Pop Goes the Weasel

The literary vaudeville

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There’s a blurb from the New York Times on the cover of the paperback edition of James Patterson’s Violets Are Blue, proclaiming Patterson to be “one of America’s most influential authors.” Like many such testimonials, the blurb is both edited and taken out of context. What is remarkable, though, is how little needed to be excised from the original review, which read as follows: “Face it. James Patterson is one of America’s most influential authors.”

And face it we must. Though Patterson lacks the media presence of John Grisham or Tom Clancy, he outsells both of them. According to his publisher, the AOL Time Warner Book Group, Patterson is the best-selling fiction writer in the world. Fourteen of his twenty novels—all the books he’s written since 1992—have hit number one. The Jester, his latest, was number five on Amazon’s bestseller list a month before it came out. Estimates of Patterson’s annual income range from the mindboggling—$25 million—to the truly insane—$50 million. He is not only review-proof, he is recession-proof.

Patterson’s core product line, the nursery-rhyme-titled Alex Cross books, features horrific violence to both women and the English language.

Patterson has not garnered such success because he is a better writer than his colleagues. Though he works in many genres—he’s dabbled in science fiction, tear-jerkers, and historical romances in addition to his two detective series—he brings the same tin ear and blunt force to all of them. To say his plots are “cookie-cutter” is to insult cookies. Here’s a sample of the plots he’s forced upon readers in one of his detective series: Serial killer stalks beautiful women and turns out to be . . . one of the investigating policemen. Serial kidnapper abducts rich children and turns out to be . . . one of the investigating Secret Service agents. Serial bank robber terrorizes the country and turns out to be . . . one of the investigating FBI agents. So much for law and order.

Patterson’s core product line, the nursery-rhyme-titled Alex Cross books, features horrific violence to both women and the English language. Violets Are Blue begins, in a scene typical of the series, with Cross musing upon the body of his dead girlfriend. She’s been killed by Cross’s nemesis, a man who seeks to terrify the world under the oddly generic alias “Mastermind” (in Patterson-land, the bad guys all seem to adopt overbroad brands): “The lower body was covered with blood. He’d used a knife. He’d punished Betsey with it.”

What are Cross’s thoughts on this tragedy? His eyes drift to “Betsey’s service revolver. Beside it was a printed reminder for her next shooting qualifier at the FBI range. The irony stung.” I’ll say.

Patterson’s plots hit you over the head with their obviousness, but not before they’ve dulled your senses through sheer repetition and inanity. Evil geniuses rip off disguises with a regularity not seen outside of Mission Impossible, and passages meant to be portentous drop with a thud on the page: Cross frets at one point that his stalker/nemesis might “at any minute . . . call, or fax, or email.” Frustrated by the cat-and-mouse games of this canny foe—who goes by a particularly unlikely nom de crime—Cross can only fulminate, “His pattern was to do the unexpected. The goddamn Weasel!” Patterson characters are forever engaging in such pedantic internal monologues, as if to dictate the reader’s very thought processes. “Victims hung by feet from oak tree. Why hung?” muses Cross in Violets Are Blue. “Bodies naked and covered with blood. Why naked?” Prose lifeless and lumpy. Why published?

Clichés come fast and heavy in Patterson’s work, where people are killed in a “senseless drive-by shooting” or by “brutal, senseless murders.” Someone can declare that he “ran like the wind” or solemnly intone that “this time it was personal.” The media hounds covering a controversial figure are, indeed, “all over him like a cheap suit,” while a consultant to the FBI, describing a suspect, cuts to the quick-and-easy: “As I’ve heard them say in the movies, ‘He’s a student of the game.'”

One gets downright woozy picturing the actual human characters inhabiting such pastiches of taste preferences.

Patterson’s stylistic signature, the tack that distinguishes his insta-prose from that of, say, Danielle Steel or Jonathan Kellerman, is to piggyback on commercial culture at every turn, allowing years of advertising and brand-building by others to substitute for description. Patterson’s narration reads like an issue of Entertainment Weekly, though not quite as breezy and glib: A protagonist observes that a police officer “looked something like the TV weatherman Willard Scott” while another “reminded me a little of Michael Douglas in his dark-hero cop roles.” A character finds courage to face down a murderer by remembering “Sergeant Esterhaus’s words in Hill Street Blues: Let’s be careful out there.” A lawyer earning a paltry sum is “not exactly Mitch McDeere in The Firm.” A handsome man is said to have “resembled Bono from the Irish rock group U2.” And an interior monologue about the future of a romance between Alex Cross and another troubled but sincere loner prompts Cross to offer this parallel: “I thought of the book and movie The Prince of Tides.”

At times, Patterson’s reliance on the easy shorthand of commercial culture can lead to a sort of lifestyle meltdown, as in this list of what draws together the lovers in Patterson’s romance novel, Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas:

He liked a lot of the same things Katie did, or so he said. Ally McBeal, The Practice, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Girl with the Pearl Earring . . . Vintage black-and-white photos, oil paintings that they found at flea markets. Trips to NoLita (North of Little Italy) and Williamsburg (the new SoHo) . . . They both treasured Sunday afternoons at her apartment . . . with Katie reading the Times from cover to cover, and Matt revising his poems.

Revising his poems? One gets downright woozy picturing the actual human characters inhabiting such pastiches of taste preferences. Still, the passage does underline a key feature in Patterson’s success story: His novels are not so much studies in characters as litanies of brands.

A distracting tic, to put it mildly, to have pop culture touchstones stand in for legible character development. But it is something much uglier to use racial identity in the same way. We know Alex Cross is black not because of anything Cross says, does or thinks; we know it because Patterson tells us so&emdash;which is to say because Cross buys what black consumers buy. In one chase for a fugitive kidnapper, Cross dons a Million Man March T-shirt, spots an Arrested Development poster, and compliments a pal on “a raggy Kangol hat.”

Attempts to get inside the head of his black character seem to lead only to easy, politically correct stereotyping. Describing Cross on a trip to North Carolina, Patterson projects: “Tobacco farms had spotted all through here once upon a time. Slave farms. The blood and bones of my ancestors.” Are you feeling his righteousness yet? “They had been abducted,” he explains, helpfully. “Against their will.” As opposed to, you know, all that voluntary abduction that went on in the days of slavery.

The tendency to see individuals as the sum total of the brands they consume is one we identify with the big thinkers of the advertising world, and it should come as no surprise that this is, in fact, where James Patterson got his start. As a vice president at the giant J. Walter Thompson agency, Patterson played critical roles in various campaigns to induce people to think of themselves as a “Toys ‘R’ Us Kid” and to call one’s bologna by a first name, “O-S-C-A-R,” and a second, “M-A-Y-E-R.” To dream about being a real artist and finally getting away from all this shallow marketing stuff is something of a cliché on Madison Avenue; when Patterson made his break with advertising, however, he brought the marketing stuff right along with him. He had been writing fiction in his spare time since 1976, but bestseller status escaped him. In 1992, Patterson finally turned his day-job know-how into moonlighting gold. His book for that year, Along Came a Spider, was as much a product of market research as imagination.

Patterson retired from advertising in 1998, but he continued to use the techniques he learned selling processed lunchmeat to sell processed prose.

Patterson claims the book itself wasn’t that different from the ones before it. He admits, however, that he chose to make the main character, Cross, black because, according to market research he had done at Thompson, people believe that blacks in authority positions are “imbued with a certain ‘moral superiority’ over other Americans.” More important than the book’s content, says Patterson, was what came after it was written. His agent sent the manuscript to movie and television producers a full year before it was submitted for publication. “The next week we had bids from four publishers,” recounted Patterson recently. “The book had gone from ‘who needs another manuscript’ to ‘this is a hot manuscript.'” Little, Brown and Company, publisher of his other books and a subsidiary of the corporate entity then known as Time Warner, paid handsomely to retain him, offering $1 million for the rights to Spider and a sequel. Pleased with the deal, Patterson told reporters with admirable forthrightness, “I wanted a commitment to me as an author and even as a brand.”

Patterson also convinced Little, Brown to do its first-ever TV ad for Spider; he greased the wheels slightly by both designing the spot and paying for its production out of his own pocket—about $15,000 worth of chutzpah. Little, Brown paid for the airtime. The clip lacked the infectiousness of his Oscar Mayer work; it was only fifteen seconds long and consisted of a spider crawling across the screen and a voiceover intoning, “You can stop waiting for the next Silence of the Lambs.” The book debuted at number nine on the New York Times bestseller list.

Patterson retired from advertising in 1998, but he continued to use the techniques he learned selling processed lunchmeat to sell processed prose. In an essay in the Los Angeles Times about his transition from adman to fulltime author, he confided that “everything I learned at J. Walter Thompson . . . turn[ed] out to be valuable to me in this second career.” Predictably, Patterson sees himself as a maverick for his unapologetic approach to book selling, boasting how he “dared to talk with the publisher about ‘synergy’ between book jacket, promotion, advertising, book tours, and even foreign editions.”

But does a knack for salesmanship really make one a rebel? By that time, “synergy” was already becoming a pat phrase throughout the media world. To get attention solely on that basis an author would really have to whore himself creatively. A quicker route to press coverage, to judge by the ritual pillorying of Oprahphobe Jonathan Franzen, is to reject the pre-printed dance card offered by publicists.

Still, Patterson’s boast does offer a clue to how, exactly, he has become one of America’s most influential authors. Few people care about how Patterson writes; they pay attention to him because of how he sells. His books are backed by elaborate multimedia campaigns that now regularly include TV ads along with a two-stage promotional schedule that forces bookstores to keep Patterson up front. He has helped to perfect the concept of the book series as a single, ongoing product with his helpfully mnemonic Cross titles—Kiss the Girls, Jack & Jill, Roses Are Red, as well as Violets Are Blue. His sister series, “The Women’s Murder Club,” has titles even easier to keep straight: 1st to Die has been followed with 2nd Chance. (Such Mad Lib titling schemes have their drawbacks. Patterson’s latest Cross book bears the graceless moniker Four Blind Mice because, a Little, Brown publicist admitted, the publisher feared that readers might mistake the more familiar “Three Blind Mice” as a new title in the other series.)

Patterson sold the right to create original works based on Alex Cross to Paramount for $20 million. His books have been the basis for two movies and a television miniseries. Already thinking ubiquity in the early nineties, Patterson signed up with the William Morris Agency to create, in the words of his agent, a “character who could appear in print at the same time the character appears on screen. It’s really cool.” Only in our present culture industry would a literary agent speak with admiration about the instantaneous obsolescence of the written word. But it’s entirely apt that he do so with the flattened lexicon of a teenage boy.

Patterson himself insists that the books themselves aren’t affected by his constant self-promotional campaign, or even by subtle focus-grouping. He admits he’s changed the endings to two of his books based on feedback from chain store buyers, but when pressed on this, Patterson offers a glib excuse: “I said, ‘Let me write another chapter and see what we think.’ This is not Madame Bovary.”

Like everyone else in marketing, Patterson likes to say that “the key to a brand is trust,” or, “If there is such a thing as a James Patterson brand, the key word is trust.” Readers, says Patterson, “can trust that my books will be hard to put down” or “trust . . . that I will deliver a very commercial book that you won’t find disappointing.”

One thing they evidently can’t count on is that the item in question will actually be the work of the man whose name is on the cover. Since the late nineties7emdash;when he became a full-time “writer”—Patterson has turned to coauthors and other helpers to produce his works. Some of them are credited on the cover&emdash;one Andrew Gross contributed to both 2nd Chance and The Jester—while others are recognized more covertly in the acknowledgments. Readers either don’t notice or don’t care; it hasn’t affected his sales.

And that’s the critical thing in Patterson’s world. Eventually the literary product and the strategies used to market it become indistinguishable—or, at least, studies in mutual mimicry. His books promote his other books, his movies, and his audio tapes. Reading a Patterson book is not an end in itself but an experience designed to get you to buy the next book.

On one level, this strategy is as old as genre fiction—from Dickens to Erle Stanley Gardner, cliffhanger endings and tricked-out sequels have attracted loyal readerships. But Patterson has gone far beyond his crudely marketed predecessors, refining the technique so thoroughly as to bear out the pomo shibboleth that the author is dead. And he has, to a striking degree, taken his characters and plots with him.

Ana Marie Cox lives in the frigid Midwest and writes about politics and culture for anyone who will let her.

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