Monday, March 30, 2009

Harper Lee vs. James Patterson

This is my sixth day of being stuck in a house full of sick people—bad colds for my husband and me, pneumonia for my little girls. Nothing serious, thank goodness, just a lot of fevers and runny noses and cranky moods all around. And ramen noodles. Loads of them. Even though I’m sleep-deprived, I thought I’d attempt a post anyway, since it beats watching yet another kids’ movie. So forgive me if the following is a bit pointless—it’s the best I can conjure under the circumstances.

A few years ago, when I spoke with a group of high school students who had read my novel, one young man posed an interesting question: “If you had the choice of having the career of Harper Lee or James Patterson, which would you choose?”

It’s a surprisingly tough question to answer. On one hand we have Lee, whose only novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, so elegantly written yet politically powerful, has become a staple of the literary canon. On the other, we have the wildly popular and prolific Patterson, a mainstay of the bestseller lists. I can see the battle lines being drawn right now—literary writers for Lee and genre writers for Patterson. But let’s not kid ourselves. Every literary writer secretly hopes for popularity and every bestselling author yearns for respect. Unfortunately, the two intersect only for a very lucky few.

So, which is better—critical acclaim or popularity? In a way, it’s a moot question since both are largely out of one’s control. Getting reviewed at all (let alone getting a favorable review) is often a function of economics, taste, and dumb luck. Popularity is largely a function of timing and dumb luck, though an author with a great deal of savvy and excellent resources can affect this somewhat. Sustaining one’s critical acclaim or popularity over time is another story. Lee’s book remains one of the best American novels because it lives up to the hype. Patterson still reigns over the bestseller lists because he consistently delivers gripping stories. So while it’s easy to play the literary snob and say Lee, Patterson also deserves some respect.

The key to this question, for me, was the number of books each writer produced. Although I would love nothing more to create a work with lasting impact, the idea of writing only one novel in the course of a lifetime seems, well, a bit depressing to me. Creating a single masterpiece makes you a god forever, but it also leads a void, where everyone (including you) wonders what else you could have done.

So, to my surprise, my answer was Patterson. Not because I care about sales over quality, but because I want writing to be my lifelong career, and not just a brilliant spark that burns out too soon.

It’s funny, though. Even now, I keep asking myself if that was the right answer.


James A. Ritchie said...

My trouble with choosing Patterson is that, as far as I know, he hasn't actually written a full book in a lot of years. He comes up with an outline, and a ghostwriter writes the actual book.

Sometimes he does a draft or two, and the someone else does the final polish.

This makes his a career I would never want to have.

Stephanie Doyon said...

Great point, James. I had forgotten that Patterson supposedly farms out his outlines to ghostwriters. If that is indeed the case, I'm with you--that's not the kind of writing career I would want, either.

James A. Ritchie said...

Uh, if you want to change that to Koontz or King or Parker or Bradbury, rather than Patterson, count me as much prefering their careers to that of Harper Lee.