by Pat Holt
Friday, May 17, 2002
THE LATEST ON JAMES PATTERSON
Ever since I discovered (in 1995) that James Patterson had joined the Dismemberment and Mutilation School of Mystery Writing (and has probably become CEO), I've been keeping an eye on this author's growing reputation and media coverage.
This week the Wall Street Journal became the latest media outlet to admire Patterson for creating and promoting his thrillers "with the cold-eyed calculations of a soap marketer," writes WSJ reporter Jeffrey Trachtenberg.
"To give one of his books a boost, [Patterson] paid for his own TV commercial. When he wanted to ring up more sales in California, he set a new series in San Francisco. He spends weeks on the road signing thousands of books. His romance novel, 'Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas,' is getting a lift from promotion with Crystal Light drink mix, which offers beach towels to winners of a trivia quiz about the romance novel."
All this might be admirable considering the popcorn atmosphere of commercial thrillers, and the need for publishers to meet readers on their own terms.
And who could not respect Patterson for launching "a second wave of marketing two months after publication date" to keep his books selling? Or for building a "literary assembly line" in which he grinds out three new hardcovers, three mass paperback deals and maybe a Hollywood movie deal every year, during which he typically earns $25 million?
Well, let's go back to the Dismemberment and Mutilation School of Mystery Writing, where Patterson is not the first to portray villains who relish every detail, especially the anticipation, of the ol' stalk 'em and slice 'em motif.
The reason he stood out in 1995, I felt, was his portrayal of luscious young victims whose cherubic and kittenish nature prove all the more sexually alluring to the villain.
"Coty Pierce was sleeping like the most beautiful little girl," the killer observes early on of his *13-year-old* victim in "Kiss the Girls." "Her pouty mouth was just slightly open, forming the tiniest o, and she looked all innocence and light from his vantage point."
Patterson also likes to create brutal killers with cute names, like Casanova, a torturer rapist, and Gentleman Caller, a gentle dismemberer. For them, the arousal factor is important as Patterson sets up the rape and murder scenes:
"[The criminal] watched her preen in front of the wall mirror just a few hours before. Watched her take off her pink lacy push-up bra. Watched her as she stared at her perfect breasts."
If this is sounding bit sick, Patterson wants us to see how normal it might be: "A man's eyes never stopped searching for beautiful, sensual women...watching, constantly selecting, obsessed with mastering the hunt from puberty to the grave. It was a biological necessity, no?"
What a world James Patterson inhabits! It's not a world the media want to investigate - certainly in the latest article, the Wall Street Journal downplays the parts that alarm people like me.
Trachtenberg does refer to Patterson's books as "gory thrillers" in which characters are "humiliated, tortured and butchered as a matter of course," so that's something.
But no mention of age or gender of the victims is given, and effort is made to portray Patterson at 55 as a man who may have a "Phil Donahue-like swagger in front of a crowd" but in person "looks like just another suburban dad" who "usually speaks in muted tones, glancing away as he talks."
I had to laugh at that one, having just heard Patterson introduce "Violets Are Blue," the story of two villains with the most terrific incisors who slash and rip their way through their (mostly female) victims.
"Hi, I'm James Patterson. I'm sometimes accused of writing books that can't be put down, or audiobooks that people listen to long after they reach their destinations. You know what I mean - the kind of audiobook where you sit in your car listening for 10 minutes after you reach your own driveway."
This is true - the erotic snarling of the killers as they tear out the throat of a screaming woman leaves the listener paralyzed.
Patterson then tells us a "story from the movies - and movie stories are always the best. My wife and I went to the shoot for the movie they made of my book, 'Along Came a Spider.' Afterward we went out to dinner with Morgan Freeman and Monica Potter. What a blast.
"When dinner was finished, we all stood up at the table. Up walked Senator Fred Thompson from Tennessee, and Clint Eastwood. Everybody in the restaurant was gawking at us. Finally this guy came up for an autograph - *my* autograph! Clint Eastwood looked down at the guy, and he said, 'I need a hit movie, bad.'
"So anyway, I hope you enjoy 'Violets Are Blue.' ..."
Well, you have to hand it to Patterson - he name-dropped his way through a "movie story" after all, but isn't it odd? Wouldn't readers turn up their noses at the self-serving nature of the intro, or at the very least fast-forward to the story?
Apparently not, because here is Patterson again at the beginning of his latest audiocassette, "2nd Chance."
"I'm James Patterson and I'd like to tell you a story or two before you begin '2nd Chance.' " Lord help us.
"I was on a world tour for one of my thrillers, and the English publishing company had put me in a hotel room where I was having interview after interview! Finally around 4:30 in the afternoon, I turned to the publicist and said, 'I've never been in New Zealand before. I'd like to see just a little bit of the country before I have to leave.' The publicist thought about it. Then she said, 'All right, James. You can have 20 minutes.'
"So here I am running around downtown Auckland, New Zealand, catching as many sights as I possibly can. I come to a stoplight - this is a true story - and this car pulls up while I'm standing there. For the duration of the light, the woman who's driving picks up and reads my novel, '1st to Die.' Then the traffic light changes and off she goes.
"I thought, 'My God, sometimes people truly can't put my books down.' "
Yes, it's the 8th wonder of the world, all right - and perhaps these intros should be collected on an audiocassette of their own and sold on eBay.
I don't wonder about why millions of people want to read about the carnal wreckage of slain women, and stalking, blood-lusting, evil killers that Patterson creates time after time.
Everybody likes a detective novel, and the slick commercial variety does have mass appeal. Patterson has balanced some of the gore in the Alex Cross series with his African American hero, who's both a sympathetic detective and a (widowed) dad. In the San Francisco series a group of women humanize the system while sounding like a cross between Cosmo cover girls and Judge Judy.
But I do wonder why, given the outrage that's still exploding about the nonfiction book, "Harmful to Minors" (see #315), the usual attacks from the religious right haven't called Patterson and others like him into account.
Sure, this kind of fiction is very different in every way from "Harmful." But when it comes to the portrayal of 13-year-old girls as sexual fodder for criminals roaming the suburbs, I wish a public forum were out there with credentialed authorities to discuss the cultural consequences.
I'm not talking about banning anything; I'm talking about a discussion that considers just how sick this stuff really is and whether it's part of a trend that contributes to an atmosphere of sadism and violence in entertainment.
We know that Patterson himself, having brought in his own designer and consultant for his books, would not recede from such a public discussion.
"Not to compare myself to them," Patterson told the WSJ, "but Hemingway and Fitzgerald were also deeply involved in their covers and titles."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your article, "Guardian Sends Spies to Test U.K. Booksellers": it's fine to test booksellers, but maybe there should be a customer "test" too. I've been selling a large variety of books, mostly used and some new, for nearly two years. My partner and I try to be pleasant and treat people with respect no matter what. Most of our customers are nice, interesting, good and generous folks who love books and reading. Then there are The Others. I try to see challenging moments as opportunities for humor, or to improve on an aspect of our business, such as policies or customer relations or signage. Some days it's harder than others, though.
--Many many people have asked, "Are all the books the same price?". We have signs everywhere telling people to open the book and look inside on the flap for the price. This happens invariably after the customer has wandered through the stacks for several minutes, looking over the paperback mysteries as well as our first editions of Hemingway, Dickens, etc. They usually become irate when we tell them "No".
--"I had a book as a child. It was big and red, and it had a dog in it. Do you know what it is?" I don't, so then am treated to a snarky comment on my lack of knowledge.
--"This was a terrible book and I don't want my children to see it because it will hurt them, so I want a refund." The book is by a local author, who is this customer's neighbor. The customer threw the book down and left in a huff when I told her that if we took back every book that someone thought was terrible, we'd be out of business. The author and I thought that this was pretty funny.
--A surprising number of people who want to sell us their used books don't like to hear that we have to buy their books for LESS than what we sell them for.
--Several people have expressed surprise that it's legal to sell used books.
--Others don't understand why we don't sell _everything_ at half price, even when I explain that many books appreciate in value, like many other collectibles. I know of one bookseller who posted a sign in his store: "STANDING OFFER: We will sell you any book at half its original price if you will sell us your house at half its original price."
--At last count, even though we asked them very nicely not to and explained that she hasn't been de-clawed, 23 adults had teased Sedgewick the store cat, and then complained when she swatted at them.
--Last summer, a youngish man wearing droopy shorts chose a $7.50 book and paid for it with a sweaty $20 that he fished out from deep inside the front of his underwear. He stuck the book down the back of his shorts and left. I wondered where he was going to put the change and then decided I didn't want to know.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote: "Fiona McCrae, director of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, said that one of the joys of not publishing in the mainstream was the chance to publish writers who are so original they may have been turned down by traditional houses."
Can I just take a moment to say I LOVE MY PUBLISHER?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I have to tell Larry Epke, who wonders about expecting anything more than minimum labor of bookstore employees paid at or near minimum: we've had a number of PhDs work for us. Physicists, usually. You know - rocket science? People who love books are funny that way.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You quoted panelists at the Oxford writing conference as saying: "Since the events of 9/11, the 'slush pile' of unsolicited manuscripts has disappeared in some publishing houses. 'Because of the Anthrax threat, if you don't address your manuscript to an editor by name,' said Carol Smith, 'the whole package automatically goes into the shredder.' "
I hope that's not literally true. What a way to spread Anthrax, or any other airborne plague: put the carrier (the manuscript) through a shredder.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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