Success vs popularity: genius or slut?

James Patterson

Using the example of James Patterson, an apparently über-successful author of whom I had never heard, Mark Hurst recently made me think once again about my definition of success.

To paraphrase and amplify Mark’s point, would you rather …

  • create something truly yucky — something that you’re secretly ashamed of because you have good taste and know better — which nonetheless becomes a blockbuster?
  • or something that you are proud of, something you consider sublime, even if relatively few people agree or even notice?

As Mark says, this dilemma could appear in any walk of life:

You could be creating websites or software, or writing books, or designing products, or teaching classes, or producing events, or seeing patients. Whatever the case, what would you rather result from that experience: to be popular, or to create something that you yourself would be happy to receive?

If you answer “I’d like to do both” you’re cheating. The conundrum presents itself to all creative types sooner or later precisely because they must, at least sometimes, choose between the two options.

How to sell 14 million books

Which brings us to Patterson, who sold 14 million (!) books last year, as this profile claims. He published 9 books last year, and will publish 9 more this year. In fact, he is a book machine, an assembly line, a conveyor belt.

Literally: He uses “co-authors” to do the actual writing and “manages” the process rather as the boss of, well, an assembly line does.

Patterson is no boor. He himself reads both light and heavy fare, including Joyce. But when it comes to his own books he takes the approach of an advertising man. In fact, he start as an ad man, at J. Walter Thompson. He personally wrote and produced the TV ads for his early books.

He takes a marketing approach to everything from the story and characters to the jacket design, which tends to be

shiny, with big type and bold, colorful lettering — and titles drawn from nursery rhymes (“Kiss the Girls,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “The Big Bad Wolf”), with their foreboding sense of innocence interrupted. “Jim was sensitive to the fact that books carry a kind of elitist persona, and he wanted his books to be enticing to people who might not have done so well in school and were inclined to look at books as a headache …  He wanted his jackets to say, ‘Buy me, read me, have fun — this isn’t “Moby Dick.” ’ ”

Take that, Melville.

Patterson also does scientific market research:

Instead of simply going to the biggest book-buying markets, he focused his early tours and advertising efforts on cities where his books were selling best: like a politician aspiring to higher office, he was shoring up his base. From there, he began reaching out to a wider audience, often through unconventional means. When sales figures showed that he and John Grisham were running nearly neck and neck on the East Coast but that Grisham had a big lead out West, Patterson set his second thriller series, “The Women’s Murder Club,” about a group of women who solve murder mysteries, in San Francisco.

In other words, he does not conceive a story and wait for an audience; he finds an audience and tailors a story for it.

In this way, he practically took over Little, Brown, once a respected literary publishing house, where he now has a dedicated staff that answers only to him. A former boss of Little, Brown

says she was continually surprised by the success of Patterson’s books. To her, they lacked the nuance and originality of other blockbuster genre writers …

Then again, she is the former boss.

Patterson’s style, you ask? The profile describes it as

light on atmospherics and heavy on action, conveyed by simple, colloquial sentences. “I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.” Patterson’s chapters are very short, which creates a lot of half-blank pages; his books are, in a very literal sense, page-turners. He avoids description, back story and scene setting whenever possible, preferring to hurl readers into the action and establish his characters with a minimum of telegraphic details.

Does Patterson mind that he is not considered, you know, literary?

“Thousands of people don’t like what I do,” Patterson told me, shrugging off his detractors. “Fortunately, millions do.” For all of his commercial success, though, Patterson seemed bothered by the fact that he has not been given his due — that unlike King or even Grisham, who have managed to transcend their genres, he continues to be dismissed as an airport author or, worse, a marketing genius who has cynically maneuvered his way to best-sellerdom by writing remedial novels that pander to the public’s basest instincts. “Caricature assassination,” Patterson called it.

How, then does he, explain his success? He makes his books

accessible and engaging. “A brand is just a connection between something and a bunch of people,” Patterson told me. “Crest toothpaste: I always used it, it tastes O.K., so I don’t have any particular reason to switch. Here the connection is that James Patterson writes books that bubble along with heroes I can get interested in. That’s it.”

Now, as a bonus for those of you who are not only reading a blog but writing your own:

“I have a saying,” Patterson told me. “If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something.”

And isn’t that interesting? I once wrote that the first rule of good writing is not to care about your readers, but that it needs to be tempered with the second rule of good writing, which is to have empathy.

Patterson, it might seem, proves instead that empathy is all.

Oh, wait. That gets back to the dilemma. Are we talking about good writing or popular writing, and do we care?

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38 thoughts on “Success vs popularity: genius or slut?

  1. This is always an interesting discussion topic, aka the Dan Brown debate. But if you cast this issue in light of what we have been discussing about story telling, it makes it harder to diss the popular just because it is popular. Maybe those popular stories are tapping into some zeitgeist issues are are reflective of deeper issues.

    What that means vis a vis vampires and zombies is anyone’s guess.

  2. Writing or storytelling? The Aeneid was wildly popular story and while Virgil might have been writing it to be popular and we consider it to be a ‘great work’ and a ‘classic’ today, was it ever considered great writing at the time? Remember Vigil didn’t want it published… why? Was it because of the politics of the *story* (too popular), and he was ashamed of it because it wasn’t up to his personal standard of *writing*?
    Will Patterson’s work ever be considered ‘great work’? Likely not, even so I would argue popular stories (and writing) are popular for reasons, sometimes good ones. Although sometimes we have look hard for those reasons.

    • In a foreword to book of short stories by Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges gives his opinion on why Virgil and Kafka may have ordered their work to be destroyed. I don’t want to paraphrase him because he puts it very well.This is what he says :

      ” The fact is, a man who really wishes to see his work consigned to oblivion does not entrust the task to someone else. I believe that Kafka and Virgil did not truly want such destruction to take place; they merely longed to disburden themselves of the responsibility that a literary work imposes on its creator. Virgil, I think, made his request for aesthetic reasons: he might still have wanted to change this or that verse, this or that epithet…”

    • Borges says Kafka’s reasons were more complex. According to him, Kafka eventually wearied of the melancholia and nightmare-like quality of his stories, and he may have preferred to be the author of something more cheerful. Borges says that Kafka’s intense religiosity may also have played a part; to quote him again: “His work could be defined as a series of parables on the theme of the moral relationship of the individual with his God’s incomprehensible universe…Kafka saw his work as an act of faith, and he did not want to discourage other men”.

  3. Definitely I’d choose something to be proud of. If I were 30 I don’t know. But at 61, the way I see it, what counts is the real good (in every sense) stuff plus ethics. Or the autumn of life – when you start summarizing things a bit – is going to be hard.

  4. I would also choose something I could be proud of and I am not yet in my 30s, though I am getting very close. I also have never heard of James Patterson. I guess that shows that the areas of the bookstore and the book buying world are not the areas where I prominently seem James Patterson novels. There must be something there since so many people are buying his books.

    • Perhaps there are parallel universes: people like you and me are in one section of the (physical or virtual) book store, the rest are in another, and never the twain shall meet.

    • @Spi
      Maybe you are a better boy than I was. I just said ‘I don’t know’, it’s a long story, and even intentions can count like actions …

      At 60 it’s easier to be ‘good’ in all senses: one may have reached one’s goals financially, sex is easier to resist etc.

      So there’s ‘something’ of what Mr. Crotchety said below that ‘smells’ of interesting, which surprises me 😉

      @Andreas @Spi
      We belonging to the same universe, you young, hence more easily seduced, are more worthy members of it than I. Which makes me hope a bit the West is not totally rotten (and I’ll spare you a rant on the difference between the Indian and the Western blogs: it’s before everyone’s eyes)

  5. I’ve never heard of James Patterson, but it is well known that I live in a bubble decorated with seashells and balloons – inhabited by fairies and unicorns. I wonder if he has heard of me. I think of reading these sorts of books like reading TV. We just need another vocabulary for these ‘books’ and ‘authors.’

    Speaking of TV, Ricky Gervais did a series called Extras. It’s excruciating to watch in a way, but it is a tremendous examination of this idea of ‘Genius or Slut.’ Each episode introduces an artist (playing himself) who, one could argue, went big without selling out (e.g., David Bowie). Ricky sells out and is miserable.

    • I’m blushing. There’s a corollary to this idea of ‘genius or slut.’ (i.e., slut => sellout). Like anyone can be a slut. I’ve tried to be a slut and I didn’t even succeed at that. So, I rather have to respect both camps while I stew in mediocrity.

    • Oh, I like ‘Extras’. (I think Ricky Gervais has kind of sold out in real life, by appearing in BOTH Night At The Museums). However, although Patterson complains about not being given his due, he appears to be enjoying himself in the role of the ‘popular writer’. Perhaps writing badly on purpose is also an art?

  6. Andreas my friend,

    To me, your questions put me between a very big rock and a very hard place. Thats not fun. So taking a page from Captain James T. Kirk, when faced with a no-win situation, I decided to reprogram your question and answer it with a story that may or may not be related to the original question. (But a story I still hope that is related in spirit.)

    I hope you and/or your readers will gain something from reading the following story. If not, well, I get to re-read (and recycle) a lovely story that I enjoy very much (and have turned the embedded lesson into part of my core belief, rightly or wrongly).

    “The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

    Source:
    http://kempton.wordpress.com/2007/07/21/write-something-interesting-not-just-articles/

    P.S. As a “proof” of how seriously I take the “graded solely on the quantity of work” approach to doing things, I recently posted my 3,000th blog entries in less than 43 months.

    http://kempton.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/the-3000th-ideas-revolutionary-post/

    • That’s a good story, kempton. Even if you did cheat a little in reprogramming the question.

      Now, if I can find the corollary story that makes the opposite point…..

  7. I’m surprised that you haven’t heard of Patterson since his books flood book stores wherever you go. I read Patterson’a The Jester, and it was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. But there are best-sellers that are a great read, Dickens, Graham Greene, etc. If I had to choose I’d pick fame. Every generation reappraises earlier authors. Things go in and out of fashion, there’s no telling what our descendants will consider to be the good stuff that’s written today. And I’d rather cry about this in the back of a limo than pushing my cart down the street.

  8. Update: And I’m not saying that Patterson will at one point be considered a great writer (though he might >shudder!<) but I'm saying that a LOT of writers who are considered great today will be dismissed as embarrassing kitsch tomorrow. Who? That's anybody's guess. Toni Morrison? Philip Roth? Paul Auster? Many of them. Somebody ought to write a book about these cycles triumph and setbacks.

    • Totally agreed that time has a strange way of reappraising the high as low and the low as high (eg, even Shakespeare, in the latter category).

      I guess the conundrum Mark Hurst was pointing out was more about trade-offs that creative types run into in the process of their careers, long before time has passed a verdict on them. Stay true to thyself, or to thy market?

    • On the other hand, everyone occasionally gained a cent by (properly) overestimating the limitations of individuals.
      [As author of this reply, I reserve all my rights]

  9. A few years ago, I wrote a short play, and I didn’t care about my readers. I sold about five copies for a quarter each. My artistic integrity remained intact, plus I didn’t have to pay taxes on my profits. I’m very proud of myself, and I feel sorry for Mr. Patterson.

    • It was about obsession, coincidentally, just like Andreas’s newest blog post.

      It’s out of print now, and the remaining copies of the first and only batch of ten are collectors items. Not available for under a dollar plus shipping, so I’m afraid you’ll have to go back and clean out all the other dryers.

  10. When I was in high school and friend and I wrote a 52 act opera with 44 characters. He and I are the only characters left alive at the end, although in the last act everyone is resurrected for a finale of sorts.

    If someone did something like that today and it fell into the authorities’ hands the school would be in lockdown (as would the writers). What is really scary is that I am still proud of some parts of it (including the act where we assigned each line a number and then reordered the lines randomly based on the roll of a die. Talk about postmodern, we even considered having the people in the previous act do the dice rolling so that each time the ouvre would be performed it would be different.)

  11. You make a serious point, Thomas. Most of what I have written has been of the most mundane, utilitarian kind, with the odd piece of social duty or self-indulgence thrown in. But my experience is always the same. I sit at the keyboard, or with a ball-point pen, or, more so in the past, talk to a secretary or dictating machine. At the same time and afterwards I tinker with the parsing – yes, in prose too – dab it about with with punctuation, correct any grammatical or spelling errors I might be aware of , generally fuss it about and read it over again. Not a lot of logic about.

    Quite magically, ideas I never had and a wholeness appear to lift off the page as if someone else had written it. The word count is usually about right, too, even if I have made no effort in that direction. On a good day, no corrections are needed. Douglas (I may be unjust), who concerns himself about what happens before birth rather than afterwards, might say that’s my unconscious or perhaps a collective unconscious or even the completion of a neural connection. Atheists always make you think.

    Most of the time I try to be direct, but often I lack the mental wherewithal, and have to resort to metaphor. I sat mashed on the couch the other day, watching a programme with Ashkenazy about Tchaikowsky. Apparently, Tchaikowsky once said that music can express ideas that need to be expressed for which there are no words. Musical experience is just the same as any experience of language and can be entirely independent of emotion.

    Then sometimes I have to stand up and speak. I try to be nonchalant and hide the excruciating nervousness and shyness I always suffer. I can tell from the blank looks of indifference afterwards that I have achieved nothing.

    Periodically, great bundles of business files are taken away for destruction, and I wonder at the waste of the ordinary, spoken word. Or is it wasted? We will never know in this life, nor yet will we hear Beethoven’s extemporisations.

    • wow,

      Quite magically, ideas I never had and a wholeness appear to lift off the page as if someone else had written it. seems like you have become one with the words. you express beautifully the artistic process.

      was it Michelangelo who believed remove what is not necessary and the sculpture will appear? many artist believe that the process of creating is simply the process of “revealing”.

      for now we make do with communication through “ordinary, spoken word” it is most abundance. music and art make for good therapy when words lift off the page for other reasons.

      how jealous i am of your ability to communicate with words.

  12. Sorry… for this late comment. All day, since morning I have been reading your blogs. And I have managed to refrain from commenting. But this one I couldn’t resist.

    Your question is a very important one. Important not for a given time period but for as long as we live and have inside us a tryst to create something.

    “Are we talking about good writing or popular writing, and do we care?”

    Having understood that popular writing necessarily need not be bad writing, I believe that popular writing (any art for that matter) will always co-exist with what we call good writing. We will always have successful people who have the knack of making their readers drink from the shallow ponds of borrowed imagination and finding instant content. Like a popular newspaper (media) dishing out a world, which the world at large imagines, fears and deserves.

    But thankfully, good writing or any other art which is for its own sake keeps our faith and gives us something to look forward to… something not short of a compass in this world full of “bestsellers”.

    Thanks
    Alok

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