Best Selling Author Makes Me Sick to My Stomach

Periodically I read the entire oeuvre of a bestselling author to try to see what it is that so many people finding interesting, and so far, I haven’t a clue what makes hordes people buy the books they do. Even if I did figure it out, I don’t think it would help me any. Unlike advertising folk, like James Patterson once was, and other faux authors, I can’t study people’s reading habits, then put my knowledge to use. I can only write (or not write, as the current situation seems to be) what I can write.

I can sort of understand the appeal of people of like Danielle Steele, whose characters are passionate about everything. I can even understand the appeal of Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich, at least in the beginning of the series. The characters were quirky enough to be appealing, and after a while, even when the characters cease to be appealing, readers keep the habit.

But James Patterson’s Alex Cross is basically a one note guy. I know it is okay for writers to cross gender and even race lines, but for a white guy to presume to know how it is for a black guy, seems almost like a black-face minstrel show. But let’s forget that and talk about the character himself. This supposed hero dotes on his family and his sidekick, which is supposed to make him seem human (in the same way that the families of the villains are supposed to make them seem as if they could be like us), but without that supporting cast, he is . . . grayed out. A sock puppet who is supposed to look like a young Muhammad Ali. Even that’s okay. A lot of fictional characters are mostly plot devices, a way of presenting the plot.

The basic plots in the books are okay, but they are pretty much cookie cutters stories, each one more or less like the one before. (Easy to see if you read one immediately after the other.) Even that isn’t a problem — sometimes predictable is comforting.

But . . .

I despise books where each is written to be more grotesque than the last, where the villains are so incredibly evil they are cartoonish. And this series is the worst of the lot. Each loathsome act is lovingly drawn with a whole pallet of colors, though the predominant color is red. Blood red. Lots of gore. Lots of sexual perversion. Is this really what people want? Why? (I have gotten to the point where I skip the violence and perversion. I don’t need those images in my head. And yet presumably that is why people buy the books. There is nothing else in them that is different from any other book.)

villainInterestingly, in most of the books, the poor dupe Alex Cross doesn’t finger the villain the first or second and sometimes not even the third time. Sometimes he is so far off, it is the villain himself who reveals the truth to us. And yet we are told over and over how smart Alex Cross is, how attuned he is to the monsters. Also, in every book, he meets a staggeringly beautiful and awesomely smart women who he manages to get killed or kidnapped or otherwise destroyed. Ah, such a loving man.

And these are the books that have spawned an entire literary industry. James Patterson is not merely an author, he is a whole industry unto himself. (That tells me more about people than it tells me about him.)

His books have left me with a sour taste in my mouth and an unsettled feeling in my belly. Even writing this post, makes me queasy. (If I had to write such disgusting scenes to become even an adequately selling author, I’d rather work at McDonald’s.)

Luckily, there are books out there I do enjoy reading. And if not, I’ll write my own.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

On Writing: Ruling Passions

I once read the whole of Danielle Steele’s oeuvre as a research project. I wanted to see what in her books made her so popular. It was the most excruciatingly painful reading experience of my life. Her writing style is surprisingly amateurish, her characters are not well drawn, she tells and explains instead of showing, and she repeats herself as if she can’t remember from page to page what she’s already said.

But I did learn her secret. Her characters are passionate. They never like or dislike anything. They love and hate, but mostly love. “She ate a piece of cherry pie, and she loved it.” “They had sex, and they loved it.”

She also picks issues people are passionate about, and wraps her story around that, so not only do her characters have a ruling passion, so do her readers. When passions are all consuming, as they often are in her books, they create collateral damage. Maybe that is what makes her characters compelling — readers keep waiting for the train wreck.

And yet  .  .  .  all-consuming passions are not the only way to tell a story. Most of my characters aren’t particularly passionate about their ruling passions, but they do have strong motivations, such as a need to discover the truth, whether their particular truth or a more universal truth.
In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, all Kate wants is a good night’s sleep, but first she has to deal with the death of her husband, and then she has to contend with a state-wide epidemic. Although the forces that drive her are fairly tame, many of the characters in that book have stronger passions. Jeremy is consumed with getting out of quarantined Colorado. Pippi is first passionate about Jeremy, then passionate about escaping with him, and finally passionate about returning home. Dee is passionate about helping the homeless. Greg is consumed with the need for truth. The villain is passionate about his deadly little organism. Turns out the only non-passionate person is my heroine! Yet the story revolves around her.
In How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, James N. Frey tells us that our main characters, both the hero and the villain, should have a ruling passion. Alexander Pope, perhaps the first person to use the term “ruling passion,” wrote: “The ruling passion conquers reason still.”

Seems like an interesting conundrum here — a character must have a ruling passion, and a character should be smart  (or at least working to the best of his or her abilities) yet the ruling passion overrides that. Should make for a good inner conflict.

(This article was compiled from comments I made during a live chat. If you’d like to see the entire discussion, you can find it here: Ruling Passions — No Whine, Just Champagne Discussion #146)