Given Patterson’s fecundity, you have to wonder: is he ever time? Does the Idea folder ever go back where it came from?
Patterson is one of the world’s best-selling and most prolific living authors. His books have sold more than 300 million copies. His new memoir is 10th book he has published so far this yearand one of four books he’s slated for release this month. A control List of books on his website includes nearly 400 titles, including thrillers, true-crime books, contributions to various children’s and YA series, and collaborations with various celebrities, including a former president and a former Fox News host. Patterson, 75, insists he is responsible for at least describing each of these literary creations.
What about Bill O’Reilly’s children’s book, “Give Please a Chance”?
Patterson’s approach to writing is decidedly pragmatic: give them something irresistibly compelling, then give them more, quickly. It’s also the MO of her memoir, filled with catchy short chapters and many names, from Dolly Parton (the unlikely co-writer of “Run, Rose, Run”) to Tom Cruise (the film’s potential collaborator) to James Taylor. (patient in a psychiatric hospital where he once worked). His writing process is also pragmatic. His a-ha moment in terms of effectiveness, he explains, came while writing “Along Came a Spider” in 1993: rather than filling in the story he had sketched out, he decided that the plan was the novel. He compares this approach to Bruce Springsteen’s minimalist album “Nebraska,” as if a minimalist aesthetic is the same as being satisfied with your first draft. Or maybe Patterson is just introducing himself to a potential new celebrity collaborator. (Don’t, Bruce!)
Patterson is a man of the people, as his sales numbers prove. But in his memoirs, he also positions himself as a man of taste. A long list of his favorite books is a careful balancing act of low and high eyebrows: For every child Lee, a Gabriel García Márquez; for every John Grisham, a Bernard Malamud.
James Patterson doesn’t usually write his books. And his new readers are mostly not reading — yet.
This balancing act extends to his description of his own life. He was college-educated and spent time as an advertising executive before becoming a novelist, but often refers to his humble roots in Newburgh, NY (“I’m kind of a storyteller of working class. I keep chopping wood.”) He’s proud that his first novel, 1976’s “The Thomas Berryman Number,” won a prestigious Edgar Award, but says self-effacingly that he did. written when he “was still a literary moron”. He is delighted to meet John Updike but is more deeply comforted by a reader who tells him that the first book she ever read was a novel by Patterson.
After a while, Patterson’s play-it-down-the-middle approach feels less like recollections of a Renaissance man and more like evasive, unassertive coverage. He profusely criticizes Jeff Bezos when asked to attend one of his private A-list meetings: “I don’t feel like Amazon has always wielded its enormous power for the good of readers, writers or publishers. Just my opinion.” He goes anyway. (Bezos owns the Washington Post). He remembers playing golf with former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. When he sees them playing together, his prose gets spongy. “It used to be like that in politics. Better and healthier times. You can smell a terrible novel about golf on the brink coming into the Idea folder.”
He is just as shaky when he talks about the co-authors who keep his literary machine running. “Here is the best defense I have found about co-authors,” he writes, then lists some famous collaborators: Simon and Garfunkel, Lennon and McCartney, Woodward and Bernstein, Joel and Ethan Coen. But Simon never put Garfunkel’s name on a record sleeve in smaller print; presumably Patterson’s characters letting a few co-writers celebrate Patterson’s storytelling genius in his memoir helps them feel a bit more equal.
All of this is lamentable, not just because it makes his narrative simplistic and glib. It also makes Patterson, an objectively interesting person given his contribution to popular books, not so interesting. Or maybe, more precisely, not so communicative. Why was he so interested in writing thrillers – especially at a time when he was, as he puts it, a “literary snoot?” Why did he set his Alex Cross thrillers in DC, a city he doesn’t describe spending much time in? He remembers having strongly protested against a film producer who wanted to make his black hero, Alex Cross, a white man: “It can’t be done. Not for seven digits. Never.” This virtuous effort in the name of artistic integrity remains unexplained.
To be sure, Patterson was a force for good in the literary world. Its massive sales probably allow its publisher, Little, Brown, to invest more easily in riskier titles; he gave money directly to the employees of independent bookstores; it partners with universities and non-profit organizations to improve literacy, especially among young boys. He insists that parents adopt an iron law: “We read at home”.
Patterson is tight-lipped about his efforts with taste. But celebrating Patterson for all he did for literature is a lot like celebrating the microwave for all he has done for food. “James Patterson by James Patterson” is carefully handled, laced with thanks and demurral aw-shucks when it comes to expressing a strong opinion beyond anything that involves writing and selling books. “I think of myself as just another idiot wandering around planet earth with no real idea of what makes the world go round, no particular identity, just another lost soul.”
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So the pleasures of Patterson’s story are the moments when a bit of quirkiness and candor creep in. An eerie moment when, as a student, he is hypnotized as a woman strokes his leg while they watch a performance of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. .” Score a Manhattan penthouse apartment whose only flaw is its lack of a kitchen (and late-night folksy neighbor Laura Nyro). A flicker of fear when, following a lung operation, his imagination momentarily fades. (“I was alone without the voice in my head.”)
He punctuates this last story with a strange sentence: “Look at all the stories I have invented in this book. After covering so many particular stories in his memoir, he then covered the whole thing. But it’s Patterson who maintains his formula for success: stories are disposable and should never be studied too closely, including his own.
Mark Athitakis is a Phoenix critic and author of “The New Midwest.”
James Patterson by James Patterson
Small, Brown. 368 pages. $29
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