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This only my opinion, but: James Patterson is an abomination. Not Patterson the person, who is no doubt a brilliant and civic-minded gentleman, someone I would be delighted to meet. I’m talking about James Patterson, the author, creator of the detective Alex Cross and the “writer” of 96 books in the past 38 years. (That means that, in the time it takes an ordinary person to assemble an Ikea cabinet, Patterson can complete a novel.) You might very well love Patterson. He’s insanely popular; in the past few years he has sold more books than Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham. Combined.

Several years ago, aware of his popularity, I read one of his books – a thriller called Jack and Jill. I felt like I was listening to a four-year-old on speed. The book had something like 900 chapters, because every chapter was about 70 words long. Every chapter ended in either italics, an exclamation point, or italics and an exclamation point. “But there was no one there.” “They can’t find the body!” “And then the President of the United States exploded!” Every third or fourth chapter revealed a “surprise” coincidence or revelation that even Charles Dickens would have thought dubious. “We thought the police had shot the killer but it was his twin that died.” “He wasn’t a twin – he was triplets!” “And the third triplet was — the President of the United States!

And Detective Alex Cross, the protagonist, was the most irksome creation in all of litera—uh, in all of fiction. Cross is an African-American native of Washington, DC, full of street smarts and political savvy. Unfortunately, Patterson’s idea of an African-American police detective is pretty much a wise white guy who loves his grandmother and laments seeing young Black men falling into a life of crime. Imagine Mr. Rogers with a gun. Patterson has even said, essentially, that he didn’t want to get hung up on depicting African-American culture when he wrote about Cross. As if realistically defining your main character were part of an author’s job! The only reason Morgan Freeman played Alex Cross in the movies is that George Burns was already dead.

Look, ye mighty, and despair!

Look, ye mighty, and despair!

So for me, reading a Patterson book is like rolling naked in broken glass. It’s not going to kill you, but it will make you wish you were dead. I remembered this in the library the other day, when I passed the “P” section in Fiction. There were two entire shelves, side by side, filled entirely – except for the very top shelf on the left and the very bottom shelf on the right – with James Patterson books. Just imagine how many Palahniuks, Pamuks, Pasternaks, Percys, Poes, Proulxes, Prousts, and Pynchons were sent to the recycler to make room for all those Pattersons!

Still, to have that much shelf space, to have that many readers – that’s some kind of power. He must have some redeeming qualities. Looking at wall of Patterson, I wondered: Maybe I just happened to read the wrong Patterson book. Maybe Jack and Jill was Patterson’s Titus Andronicus. So I checked out Kill Alex Cross — which seemed like a good idea at the time – and brought it home to read. And you know what I discovered? It was just as bad as the first book!



Nevertheless, with my vastly lowered expectations, I was better able this time to recognize that some of the likely qualities behind Patterson’s popularity might be useful in real life work, too. His ridiculously short paragraphs, for instance, probably appeal to our attention-deficit society, in which people can barely read two pages without checking their e-mail. You can’t reduce every important communication to 70 words, of course, but you can recognize that concision is more important than ever.

Another example is Patterson’s preposterous plot twists. They are never the kind that make you think, “Of course! It was the butler all along! All the clues were there – I just didn’t see them!” Not only does Patterson not provide any clues; he doesn’t even tell you there is a butler, until suddenly a butler comes out of nowhere and strangles the President of the United States! In real life, nobody ever wants to be that surprised. But why do people put up with it in these books? Because people want novelty. They want to be told something they don’t know. Now, in your own communications, you shouldn’t invent butlers or withhold information just to maximize shock value. But whenever you can provide folks with information they didn’t have before, they are more likely to pay attention.

Hey! Perhaps there is a little bit of good in everything. Patterson books, McDonald’s food, reality TV shows – all insipid and unhealthy and vulgar, and yet all insanely popular. Find the real value in things like this and make use of it. Like a miner of old, you may have to sift through a lot of muck to locate the gold, but there are usually worthwhile nuggets to be found.