Monday, April 6, 2009

He behind the scenes

I was reading the article about James Patterson the other day over at the Guardian. I started it feeling a bit annoyed and ended it feeling very odd. Even angry, maybe. See for yourself:
[Patterson] is the world's bestselling author: JK Rowling, John Grisham and Dan Brown put together don't match the sales of his books. He's had over 35 New York Times bestsellers, he has been the most borrowed author in British libraries for the past two years, and he is due to publish so many tomes in so many genres in the next few months he doesn't even know the exact number.

How does he do it? Well, ever since 1996, when he published a novel called Miracle on the 17th Green with a golfing buddy, he has done it by finding collaborators to help him fill in the blanks. He comes up with the plot, they write the sentences, he reviews draft after draft. To hear Patterson tell it, he simply has too many ideas to write them all up himself, so he enlists an army of co-writers. He resists the word "factory", of course, or "formula".

No surprise that he resists the words "factory" and "formula". Those put a bad face on the issue, don't they? I read these paragraphs at first without paying much attention but suddenly my brain caught up with my eyes and hit the brakes. Because something here smells very rotten. The article goes on to (accurately) describe this as brilliant marketing - placing Patterson's name in huge letters on the cover while in tiny letters acknowledging those who wrote those pesky, irrelevant "sentences".

So the question is what's more important - the story or the writing? If books were simply ideas and thoughts we formulated throughout the day, almost everybody would be an amazingly successful author. And yet what makes books (literature) so important and special is that the idea isn't enough. A book is composed of the central idea (yes), but also the characters, the writing style, the overall mood. Patterson, for all his "overseeing the drafts", only provides one ingredient to these books. The article, however, goes on to say:

Anyone who thinks Patterson is not truly behind these books because he "only" writes the plots has clearly not read them very closely. They are more or less all plot, and you can barrel through them in three-page gulps. If Patterson is not overly concerned with individual sentences, it's fair to say that whoever actually is in charge of them doesn't care much either. They are not designed to be lingered over.

It's a weak defence. All I can think of is that if these books are so plot-driven and are only based on Patterson's quick ideas, he might as well just tell them to me in small Twitter feeds (please don't). This may be a great marketing/publicity scheme, but from a literary sense, there's something troubling to it. No, nobody really thinks of paperback Patterson as grand literature, but his methods seem fairly dishonest and slippery.


  1. Think of all the books I could have had written by now if I took Patterson's approach!

    I've known this to be true for quite some time now, and it is one of the reasons I avoid reading the books he "co-authors" with others. (Not that I read him all that often otherwise anymore.)

  2. I had no idea. Writing is more important than the idea. Patterson is dishonest, misleading his readers into thinking he wrote the books that have his name on it.

  3. I am a huge Patterson fan but I came to know about this only recently. It's totally wrong for him to do it even if his books are plot driven. Even I can write a book like that. It's not fair on writers who struggele through every sentence and who take years to get a book right.

  4. Being a "quality over quantity" kind of reader, I have huge issues with this approach. I don't mind if my favorite author takes five years between books because I can expect that each one will be wonderful, filled with literary quality, well-developed characters, and a smart plot. I'm not sure Patterson's devoted readers are looking for the same thing.

    Though I have many problems with his approach, the thing that bothers me most is that, as you mention, he's kept it relatively quiet. If this really is such a fantastic way to get books made, you'd think he'd be shouting it from the rooftops. I'm guessing he's (hopefully) a little bit ashamed of his behavior or, at the very least, he recognizes that people will think it is sketchy. And it is.

    The only thing we can really do about it is refuse to buy his books. If readers demand higher quality and honesty from authors, the good authors will finally get the recognition they deserve, and those who are churning out poorly written drivel (that they didn't even write themselves) will fall to the bottom.

    Wow, didn't expect a rant, did you?

  5. well, I did know something odd was going on with his books...but that is awful!
    I have grown to dislike his books and now I know why.

  6. No wonder he can have three books out in a year.

  7. Good grief! It's some sort of literary Mad Libs. I have an ethical problem with this, because it's not on the up-and-up. He's nothing more than a brand, at this point.

  8. I don't mind athletes and entertainers who hire people to ghost-write their books. But there's something bizarre and other-worldly about famous authors hiring ghost writers, isn't there? I think great writers should sweat bullets everytime they sit down to write. That's what makes their work valuable -- not managing the assembly line of a word factory.


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