Last week, as per routine, I was caking on makeup for work while listening to the Book Fight Christmas Special. If you haven’t ever listened to a Book Fight podcast, this is a perfect time to start. The episodes normally review legitimate literature, or what tries to be, but the Christmas episode features Rite-Aid line and airport gift shop titles with holiday stock photo cover art. One of the two books was “The Christmas Wedding” by James Patterson and a cover-credited ghost writer.
Although I’ve heard the name James Patterson before and caught glimpses of his noisy-font covers while waiting to buy
maxi pads tampons toothpaste, I’ve never read any of his books, and didn’t know much about him aside from that his name, along with John Grisham, Stephen King and Danielle Steele equate with suspicious volumes of proliferation and the ability to be identified by someone who hasn’t spent a decent chunk of adulthood in academia.
But listening to the podcast mentions of Patterson’s “book factories,” co-authors and the abhorrent laziness of the writing itself, I was intrigued. How did a book factory work, and what was it about these books that, despite earning practically no critical acclaim, kept printing money for his publisher?
A few extensive articles, including The Guardian’s “Inside the Fiction Factory” and The New York Times’ “James Patterson Inc.” have appeared in the past few years delving into all such paradoxes. Each reporter, though two years apart, tells essentially the same story. James Patterson and his beautiful wife, who serves visitors lemonade and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies at their enormous beachside estate in Palm Beach. They drive matching luxury SUVs to pick up publishing executives from the airport, and he shows off his newer, bigger, more expensive house being constructed across the cove. His life is that fairy tale writer life, the kind that well-meaning friends and family (who are not artists) dream that you’ll have when you get a book out into the world and become “rich and famous.”
“You can buy a vacation house!”
“And a little writing cottage to write the sequel at!”
“Just wait ’til Oprah calls!”
“Who’s going to play you in a movie?”
(The answer is Kate Winslet, but we’re going to need a time machine).
Which is fine, honestly. He is described as the Don Draper of publishing, a man intimately involved with his brand of work. He openly hires writers to flesh out his plotlines, snaking out from his original set of thrillers into YA and apparently Christmas romance. He commits to publishing over a dozen titles a year, keeping the chapters to around three pages and the plots packed with perennial low-brow favorites like murder, mystery, sex, rape, torture, kidnappings, betrayal–he is the Michael Bay of paperbacks. He does what he does well, not by producing literature, but by churning out commodity. The stories and characters don’t endure, but the brand does. People know that they can rely on his books for the literary equivalent of transforming robots and ginormous explosions.
Although I would like a Palm Beach house and a wife who could just sit at home and bring me chocolate chip cookies, I don’t want to “write” the way that James Patterson has decided that he’s going to write. I want to take my time to produce work that may not be the fastest or the most broadly appealing in an international travel hub, but that my peers might pick up and respect. I want the pleasure from reading my words not to be a thrill of turning pages, but the intimate process of entering into someone else’s mind for a few hundred pages, discovering a new perspective, finding peace in the fact that they aren’t alone in their fears and weaknesses. The amount of books Patterson’s factory commits to producing in a year is probably more than I will ever write in my lifetime. It’s slow work, tedious, painful, but it’s something I’ve chosen to do because when I get it right and when I do it well, it is the most orgasmic feeling in the universe.
What isn’t fine is when Patterson doesn’t recognize this difference, and becomes openly contemptuous toward artists. From The Guardian:
Once or twice, Patterson has expressed the hope that he might one day become a “badge” author – a novelist whose books one might boast of having read. (He mentioned Alice Sebold, the author of The Lovely Bones, as a case in point.) So is he bothered by sniffiness from the ranks of “serious” authors and reviewers? It is the only question during our interview that draws a flash of hostility. “These people who have monumentally unsuccessful lives, and who are talented and bright, and then somehow think that they’re smarter than everyone else.” He seems to mean the writers of bad reviews. “I question that a little, honestly. If you’re so bright, why is your life so horrifying?”
Sebold is 50 years old and has published 4 novels. She began writing The Lovely Bones in 1996, and it was not published until 2002. Writers as artists are not stiff, but they are serious. They embark on projects that are long and confusing, not knowing when and if their work will reach an audience. We do not bristle because of superiority when confronted with a creature like Patterson and his similar sparkly-vampire and gray-shaded ilk; it is out of respect for the craft and frustration that talent and ingenuity so rarely achieve marquee success.
I have been chewing on that quote this weekend, that these people, us serious writers and reviewers, have “monumentally unsuccessful lives.” Is this the way the rest of the world sees us? The ones with the beach houses and the freedom to buy grotesquely overpriced shoes? Because even if I had all of those perks, that wouldn’t prove that I was a good writer. Just a good businesswoman, which is a completely different talent. Just like writers like Sebold are completely different than Patterson. It’s like trying to compare Picasso with Lisa Frank. I’m not saying that the world doesn’t need Lisa Frank; we’ve got to have something to plaster all over 100 million elementary school kids’ binders. But we also need works of art and literature that aren’t as easy to consume as junk food, that call for attention and debate, that make you think and open your soul in a way that isn’t easy or comfortable. To come close to achieving that is success to me. To be invited to speak to students, or to teach them, or to lead writers in a panel, or be asked by a small journal to write thoughts on craft and method… those are giant, mammoth successes. That’s the kind of stuff I live for. Here, in my horrifying little life.