How James Patterson Became the World’s Best-Selling Author (2024)

“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 FranklinW. 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, EvanS. 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.”

Anyone curious to know how Patterson came to create his most celebrated character, what interested him in writing about the experience of Black Americans, and how he researched that experience will find no answers in “James Patterson.” (Anyone who wants to read about Patterson’s golf game, if such a person exists, will be well served.) Patterson describes the “thick folder of ideas” he keeps in his office, but not where he finds the materials in it. Does he have criteria for the heroes and heroines of his series? Rules of thumb for concocting a hateable villain? Types of conflict that reliably keep readers engaged? Tricks for getting the maximum effect out of the minimum description? Mistakes he’s learned never to make again? Wider or deeper thoughts about the thriller genre and what makes it so popular? These are mysteries “James Patterson” leaves unsolved.

Patterson’s common touch may have something to do with his onetime day job in advertising. After starting out as a copywriter atJ. Walter Thompson, in the early nineteen-seventies, he rose to become the C.E.O. of the agency’s North American branch and held that position until 1996, when he left to pursue writing full time. Although Patterson refers to the quarter century he spent at Thompson as “advertising hell,” he seems to have loved it: the wild characters, the location shoots for TV commercials, the celebrities he met, the nutty campaigns like “The Battle of the Burgers” between Burger King and McDonald’s, a gimmick for which Patterson claims credit. There are more stories about advertising in “James Patterson” than there are about his writing process. (There are even more stories about advertising than there are about golf, which is saying a lot.) Patterson recounts the day he met with his publisher and proposed releasing multiple books under his name each year, a plan initially regarded with skepticism. He doesn’t, however, explain why he wanted to do this. “James Patterson” implies that its author is so overflowing with story ideas the only way he could find peace was to outsource them to collaborators—but why not just winnow that folder down to the very best of the bunch?

A 2010 profile of Patterson in the Times Magazine portrays him as a brilliant marketer closely involved in every level of the publication and promotion of his books. According to the profile, Patterson felt so strongly that “Along Came a Spider” should be advertised on television that he produced a commercial at his own expense. He urged his publisher to release the subsequent titles in the Alex Cross series with a signature style of cover art, making himself not just an author but a brand. This marketing savvy is another side of Patterson that’s absent from “James Patterson.” Instead, the author presents himself as a “blue-collar kid” (his father was an insurance salesman, a detail also not mentioned in the book) who lucked into the best job in the world. In the book’s first chapter, he ascribes his success to a saying drummed into him by his grandmother: “Hungry dogs run faster.” Yet the ravenous ambition that so obviously drives him is a subject he skirts again and again.

“One thing that I’ve learned and taken to heart about writing books or even delivering a good speech is to tell stories,” Patterson writes. “Story after story after story.” In “James Patterson,” the stories—a cavalcade of mostly trivial tales, often told out of chronological order and sometimes having little to do with the author—come across as a screen he hides behind. The book has occasional moments that pierce this veil, in particular three chapters on Jane Hall Blanchard, a woman Patterson lived with for seven years before she died of a brain tumor, at the age of thirty-nine. He describes holding Blanchard’s hand as she slipped away, then ends the chapter with “I can barely write these words, even now, after all this time.” It’s a rare instance in which Patterson’s brevity seems less an economizing measure than an allusion to a feeling too deep for words. In another moment of candor, Patterson admits, “My entire life, I honestly have had no idea who the hell I am. It’s still that way. I look at myself as just another idiot wandering planet Earth with no real idea what makes the world go ’round, no particular identity, just another lost soul.” And this is perhaps the most forlorn aspect of “James Patterson”: that a man so relentlessly bullish on storytelling seems never to have formulated the story of his own life.♦

How James Patterson Became the World’s Best-Selling Author (2024)
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