Perhaps it was a mistake to read James Patterson Inc. back to back with Michael Cunningham’s A Writer Should Always Feel Like He’s In Over His Head. For James Patterson, writing doesn’t seem very hard. Of course, I wouldn’t dare disparage him. Honestly, I’m impressed. He has created a literary empire and sells more books than any other author including Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown COMBINED! His output is extraordinary – the article says, “nine hardcovers a year are really only the beginning”! Either he knows something I don’t (obviously he does), never sleeps and writes absolutely perfect first drafts, or he delegates the difficult task of execution to others who are able to imitate his speedy style to a T (which he does).
But these days it doesn’t sound like he’s doing much writing – at least not what you or I would call writing – that meticulous drafting and re-envisioning of characters, scenes, setting and plot, carefully crafting words to flow out elegantly from a page. I’m sure he works hard, but to me what he’s doing sounds more like producing or directing. He has a stable of co-authors who flesh out his outlined plots. In television that’s called a writers’ room. I’m envious, believe me! Plotting is the fun part. It’s the hard effort of what I call “putting flesh on the bones” that makes most writers want to pull their hair out, open the refrigerator, drink, or occasionally contemplate suicide.
Patterson is impressive – no, remarkable. A true literary machine. But for the rest of us without the budget, power or inclination to let someone else write our words, writing is a slow, difficult, sometimes unbearable process.
Nevertheless, in the last few decades, publishing success increasingly requires not artistry but sales. In A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale, Dani Shapiro reminds us of another essay, “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years,” (Sorry, I’ll have to find it at the library and get a copy to you – ooh, how old very fashioned!) by legendary editor and founder of New American Review, Ted Solotaroff. The title tells it all – in the cold… the first ten years…. I took ten years. Our own fellow writer Stuart Lutz took even longer. So many of us struggle, trying to fit the difficult craft in between the necessities of life. Even if we could write full time, would we satisfactorily complete our task in, say, three months? Six? A year?
Shapiro writes, “There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years…. The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry …has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. …How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?”
She is right, whether we like it or not. Things have changed radically. And the James Patterson article gives the most succinct summary I’ve read of exactly why:
“Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.
“The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.”
Like the world of the stage, where I once attempted to survive, creative writing attracts different breeds – the entertainer (e.g. James Patterson) and the artist (e.g. Michael Cunningham). There is certainly a place in the world and an audience for each, just as there are some who like Golden Retrievers and others who prefer Portuguese Water Dogs. (Thank you, Stephanie Staszak!)
Personally, I admit that I strive for the more challenging, less popular brand. Though I envy the sales and luxury that entertainment brings, it’s simply not who I am. I’ve even tried to pull back my style, to simplify my plots, to speed up my pace, to add more sex and violence. (Well, not too much more, for anyone who’s read The Thrall’s Tale…) Even when I do, my work only feels “right” when I add lyricism, description, metaphor, complexity and rich, difficult characters. So my attempt at a 300 page draft quickly becomes 500 challenging, dense pages!
Some of us have the facility for different styles; and we should all work to try new and different things. But at our core we all are who we are and we write what we must write. Perhaps it’s best if we discover what breed we’re born to be, embrace it and nurture it as best we can. Not everyone can be James Patterson, and not everyone wants to be. But each of our unique talents should be used to bring us the immeasurable gift of satisfaction in our work and, if we are lucky, a few readers who will appreciate it.