Gene Expression

James Patterson Inc.:

TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course. This kind of collaboration is second nature to Patterson from his advertising days, and it’s certainly common in other creative industries, including television. But writing a novel is not the same thing as coming up with jokes for David Letterman or plotting an episode of “24.” Books, at least in their traditional conception, are the product of one person’s imagination and sensibility, rendered in a singular, unreproducible style and voice. Some novelists have tried using co-authors, usually with limited success. Certainly none have taken collaboration to the level Patterson has, with his five regular co-authors, each one specializing in a different Patterson series or genre. “Duke Ellington said, ‘I need an orchestra, otherwise I wouldn’t know how my music sounds,’ ” Pietsch told me when I asked him about Patterson’s use of collaborators. “Jim created a process and a team that can help him hear how his music sounds.”

The idea of the author as the lonely genius is very powerful in our culture, but there’s no reason to be so attached to this. Sole authorship is no prerequisite for ancient classics. There are debates as to whether Homer is actually a composite of various poets, but there is no scholarly dispute as to the fact that the production of the the Bible was due to multiple individuals, often operating independently and with different visions. This is not to say that James Patterson’s works aren’t schlock (I’ve never read them myself, but my genre tastes are nerdier). Rather, there’s no reason that workmanlike collaborative writing process necessarily entail lowest-common denominator fiction. The main issue today is probably that the more people you have to pay, the fewer risks you would want to take, as the costs are going to be higher and you want to make your money back. But the film industry has a huge range of budgets and production values. With the rise of e-books I assume that the publishing industry will exhibit even more long tail distributions.

Comments

  1. #1 Phillip IV
    January 23, 2010

    Certainly none have taken collaboration to the level Patterson has

    I could think of a couple, actually – for example French novelist Alexandre Dumas (père), who farmed out writing duties on his novels to several collaborators by chapter, often only producing the plot outline and select key chapters himself. As long as the result appears as a unified work to the reader, I don’t see any problem with the approach – it just requires the admission (a painful one for some people) that commercial literature is, after all, commercial.

  2. #2 Hisham
    January 23, 2010

    Some more recent examples of collaborative novels working well might better support your point.

  3. #3 Thursday
    January 23, 2010

    1. The Bible is a kind of greatest hits collection of Hebrew lit over centuries.

    2. Homer’s epics may be incorporate some earlier poets’ work, but again he’s taking a kind of greatest hits approach. This isn’t uncommon. Chaucer too quarried the best bits out of many, many other writers for used in his work. But both Homer and Chaucer pretty clearly wrote the vast majority of the works which appear under their names.

    3. The problem with incorporating contemporary people to help you is quality control. You aren’t mining the best bits out of the past, you’re trying to find people of genius who will work for you. You see this in even the best TV dramas, like the Wire or Buffy, where the product is extremely uneven. Either there is a head writer who stretches himself too thin or the episodes will vary widely in quality and tone with each different writer.

    4. The use of narrow specialists in film or finishers in the visual arts is somewhat different. Usually the director or main artist is fully capable of stepping in and doing the specialist’s job, and often does so when the specialist or finisher isn’t doing what he wants.

    An analogy for a writer might be a researcher or someone who comes up with ideas for plots etc. That can be delegated. But for the work to be truly great, the writing itself, a time consuming process, can’t be done by anyone who isn’t actually a genius.

    I have more thoughts here:
    http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com/2007/08/neglected-art-random-thoughts-on.html

  4. #4 trajan23
    January 23, 2010

    I was rather surprised to see that the Times article did not reference Dumas (Man in the Iron Mask, The Three Musketeers, etc.)as the classical exemplar of the author as fiction factory.After all, his works have endured, despite the fact that he delegated much of the actual writing to other hands.

  5. #5 razib
    January 23, 2010

    Some more recent examples of collaborative novels working well might better support your point.

    david eddings’ books? lol :-)

  6. #6 russel1200
    January 23, 2010

    Writing fiction is a winner take all business. This implies that there is a very small talent difference between some of the winners and non-winners.

    Within genre that give themselves over to somewhat formulaic plotting and characterization, the role of the editor would be critical to maintaining quality control.

  7. #7 Nick
    January 24, 2010

    There’s a group of 5 Italian Marxists, working under the name Wu Ming, who write historical novels. Not sure if they’re any good but they’ve been very successful.

  8. #8 Moopheus
    January 26, 2010

    It’s true–none of the things Patterson does–using coauthors, ghost writers, just being prolific, packaging yourself as a brand name over other people’s work–was invented by him. Other writers have done all of these things. Patterson has just been particularly effective at leveraging all the tricks, and being very “hands-on” with the publishing process, which many even very successful authors are not.

  9. #9 RobNYNY1957
    January 26, 2010

    The collaborative process doesn’t seem odd to anyone familiar with the history of musical theater. Almost everything in musical theater is a collaboration. For example, Irving Berlin wrote lyrics and melodies with some harmony, but otherwise relied totally on book writers, transcriptionists, arrangers, and orchestrators to complete a coherent score. Basically, Berlin would play a song and chorus at his piano, and then his musical secretary would write it down, an arranger harmonize it and make it into a duet with a dance break, and an orchestrator would provide the instrumentation, and a staff composer would make sure that the big tune showed up in the overture. But we still think of “Annie Get Your Gun” as an Irving Berlin musical.

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