At USA Today (“Publishing juggernaut Patterson keeps rolling along“), Bob Minzesheimer profiles James Patterson, who must consume prodigious quantities of wood pulp and ink in order to produce such a large pile of books. He has six coming out this year alone.
Actually, Patterson gets a lot of help from other writers. The article profiles his relationship with Michael Ledwidge, whom he met when Ledwidge was a doorman looking for writing advice. Patterson helped Ledwidge get three of his own novels published, but coauthorship helped Ledwidge leave his day job behind.
For an aspiring writer, doing the heavy lifting for a name-brand like Patterson might seem like a real-life version of Indecent Proposal, but Ledwidge says he agreed “at about the speed of light.” Maybe his own manuscripts weren’t quite as attractive as Demi Moore.
To belabor the movie metaphors, using the talent and energy of younger, hungrier writers to prop up your aging corpus suggests something a little, well, darker.
It’s a difficult business, criticizing financially successful authors. It’s easy for them to brush it off as sniping from envious scribes. But Patterson’s defense of his work — “James Patterson is bringing people into bookstores, that’s not a bad thing” — is tired. Bic Macs bring people into McDonald’s, so I guess we could say that burgers are raising the sales of side salads.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a hamburger once in a while. But a hamburger made to order at a local restaurant is bound to be more satisfying than one that’s trucked in from a warehouse in the middle of the country.
Patterson’s success is not dispiriting simply because he’s successful, or because his books are formulaic. It’s dispiriting because it strikes me as being about almost everything but a love of books and reading. Clearly Patterson’s popular enough that he could follow the John Grisham model — a book a year — and still keep his two mansions gleaming with filigree. Why, then, the need to dominate the market? Greed? Ego? Obsessive-compulsive disorder? A high-school girlfriend who told him he’d never be successful?
Nope, it’s all for the kids:
In 2005, he began his own charity, the PageTurner Awards, and donated $100,000 to schools, libraries, community groups and others who “promote the excitement of books.” Next month, he’ll announce winners of another $500,000 in awards, saying, “I wanted to find and reward people who spread the joy of reading.”
That’s why he says he began his Maximum Ride series for teens: “Give them a story they like, and you can turn them on to reading. Make them read something like Crime and Punishment, and you can turn them off. They can move on to other books later, but first, you’ve got to turn them on to reading.”
(Okay, I’ll admit that it’s untoward to criticize a charitable donation that promotes reading, but here goes: given that Patterson earned roughly $28 million last year, even $600,000 is roughly 2% of one year’s salary.)
Even so, it would be one thing if he thought of himself as a financial philanthropist. I’m reminded of something he told Booklist’s Books for Youth Editor Stephanie Zvirin a while back (“Story behind the Story: James Patterson’s Maximum Ride“:
What brought Patterson, who still writes with a pad and pencil, to YA books, and to fantasy/sf in particular? Calling himself “a man with a mission,” he says, “There’s a crisis in this country to get kids reading. There’s not enough today to compete with screens.”
Yes, you read that right: “There’s not enough” good books to do the job. He may fill bookstores with product, but has he visited a bookstore — or a library — recently? (For that matter, is he aware of lists like Best Books for Young Adults?)
This inflated self-regard would be funny if it weren’t so depressing. Well, it’s still funny, but it’s still depressing. Children’s Books Editor Ilene Cooper wrote about another hubristic rationalization in “It’s Not as Easy as It Looks, Part 2“:
In a 2003 article in the U.K paper The Guardian, Madonna informed an interviewer that she was virtually compelled to write children’s books because everything out there was so shallow. Now that she has her own children to read to, she “couldn’t believe how vapid and vacant and empty all the stories were.” Poor Madonna. She must have gotten lost in the celebrity-book aisle.
I fear that this will sound like so much more whining, but when a mega-author like Patterson floods the market with product, I just can’t help but feel that it squeezes out better works. He claims that he’s, in effect, providing a starter kit to get people hooked on reading better stuff — but if he is indeed giving them a taste for more reading, he’s also providing enough stuff to satiate many reluctant readers. According to an NEA study (“Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America“), respondents who read any books at all read, on average, six books per year. Strangely, that’s the number of James Patterson titles that will be published in 2007. Coincidence — or master plan?
And really, does Maximum Ride lead kids to Crime and Punishment? It doesn’t have to — not everyone needs to read Crime and Punishment — but I’m guessing that it doesn’t even lead them to The Great Gatsby.
Fortunately, we have English teachers to do that.