How James Patterson Became the World’s Best-Selling Author

From a New Yorker story by Laura Miller headlined “How James Patterson Became the World’s Best-Selling Author”:

“Man, do I have stories to tell,” James Patterson writes in his new autobiography, “James Patterson” (Little, Brown). The best-selling author does serve up stories, lots of them; the book is a grab bag of anecdotes, many of which have the tone and the import of a humorous icebreaker in a Rotary Club speech. There was the time that Patterson and a fellow altar boy—Patterson grew up in a devoutly Catholic family—almost got caught with a stash of unconsecrated Communion hosts that his friend had squirrelled away for post-Mass snacking.

Or the time that, as a junior in college, he went to a Broadway production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” and the woman seated next to him began stroking his leg, distracting him from the performance. Or the time he and a buddy were caddying for a surly golf pro at a country club in Patterson’s home town of Newburgh, New York, and the buddy stole one of the pro’s balls—while it was in play.

Because Patterson has been selling more books than any other living author for many years now, these tidbits often involve famous actors, politicians, and recording artists. Patterson has almost as many names to drop as he does stories to tell, although the celebrity encounters tend to be less amusing than his boyhood escapades. Serena Williams makes a brief appearance on a plane, whispering to Patterson of the other passengers, “They want my autograph, but I want yours.” Patterson once had a meeting with Tom Cruise, who was “smart and a total pleasure to talk to,” and also “not that short,” although nothing much came of the potential collaboration they discussed. (He relates a similarly anticlimactic meeting with Warren Beatty.) Hugh Jackman and Charlize Theron, Patterson tells us, “both look amazing in real life. Also, they don’t seem full of themselves.”

These stories aren’t very interesting, but Patterson himself is. As with many popular authors, his success—his books have sold more than four hundred million copies—rankles those who wish the reading masses had different tastes. Critics complain about his generic characters, his workmanlike, plot-driven prose, and, above all, his practice of churning out multiple titles per year with the aid of co-writers. This productivity is the secret of Patterson’s success. He has published two hundred and sixty Times best-sellers, and Publishers Weekly has determined that he is the best-selling author of the past seventeen years. And yet no Patterson title made the magazine’s list of the hundred and fifty best-selling books since 2004. The number of titles is the key. Like the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which, in the early twentieth century, produced hundreds of novels for young readers, featuring such characters as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Patterson supplies detailed outlines for his books. His co-writers then flesh out these narrative skeletons into installments of popular series that include the Women’s Murder Club (a crime-solving group of friends in San Francisco) and Michael Bennett (a police detective in New York City with ten adopted children). But, where the Stratemeyer Syndicate masked its legion of ghostwriters behind collective pseudonyms like Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, Patterson credits his co-writers, even if his eminently bankable name appears in much larger type on their books’ covers.

As frustrating as “James Patterson” can be to read if you’d like to know more about how Patterson came to create his publishing empire, the book does generate some sympathy for its author. Patterson is keenly aware of the disdain heaped on his work, and he seems to feel every slight. In 2009, Stephen King described him as a “terrible writer,” and Patterson occasionally starts speaking engagements by joking, “Hi, I’m Stephen King.” In 2016, Patterson planned to publish a novella titled “The Murder of Stephen King” but withdrew it after King’s representatives complained. (In “James Patterson,” he insists that King is the hero of the novella and “doesn’t get murdered.”) But Patterson will have you know that he is not a philistine. A reluctant reader throughout his childhood, he fell in love with books while working the night shift as an aide at a psychiatric hospital; he recounts devouring the work of James Joyce and Gabriel García Márquez, but also writers offbeat enough (John Rechy, Evan S. Connell, Stanley Elkin) to ward off suspicions that he’s just dropping more names.

“I was a full-blown, know-it-all literary snob,” Patterson writes of himself back then, describing a guy who looked down on the sort of genre fiction he now writes. But how to communicate to other literary snobs that he does indeed appreciate the great novelists, thank you very much, and yet avoid implying that he thinks less of pulp fiction and those who prefer it—namely, his own fans? It isn’t easy to defend yourself without coming across as defensive. Patterson is rich and famous, and things would be easier for him if he didn’t care what King or some literary critic says about him, but he clearly does, despite his efforts to hide it. Perhaps this is why “James Patterson” contains so little about its author’s writing processes and strategies.

Patterson’s thrillers may be formulaic, but if anybody could write them everybody would, and Patterson would not be selling millions of books a year. Some inkling of the particular techniques that helped him attain this supremacy would be welcome. Patterson offers a few recommendations to aspiring writers: pare off every speck of fat and keep things moving along—fairly basic action-writing advice. He also instructs writers, from would-be novelists to elementary-school children composing book reports, to “outline, outline, outline”—the title of his two-page chapter on craft. Patterson’s breakout thriller, “Along Came a Spider” (1993), began as a full-length outline of the plot, and then essentially stayed that way. “When I went back to start the novel itself,” Patterson recounts, “I realized that I had already written it.” The short chapters and one-sentence paragraphs that became his signature style, and that are often the object of critics’ scorn, struck him as the ideal way to keep the novel “bright and hot from beginning to end.”

“Along Came a Spider” launched twenty-eight sequels featuring the Washington, D.C., police detective Alex Cross; it’s a series that Patterson writes without a collaborator. Patterson explains that he’d originally conceived of Alex as a woman, then got stuck. After he changed the protagonist’s gender, the novel “seemed to write itself.” But Alex Cross is also Black, like the politician targeted by an assassin in Patterson’s first published novel, “The Thomas Berryman Number.” And in “Along Came a Spider” Cross’s race is more than just a bit of liberal-minded color-blind casting. For a commercial novel written by a white man in the early nineteen-nineties, “Along Came a Spider” is notably alert to structural racism and what are now called microaggressions. Cross protests when his investigation of the murders of three Black residents in his neighborhood in southeast D.C. gets sidelined by a high-profile kidnapping of two white children from an exclusive private school. When he and his partner show up at the school, he immediately notes that they are among the very few Black faces in the lobby. After Alex begins an affair with a white colleague, his sage grandmother tells him, “I do not trust most white people. I would like to, but I can’t. Most of them have no respect for us.”

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