Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Friday, December 09, 2005

“It’s about simplifying for the reader.”


[gary daily col. 18 May 26, 2002]

“Markets, which don’t even have a morality, can hardly be expected to have an aesthetic.”

Alex Good, New Industrial Art

It’s standard pundit-speak to say, “We get the kind of government we deserve.” Leaving this for political scientists and editorial writers to sort out, it’s disturbing that a variation of this view is so often stated and used as a cynical justification for choices made in the world of book publishing.

Do publishers give us the books we deserve? Do readers buy and read the books they deserve? Having a free market economy in this great country, these questions at first glance would appear to be closely related. Publishers supply what sells. Readers, the consumers of books, ultimately determine what is supplied. Simple market choice economics, right? Well, maybe.

The “Wall Street Journal” (May 14, 2002) recently profiled James Patterson, the author of the Alex Cross thrillers, and a writer who has turned his books into “one of the publishing world’s most lucrative franchises.”

Patterson’s case is interesting because he apparently made a reasoned choice to write what used to be called “pot-boilers.” More importantly, as a writer of acknowledged skills and sophistication and not a hack by any measure, he made this choice after writing a prize-winning mystery and five novels, none of which sold well.

At this point, as Patterson tells it, “I sat down and said, I really want to write a bestseller here, and I’m going to really lay it on in terms of action and romance.” The self-willed, and self-promoted, “Along Came a Spider,” was the result. Patterson, a former advertising executive with J. Walter Thompson, dished out $2500 of his own money for TV ads, pushed his publisher to saturate key markets, and designed the cover of the book and chose the typography. He also changed the title of the book from “Remember Maggie Rose” to a nursery-rhyme phrase. This is now the recognizable title logo on all of his Alex Cross products.

Patterson’s efforts were rewarded. “Along Came a Spider” was a hit at the cash register if not with the critics. For what was to become the Patterson franchise, these marketing tactics became a blueprint for future offerings. Patterson’s next book will be supported by the usual full tilt promotion campaign–TV, lavish print ads, extended author tour, Web site– costing his publisher, Little Brown, more than $2 million. This is a huge sum when it comes to selling books. This is how blockbusters escape the boiling pot and readers get what publishers think they deserve.

Just what kind of ride do the readers get when they jump on Patterson’s fast-moving blockbuster train? It appears that his weepy and gory thrillers are just that, fast moving. And apparently readers approve of the experience he provides. They usually buy more than one ticket. One wonders, however, if they voluntarily leave their critical thought processes at the station when they step onto the blockbuster express.

One analyst in praising Patterson’s style notes that the chapters in his books are often two or three pages in length, “appealing to people with short attention spans;” and his paragraphs are “lean on description because dense writing slows readers down.” Patterson himself puts his finger on the lever that moves his prose on the page, “It’s about simplifying for the reader,” he says.

And so, do we get what we deserve when we buy and read a Patterson or any other of the blockbuster type bestsellers that fill the display areas in the front of every bookstore? Well, yes and no.

Readers certainly get the fast-paced, story-driven prose mentioned above. It’s all set in recognizable locales and tricked out with “product placements,” cultural and commercial. These provide a normality against which the sensational and the unusual can take place with heightened effect. The momentum and nature of these stories can jangle the nervous system, set off emotional alarms with their unbridled violence, allow us to peek into the sideshows of the bizarre, and momentarily register a mark on our conscience by producing a surface sheen of sentimentality. It’s an undemanding kind of escape.

But can these books touch us in any deep and lasting way? They allow little or no opening for thought or questions as they pass quickly on to the next action-packed paragraph, the next abbreviated chapter, the next volume in the series. These are extravagantly hyped entertainments that move relentlessly on to their next truncated flicker of unnuanced experience.

Does this trivialize life? Do readers deserve more and more of this?

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