Jonathan Mahler's article about thriller/mystery/suspense/detective novelist James Patterson, in the Jan. 24 issue of the New York Times Magazine, delighted devotees of literary fiction. But it angered many of Patterson's not-so-literary fans.
Titled "James Patterson Inc.: How a Genre Writer Has Transformed Book Publishing," the article is a bare-knuckle assessment of the author and his empire that has sold 14 million copies of his books in 38 different languages.
Since the 1977 publication of his first book, The Thomas Berryman Number, the 62-year-old Patterson has endured the antipathy of academics who dismiss his work as being, among other labels, "good yarns" and formulaic tales lacking in literary quality. Patterson argues that English professors, slaves to canonical standards, "kill" the love of reading.
Patterson's fiercest detractors shoot right back, suggesting that the author is nothing more than a skillful hack. After all, his books are collaborations, not art. By his own acknowledgment, Patterson makes a 30- to 50-page outline, co-writers add specifics and he polishes the final draft.
This so-called skillful hack sells a lot of books.
"Patterson may lack the name recognition of a Stephen King (who has publicly dismissed Patterson's books), a John Grisham or a Dan Brown, but he outsells them all," Mahler writes. "Really, it's not even close. (According to Nielsen BookScan, the combined U.S. sales of Grisham, King and Brown in recent years still don't match Patterson's.)"
I was surprised to learn that Patterson has become Britain's "most borrowed" author, beating out J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter franchise, in public library loans.
What are the sources of Patterson's success, even in the land of Shakespeare,?
On one level, it is the formula, for which he receives the most criticism, and his instinct for what hooks the reader that account for Patterson's popularity. The familiar style and expectations that make TV shows such as Law & Order and CSI satisfying also make Patterson's stories satisfying. Fans know what to expect, and they are rarely left wanting.
Like his pulp fiction predecessors, Patterson writes concisely. His descriptions are stripped of purple prose, and his chapters are short.
"I don't put in too many details about how the room looks," he told the Sunday Times of London. "Some people go for whole pages. That's great if you have the style, but if people really want to know what happens next, it's just boring."
In a TV ad for Worst Case, his latest novel, written with Michael Ledwidge, Patterson describes each chapter as "a speeding freight train" seemingly headed for a crash. And like the work of his pulp fiction predecessors, Patterson's narratives give his readers thrilling scenes and adventure, not navel-gazing.
Patterson told Mahler that he sees himself as an entertainer, not a man of letters: "I have a saying, if you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something."
Another reason that Patterson's books sell so well is that he does his own marketing. Patterson is the Patterson brand.
Before becoming a novelist, he was chairman of the advertising company J. Walter Thompson. He came up with the snappy slogan, "I'm a Toys R Us Kid." Using those skills, he took over the design of his books and every other facet of their sale. Harvard has a marketing course that teaches his self-branding methods.
As an occasional Patterson reader, I was glad to see the Feb. 7 letter to the New York Times Magazine from Joe Claro of Irvington, N.Y., defending Patterson: "As an English teacher for more than 40 years, I know that some people — probably the vast majority — will never be enticed to read works by the likes of Joyce, Faulkner or Updike. If millions choose to read more accessible material, and Patterson chooses to make it available to them, who is in a position to decry those choices?
"Why do self-appointed critics allow for popular taste in television, music and movies but drift into almost religious solemnity when discussing books? Lighten up, folks. Reading is a far more active pursuit than listening or viewing, and anything that gets people to read is admirable."
I agree. Patterson should be praised for his contributions, not condemned.