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James Patterson's Great Big Book Machine

If you’re even a moderate reader, chances are good that you’ve run into James Patterson – the word prolific doesn’t even do it justice, especially in the young adult genre. I remember reading titles like I Am Number Four, Maximum Ride, and Daniel X, only later recognizing that under each of them was the name “James Patterson.” I couldn’t believe that all these stories I loved had been written by the same person. Turns out, they probably weren’t. Because while James Patterson started out like any other author, he soon became something more akin to a producer.

His current process, as he describes it, involves laying out an outline of a story – you know, the big ideas – and then letting another author run with it, checking in intermittently. That production by committee is responsible for both his massive catalog and, well, mediocre prose. This isn’t an insult, per se, or at least not one he wouldn’t cop to himself, as an article in Vanity Fair suggests: “Patterson decided long ago that he’d rather be a successful popular novelist than a mediocre literary one. He says he thinks of himself above all as an entertainer.”

While the fantastical settings and empowered characters held my attention in a vice grip in middle school, it would be hard to dispute that his prose (or the prose written under him) is largely formulaic. Short chapters, simple structure, and plot-forward writing are factors that contribute to both his undecorated style and prodigious output. And this works out for him, if his 20,000 square foot mansion is any indicator.

James Patterson’s Palm Beach estate. Attributed to the Wall Street Journal, 'James Patterson's Big Overhaul'.

He was Forbes’ highest-paid author for three years in a row, has more than a hundred bestsellers, and has a net worth of about $800 million. And… I kinda can’t fault him? At least, not for his style of writing. He’s said some sketchy shit about race in publishing, and in general seems defensive and arrogant. Taking all this into account, I would very much like to write an article about how his style of producing literature is destructive, bad for the art form, and a travesty.

And maybe it is, and maybe I’ve overlooked something terribly important. But I think I’m past the part of my life where I can fault an artist for making a living, and while Patterson’s is an especially extravagant living, I don’t necessarily think the way he makes it is unethical. His ghostwriters are credited, and get to have their name attached to an almost-guaranteed bestseller. I don’t know how they’re financially compensated, but I should hope it’s enough, since they’re the ones doing the actual writing. All in all, Patterson seems to take on the role of a showrunner, and while his is the name that’s big and bold on the front cover, he seems to acknowledge that he has and needs help.

I know we’re in an era of exceptionally corporate media, and Patterson’s work seems to just add more fuel to the fire, but I’m not in a position to discredit anyone’s art. We’re also in an era that seems to be slowly dispelling the myth of the singular auteur, at least in other fields. Maybe this sort of literature production will catch on. I’d rather it didn’t, but oh well. Whether you view him as a captain of industry or an invasive species, his success is undeniable. And he doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon, so long as there are (co-?)authors to work out the finer details.


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