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?