excellence in literature and popular appeal are not exclusive, says Les Standiford, head of FIU’s creative writing department which administers the prize.

“It’s a point we think is long overdue,” says Standiford. “And the perfect example is Scott Turow.”

Although the Sanders Prize is awarded by Standiford and FIU, it’s funded by the Lawrence A. Sanders Foundation, a Boca Raton-based literary charity established by $14 million the author, who died in 1997, left in his will.

“Sanders was a crime novelist and Scott writes legal thrillers,” explains Standiford. “But this prize is not limited to any genre. Next year it could go to someone like John Irving or Barbara Kingsolver, writers who write doggone good books that also have bestseller appeal.”

Tonight’s ceremony is free and open to the public. Turow will read and discuss his work starting at 8 p.m. It’s all at the FIU Biscayne Campus, Academic 1 Building, Room 194,  3000 NE 15th St., North Miami. Info: 305-919-5857.

Every award feels good, says Turow. “They could etch it on a garbage can lid,” he says. “But this one is in the name of an esteemed writer of suspense. I think that’s really cool.”

So tell us: Who do you like best John Grisham, or Scott Turow?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    March 11, 2010 11:09 am

    I was about to start this post, “I have to admit that I have never read either one of these guys.” But then I realized that’s not exactly true. I read A Painted House by Grisham (almost ten years ago now???!?!?). I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed the book and I was impressed by the quality of the writing. However, since it was his first book outside of the thriller genre, I am not sure it counts for this discussion……

    I do like the subtle shot Turow took at Grisham, while at the same time seeming to compliment him. “John’s a wonderful storyteller and a wonderful guy……He’s happy to be read by people in junior high school. I’m trying to write serious novels that don’t have as broad an appeal.”

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 11, 2010 11:21 am

    Kapow! Yeah, I liked that a lot, too. Killing with kindness, as they say. I admire that kind of subtle malice enormously, and it makes me think I wouldn’t mind having Turow represent me if I ever needed a lawyer.

    That’s not a barb at Grisham’s legal skills. I’ve never interviewed him, but from hwat I read, he seems pretty sharp.

    A Painted House is one of Grisham’s occasional attempts to write literature and gain respect. While this book is not bad, I must say, it didn’t really do the trick for him. And, no, it’s not relevant to this discussion.

    No one should ever feel guilty about enjoying Grisham’s undemanding suspensers. He knows how to keep the pages turning.

    But self-serving thought it may be, Turow’s got it just about right. He writes grown-up books for grown-up readers (no matter the age), with depth of character, setting, motivation. He’s downright Dickensian, almost. In fact, he’s sometimes a little too serpentine for me, backing into his stories, but his method always pays off with rich portraits of flawed people, a system collapsing in slow motion, and believable stories.

  3. March 11, 2010 11:34 am

    To both I say Bali Hai Kai. One knows what it means. One does not. My new thriller will be getting them together to talk and one of them disappears and is found MURDERED. Then the other goes missing. I can not tell any more.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 11, 2010 5:03 pm

      You speak in riddles, wise man.

  4. Karla permalink
    March 11, 2010 2:38 pm

    never read either guy. But I saw a commerical for John Grisham’s new book and he was in it. He seemed like the biggest tool ever. So if I HAD to choose, I’d probably pick the other guy.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 11, 2010 5:05 pm

      I don’t know if Grisham’s a tool or not, but what I’ve heard about him makes me thing he’s probably okay. There’s a commercial for his new book? That tells you how big he is. But if you chose Turow, you’d be right. He’s the better writer. More substance. At least that’s my opinion. Is no one going to defend Mr. Grisham?

  5. Candice permalink
    March 11, 2010 3:24 pm

    Congrats to Turow. I look forward to the new novel.

    As for Grisham–maybe from time to time, but too much is definitely not a good thing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 11, 2010 5:06 pm

      Yeah, Grisham’s books are kind of like potato chips. Once you start, it’s hard to stop, but the nutritional value is negligible.

  6. Connie permalink
    March 11, 2010 5:00 pm

    There is just no competition. Turow blows Grisham out of the water.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 11, 2010 5:07 pm

    Do you think Nicole Holofcener would agree? Surely….

  8. March 11, 2010 8:16 pm

    Persumed Innocent is my all-time favorite legal thriller so my vote goes to Turow. I’m excited about the his new novel and hope it adds something to the original.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 12:04 am

      I went to Scott’s event tonight. It was well attended, with luminaries such as Dan Wakefield, Dave Barry, Mitch Kaplan, John Dufresne, Lynne Barrett, Debra Dean, Dan Brede, Jack Neese, Michelle Kaufman, Denise Duhamel, among others. Les Standiford, in his usual form, gave a hilarious introduction, while Scott Turow’s discussion and reading of his work explained both the genesis of Presumed Innocence and his decision to revisit Rusty Sabich for the long-awaited sequel. A good time was had by many.

  9. John Karwacki permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:40 pm

    I devoured “Presumed Innocent” when it came out. Seems to me that particular Turow novel was as much a page turner as “The Firm” or “The Client”. I think Hollywood ruined Grisham but that may be a veiled shot at Tom Cruise and Matthew Mcwhatshisface. My favorite Turow line from above: “I want these books to mean something, to me if not to other people.” If that isn’t pure b….sh.. then good on him. “Burden of Proof” and “The Laws of Our Fathers” did not excite me like “Presumed”. My sister, an attorney, loved “One L.” I will take the time to read his new one. Thanks for another great blog, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 12, 2010 12:07 am

      You’re welcome, sir. I will say that when Grisham slows down and bears down, as he did with A Painted House, he shows a talent and depth not in evidence in his legal thrillers. As for Turow, I believe he is serious as can be about wanting to write fiction that means something, but which also entertains. As Les Standiford says, the only place people read books they aren’t interested in is in college.

  10. November 3, 2010 4:25 pm

    I always love the novels of John Grisham, they are full of suspense and surprises .

  11. December 2, 2010 2:27 am

    All of the novels of John Grisham are very good, i love all the stories –,

  12. July 21, 2011 12:27 pm

    So suspenseful that I am often at the edge of my seat when I read his novels. Crazy that words can do that.~

  13. August 15, 2011 2:33 pm

    Excellent article over again! Thanks a lot:)

  14. March 5, 2012 7:04 am

    Turow’s comment was in no way subtle; it was a transparent shot of jealousy couched in arrogance couched in intellectual superiority. I am a lawyer, have read both authors, and prefer John Grisham. I find that Turow’s works have no more depth than any other legal thriller. If I want intellectual heft, I look elsewhere.

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