Books Genre Writing

James Patterson and the vitality of story

I’ve seen a lot of chatter on Twitter today about this Times article about James Patterson. Most of the talk is numbers-focused, and there are some startling numbers in the piece — one out of every 17 novels purchased in the US since 2006 was a Patterson book (or a Patterson-and-co-authors book, about which more later). Several staff members at Little, Brown work only on Patterson’s books; Little, Brown gave Christmas bonuses this year, based partly on the strength of Patterson’s sales. He sometimes publishes up to ten books a year.

I didn’t know much about Patterson before reading this article. I’ve never read one of his books, though I do remember reading something about his recent jump into YA with the “Maximum Ride” series, and I think I’ve seen a little bit of one of the Morgan Freeman movies based on his Alex Cross novels. What struck me about this article, even more than the numbers, was Patterson’s decision to turn away from attempting to write “reasonable literary novel[s]” and producing mystery novels and thrillers instead (and, later, YA novels, romances, etc.).  Here’s what Patterson says about his first novel, a more Chandleresque work than his later fiction:

The book won a prestigious Edgar Award for a first novel from the Mystery Writers of America. No doubt, some of those who praised it at the time would now say Patterson has failed to live up to its literary promise. That’s not how Patterson sees it. “It’s more convoluted, more bleak — more of the sort of thing that some people will find praiseworthy,” he says of “The Thomas Berryman Number.” “The sentences are superior to a lot of the stuff I write now, but the story isn’t as good. I’m less interested in sentences now and more interested in stories.”

Not to get back to Twilight again — I was doing so well! — but I find this kind of calculation, which seems similar to the priorities of the Twilight books, fascinating. I don’t think I could write that way, partly because I’m a slow, fussy worker when it comes to writing, but I can see the appeal, for readers and writers. Here’s another passage from the article, about one of Patterson’s co-authors:

Patterson helped Ledwidge get his first book published and his writing career started. A few books later, Ledwidge had garnered some critical acclaim but not much commercial success. In 2003, Patterson suggested that they collaborate on “Step on a Crack,” his first Michael Bennett novel. Ledwidge leapt at the opportunity. The book went straight to No. 1 on the Times best-seller list. One book quickly led to another. In 2005, Ledwidge quit his day job as a cable-splicer at Verizon, left the Bronx for Connecticut and became a full-time co-author for James Patterson.

Ledwidge told me that he and Patterson have an easy working relationship, that Patterson playfully teases him when he writes a scene that Patterson doesn’t like and praises him when he’s pleased with something. I asked Ledwidge if he missed writing his own books. “Honestly? ” he asked. “Not at all. This is much more fun.”

And there we get back to what Merrie and I were discussing in the comments on this post. How do we value fun in writing?


  1. I wanted to comment on your other post, but my own views on this have been in such flux for my last two projects. Mostly I’ve found the writing to be a grind, but heck, the first of those “grind them out” books is the one that sold. I’m working on the second one now.

    So for me, I think I get the most pleasure out of doing a good job, from crafting the prose, and, I hope, providing a good experience for readers.

    I have a hard time with some — not all — commercial writing because I don’t find the experience satisfying as a reader. If the prose clunks, I get annoyed and bored.

    But I really enjoy a good commercial book, when it’s well-executed. Give me a decent mystery novel, and I am sooo happy!

  2. On making writing fun, I think one interesting point made by Ian McEwan was that writing itself should be enjoyable as opposed to just agony.

    One intriguing similarity between Patterson and Meyer is they don’t really spend years working on an individual book, though Meyer is definitely not as prolific as Patterson. I bring this up because Stephen King talked about this last year, and mentioned Jodi Piccoult as a commercial writer whose prose style is solid. Piccoult says it takes her about nine months to write a novel. He also praised Rowling’s writing who spent a year writing book 3, which was the shortest period for any of her books. (OtherLisa, you might enjoy Piccoult, Sue Miller, or Amy Tan, though Jodi Piccoult’s books have been compared to soap operas.)

    My other thought in this is to question what counts as story. Are the stories really good? If you were to say emphasize the big picture? Some critics have argued that George Eliot and Mary Shelley are unimpressive stylists, so presumably their stories (well, ideas and influence too) are what leave them on bookshelves today. Are we talking about overall strong narrative or thrills while reading? Patterson said in response to criticism from Stephen King: “I just want to be the thrillingest thriller writer around.”

  3. Other Lisa, I agree about being tossed out of perfectly fun stories by clunky prose. And I also agree that commercial novels can be really satisfying — I loved Tana French’s two books, which I read this summer. Just really nicely-done thrillery mysteries, with great strong voices.

    DarkHeart, your points about time devoted per book are interesting. When I wrote my first novel, I was working part-time and I tried to write 1000 words/day, and mostly stuck to it — it ended up being about 100K in length, and I did finish it in less than four months, I think. But it was also not a well-planned novel, and it would’ve needed a huge amount of revision. I feel like we as readers often expect that novelists will devote a lot of time to a novel. But then again, some people just write quickly. I saw someone else talking recently about the fact that Charlotte Brontë apparently wrote Jane Eyre in about three months.

    The idea of George Eliot as subpar stylist would never have occurred to me! (Mary Shelley maybe, though the question of authorship is more vexed there, at least in Frankenstein — Percy did apparently make a substantial number of edits between the 1818 and 1831 versions.) Re: Eliot, though, I’ve only read Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, and The Lifted Veil, which is actually subpar. Interesting.

  4. That is interesting with time and Jane Eyre! It’s one of my fave books. Ultimately, I guess writers have to do what works for them, and people’s processes vary. Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer in 2009 for her short story collection, says she re-writes passages until they’re satisfactory before moving on, but Philip Roth says he cranks out bad first drafts for the sake of getting the blueprint down. Strout also said she spent less time on her stort story collection than her debut novel, and she feels like writing novels has taken less time over her career. (Her debut novel and short story collection are both roughly ~300 pages).

    I encountered some rough words about Eliot’s prose when I was trying to learn about nineteenth century literary realism. I don’t like Twain, so I read Silas Marner and a book about her,and checked out reviews of the book and the reviewer wrote “Eliot was no stylist.” Also, a scholar who wrote the Signet classic introduction to Middlemarch said something to the effect of “whatever you think of Eliot as a stylist.” I’ve only read Silas Marner in full. I got through the beginning of Middlemarch during a vacation but never bothered to pick it up again (though maybe I should!). As far as Marner goes, I did not respond negatively to her prose personally, though I can see why some critics would think Silas Marner is not as well written as Austen or Oscar Wilde. Even if one does not have a story over sentences or style mentality AND accepts the critique of Eliot’s style, her characterization is awesome and the plot of Silas Marner works quite well.

    The merit in Twilight is in capturing certain aspects of adolescent female desire—still the book has flat characters and the plots serve their function but they’re not imaginative.
    Elizabeth Hand put it this way: “Twilight is really all about unrequited female erotic yearning. It’s like reading a young teenage girl’s blog, boosted with enough of Meyer’s made-up vampire lore to give it some mild narrative and sexual tension.” (Though I found the yearning compelling, I will admit) An interesting quote from a Lev Grossman article captures exactly what you said in your post:”I don’t think I’m a writer; I think I’m a storyteller,” Meyer says,”The words aren’t always perfect.”

    But doesn’t good storytelling involve interesting characters and better plots? I don’t want to condemn or judge Patterson, before having read his books. I wonder if he deserves credit for good stories, if he deliver thrills which are embedded with enough action to give them, likewise, some moderate narrative (I could not help but get that impression from the article).

    Philip Roth made an interesting point about the concentration it takes to get through a novel in an interview, and said he doubted the novel could compete with the screen for that reason. On that note, a blogger suggested Stephanie Meyer took the romantic elements of classics from the Austen and Bronte sister books and stretched them out for thousands of pages to give readers the icing on the cake of those books. In her mind, the cake was the issues they dealt with and what they said about gender, class, and the human condition. Maybe the Twilight and Patterson kinds of novels sell like hotcakes because they offer the exciting part of novels and demand minimal effort on the part of readers. Sorry, the comment is so darn long!

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