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Why Is James Patterson So Popular?

Audio

Aired 8/26/10

Warwicks bookseller Seth Marko has been reading a chapter a day of James Patterson's "9th Judgment" since April. He started the project hoping to understand the appeal of the world's highest paid author. We'll talk to Marko to see what he discovered.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. He's one of the few authors who actually appears in television commercials asking you to buy his books. And that may be a bit of overkill on his part, because James Patterson's long series of mystery/thrillers have already made him the world's highest paid author. Warwicks book buyer Seth Marko decided to find the source of the Patterson magic by reading a chapter a day of James Patterson's "9th Judgment." He's been blogging about his experience. He just finished the book, and he’s here to tell us about it. Seth, good morning.

SETH MARKO (Bookseller): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So, how you feeling now that the project is finally over?

MARKO: Well, you know, I feel pretty good. I’m as relieved as I am to kind of be free of those James Patterson shackles. I, you know, I kind of – I miss the routine of it actually. It was a good writing exercise for me to kind of get up every morning and have to read and give like a really good critical analysis every day on a daily basis. But, I mean, I’m a little sad to have it end but I wouldn’t mind going back to April, kind of an innocent, fresh faced James Patterson newborn.

CAVANAUGH: Before you knew what you know now.

MARKO: Right, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: But what did you hope to accomplish? What did you want to learn from reading the chapter a day of James Patterson’s book?

MARKO: Well, you know, I’ve been a bookseller for about ten years and you really – you can’t be a bookseller and not, you know, be aware of James Patterson as this kind of force in the industry. And, you know, part of me really wanted to understand what the appeal is to a James Patterson novel. Why do so many people feel this connection to his writing to the point where they buy his books like they do. I mean, you know, and part of me really wanted to pick him apart every day because that’s a lot of fun for me but, you know, I was genuinely trying to understand why 14 million people bought his books last year.

CAVANAUGH: So what did you find out?

MARKO: Well, I don’t really understand the appeal even after 117 days. You know, I was trying to better understand his reader but, you know, what I’ve found is that you can really read a James Patterson novel with your brain completely turned off, which is not really how I read at all. You know, I read so that my mind is engaged on some level but, you know, I found that you can really read a chapter in one of his books during a commercial break on American Idol and that’s kind of where I think a lot of his readers – I think that’s how they actually do it. They kind of read by convenience, you know, rather than looking for real literature.

CAVANAUGH: Well, how would you describe his writing? Can you give us an example?

MARKO: Yeah, I mean, you know, he’s very melodramatic. I mean, I feel like he manipulates the reader quite a bit but it comes off as amateurish and pretty awful, actually. You know, he had gave (sic) this interview the New York Times back in January that was very insightful. It was actually very helpful for me once I was kind of going through this. And one of the quotes from him in that, he said, ‘look, if you’re writing “Crime and Punishment” or “Remembrance of Things Past,” then you can sit back and go, this is it, this is the book, this is high art. I’m the man, you’re not. The end. But I’m not the man and this is not high art.’ So, I mean, he really – even he admits it himself, that this is not, you know, not actually literature. So…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right. Now he gets a lot of flack because of the co-writers he uses. Do we know how much James Patterson writes of these novels and how much his co-writers write?

MARKO: No idea, actually. I mean, I – He writes the Alex Cross series by himself.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

MARKO: So he says. His name is the only one on the cover. But, you know, right now he has a, you know, people refer to it as a stable of writers of, I think, about four right now, including Maxine Paetro who he writes the Women’s Murder Club series, that’s the “9th Judgment.” It’s part of that series. And Liza Marklund, who they just put out a brand new book together called “The Postcard Killers.” When Patterson found out that his book sales were not where he wanted them to be in Scandinavian countries, he went out and tried to figure out who the number one bestselling author was over there and it turned out it was Liza Marklund so he hired her to co-author a book with him.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Seth Marko. He’s a book buyer at Warwick’s and also author of the blog the Book Catapult. And he’s been reading a chapter of the James Patterson novel “9th Judgment,” one chapter a day since April. He’s just finished it and he’s telling us about it. I tell you, have you – did you hear from any James Patterson fans while you were doing this project?

MARKO: You know, I really didn’t. And I really tried to engage people. I tried to kind of get a rise out of them. I mean, there were a few kind of early defenders who sort of trickled through on the Book Catapult when I first started but nobody really wanted to stay around long enough to have an actual dialogue about it. He has a pretty extensive fan forum on his website. You know, I tried there. He has 630 Facebook fans, and counting, but they have all completely ignored my rather obnoxious attempts but…

CAVANAUGH: Do you know if James Patterson was aware of your project?

MARKO: No, I don’t really know. And, you know, I tried baiting him a couple times too. I sent him a couple e-mails but it never really panned out. But somehow I don’t think that you could write 117 kind of critical pieces on a guy like James Patterson and not have him be aware of your existence. I think he’s kind of – maybe he’s biding his time and one day that black limousine’s going to pull up to the curb and you’re never going to hear from me again.

CAVANAUGH: And the J. Pat will strike.

MARKO: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: Now some people said that, you know, the way you were reading your book, his book, you know, one chapter a day, analyzing it on your blog…

MARKO: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …was just not the way that a James Patterson thriller should be read.

MARKO: Right.

CAVANAUGH: You should read it – it’s written at a quick – It’s written to be read at a quick pace.

MARKO: Right.

CAVANAUGH: What do you say to that?

MARKO: Well, I mean, I get it. I mean, you know, the reasoning has been that, you know, people read his books for that kind of quick escape from their own lives. They’re very easy reads. So, I mean, I understand that. But as the world’s foremost expert on at least one of his novels, I don’t believe it actually. I mean, I understand that they’re designed to be read quickly as that kind of page-turning thriller but I think that if it can’t – If a book can’t stand up to just even a tiny bit of scrutiny and, you know, critique from somebody like me then its value as literature is really completely lost. And he, you know, whether he wants to admit it or not, this is – he is working in a field that’s known as literature. And so I think he should be subject to those kind of same expectations and open to that same, you know, the same critical assessment as any other work of fiction is.

CAVANAUGH: As you were going day to day along on this project, Seth, was there like a worst day for you? Like a piece of writing that perhaps just sent you over the edge?

MARKO: Well, no. I mean, there wasn’t one thing in particular really. I mean, because the way – I was taking him apart so much that the worst bits of his writing always made for the funniest assessments by me, I thought. But after I’d been – It was at day 62 I really kind of – I felt pretty burned out and I really just needed a day off so I took one. And I was really glad I did because I think that my writing got a little better after the break, even if his didn’t. But…

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Seth, is there anything that you liked about the “9th Judgment?”

MARKO: No. There was really nothing of any real value to it at all, I don’t think.

CAVANAUGH: Now if a James Patterson fan came up to you and asked you for a recommendation, something in the same, you know, line. You’re not going to say, well, read Dostoevsky, you’re…

MARKO: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …you know, some sort of thriller/mystery, what authors or books would you recommend that they read instead?

MARKO: I mean, really anything but James Patterson. But, I mean, it’s – I would love that if somebody actually came up to me and asked that. I mean, there are so many but I would say James Lee Burke, for one, is – he’s one of my all time favorites. He writes a series of detective novels that are set in southern Louisiana that are – you know, they’re branded a lot like a James Patterson novel, you know, the name’s real big on the cover and they kind of look similar but they’re much meatier, they’re very well written novels. He’s really one of my favorites. But, I mean, and, you know, Raymond Chandler.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

MARKO: I mean, you can always go back to Raymond Chandler. This is where everything started with crime fiction. James Crumley, Ken Bruen, those are kind of some more modern, I think, masters at it. But, you know, of course I would, as a bookseller, I would throw them for a loop probably and maybe give them some David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami, something like that just to see what would happen.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, could it be, Seth, that people buy Patterson because it is a product and they know exactly what they’re going to be getting and they don’t have to think about it?

MARKO: Yeah, I think there’s definitely some truth to that. I mean, he’s, you know, he’s spoken extensively about, you know, the idea of his writing his books as a brand. So, and he admits it. So, you know, yeah, I think there’s definitely some truth to that. So…

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line, Seth. Eric is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Eric. Welcome to These Days.

ERIC (Caller, San Diego): Hi.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

ERIC: You know, I just wanted to comment on what you’re saying.

MARKO: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ERIC: If – I was surprised. I was on a business trip. I wanted a quick read. I picked up a James Patterson novel because I basically opened it up and saw the print was fairly large, knocked it out in about three days, and I was surprised that he is so successful and yet the writing is exactly what you’re – you’ve been talking about. It’s kind of amateurish, it’s choppy. It…

MARKO: Right.

ERIC: …doesn’t flow particularly well. But it’s predictable and I actually enjoyed the read. And I’m trying to do some writing of my own in anticipation of maybe retiring and pursing writing for a while so I just wanted to comment that I’m really surprised that he is as successful as he is based on the quality of the writing that he’s producing.

CAVANAUGH: Eric, thank you for your comment. I appreciate it. Seth, what – you’re making any larger assumptions about all of this? Like what it might say about the American reader?

MARKO: Well, maybe it does, yeah. I don’t know. And, you know, it’s hard because, you know, at Warwick’s it’s not necessarily – I mean, we sell a lot of Patterson but it’s not – he’s not our bestselling book by any stretch. You know, and so I feel like I’m surrounded by readers who are maybe a little more literary, I don’t know, but, you know, I think there’s a lot of truth to what Eric was saying, that his writing is so amateurish it’s really – it’s shocking that the books are as successful as they are. But I think it, you know, like we said before, it’s a brand and people like to go back to that same kind of thing. They feel like it’s easy. They can, like I say, they can read it during a commercial break. It only takes a couple minutes to get through a chapter. So…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Seth, I checked on the internet and there’s a new Patterson coming out this fall.

MARKO: Oh, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: So you…

MARKO: There’s actually two more on the way.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. So never fear.

MARKO: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Your blog will never be empty.

MARKO: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Seth, so much.

MARKO: Thanks for having me, Maureen. I appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: Seth Marko is a book buyer at Warwick’s and author of the Book Catapult blog. You can read Seth’s 117 days of James Patterson project on his blog, as I say, the Book Catapult. He also reviews a lot of books that he actually likes there. You’re listening to These Days. If you’d like to comment, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, British comedy in San Diego, the Norman Conquests, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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