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.”)

Is a Salinger-Like Reclusiveness a Viable Option in Today’s Book World?

Here’s an interesting dichotomy — there are so many books being published today that most will never sell more that 100 or 150 copies in a lifetime, yet an article in the New York Times says that in the e-reader era, writing one book a year is slacking. Name brand authors who once wrote one book a year are now writing two, and those who are sticking to a one-a-year schedule are also writing short stories and novellas to keep their names in view. To quote Lisa Scottoline from the NYT article, “the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.” And it’s not just name brand authors. Self-published authors are feeding the maw, too, sometimes with three or four or even six books a year.

Seems silly to me — authors scrambling to write extra books while many worthwhile books from small independent presses are going unread. There should be a way of evening things out, but people obviously prefer to stay with authors they are comfortable with. How else to explain the James Patterson phenomenon? Twelve books in twelve months? Yikes. Granted, some seem to be ghost written (or should I say guest written?), but still that is an incredible output considering that most people don’t read that many books in a year.

I’ve always loved books — in fact, as a child all I ever wanted when I grew up was time to lose myself in books — but now I’ve mostly lost my taste for reading. Too many books are shallow, even the well-written ones, and no wonder — authors who once had the time to write thoughtful books have to spend more time racking up the words and less time thinking. For me, a story isn’t enough. I want to be tantalized with insights, new ideas, different ways of viewing the world. I realize this is not the wave of the future. How deep can the ideas in a novel be if they are intended to be read on a phone or as an interactive ebook that’s enhanced with video, author interviews and social-networking applications?

I’ve never been one to follow the crowd. Sometimes I don’t even know where the crowd is. So it should come as no surprise that I don’t intend to increase my output of writing. (Though, come to think of it, any writing other than blogs would increase my output.) I couldn’t write more even if I wanted to. I am a slow writer. Even at my fastest, I can only write one book a year, and that doesn’t include editing and copyediting.

I am getting an interest in writing again, though. Sometimes I think about the books I’ve started and wonder what will happen to the characters, and just today I figured out how to develop my grieving woman book, the one I started for NaNoWriMo in 2010. It should be not so much a book about grief but about a woman’s journey into self-discovery, and so I should start the story before her husband dies, because it is during his long dying that she first loses herself.

This could be one of those books that takes a lifetime to write, since perhaps I will have to live the character’s life first. Or maybe I need to write the book as if I am writing my own future, and see what I can make of myself. Either way, the book would not be written in a month or even a year. It would take longer than that to glean the necessary insights.

According to the NYT article, “Publishers also believe that Salinger-like reclusiveness, which once created an aura of intrigue around an author, is not a viable option in the age of interconnectivity.” Luckily, I am neither self-published nor published by a major publisher, so I have the luxury of being as reclusive as I need to be in order to write whatever books might be in my future. (Shhh. It’s our secret. Don’t tell my publisher, Second Wind Publishing, I said that.)