What James Patterson and Michelangelo Have in Common (Not in a Good Way)

Michelangelo looking contemplative

It all started when I visited the National Gallery in London. I took the art tour with a curator, who diligently explained what all those famous paintings were about. When we came to a rather room-engulfing Michelangelo, the curator explained that only the sketch was done by the master himself. All the detail painting was done by his studio of apprentices and students.

Apparently, the Renaissance artist functioned more as a modern day advertising agency, providing all sorts of custom services to the patrons. Want a marble statue? He can do that? How about a mural in your foyer? No problem. Leonardo da Vinci advertised no fewer than 60 services he could provide.

So that famous work of art with the equally famous signature might have been composed by underpaid grunts hoping to break into the big leagues.

Then we shoot forward five-hundred years to brand name publishing and James Patterson. Just like Michelangelo, the author has saturated the market. Last year he made $84 million, twice his nearest competitor and more than J K Rowling or Stephen King. He released, on average, a book every two months. Last year is was ten books.

Patterson admits that he runs his publishing empire on the Henry Ford model, assembly-line style. He provides ghost writers with a detailed outline and lets them do all the heavy lifting. Then he reads through the finished manuscript, edits it, and collects the check.

Patterson claims that he is more skilled at writing a plot than the crafting of sentence after sentence. Excuse me, but isn’t that what writing is about? The writing?

Now, it’s true that the ghost writers do get credit on the book, far more than Michelangelo gave them. Yet in the art world, the Renaissance artists were only starting to gain reputations as individuals. Most were simply skilled artisans employed by guilds. Only two-hundred years before Giotto was the first to become a household name.

In this age of Internet and personal celebrity, individual artistic work should be rewarded. Yes, there’s no human way any author can churn out that much fiction. But why dominate the cover with your name when you’re only the idea man? The answer, of course, is money. The publishers make more off of brand-name authors than unknowns. And readers don’t seem to care.

It’s a pity. I know that when I pick up a Stephen King or a J K Rowling, I want to read their words on the page. It’s in the trenches of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters that the true novel is written.

Just today, my critique group questioned the direction my novel was going. I stood back and had a serious look at the chapters I’d written. Yes. It did need to change. The outline I had diligently put together had to be thrown out and reworked. Yet I was only fifty pages into the work. I could fix that.

Somehow, given the schedule pushed by the large publishers, I doubt that the edits made by James Patterson are ever major enough to cause a complete rewrite of the story. If the story sticks to the original outline, then it gets published.

I simply cringe. I mean I know that thrillers are churned off at a fast pace to satisfy avid readers, but I’d much rather wait for one or two quality books by an author than have eight or ten a year. If I need more to read, I can strike out and find a new writer.

It’s not like fast book production can’t be done. Chet Cunningham writes three to four books a year, and he needs a magnifying glass to see the words on the screen. He once told me a wrote a 50,000 page book in a week.

I guess is goes back to that old adage: You’ll never find me selling out, until someone offers. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to pull down $84 million, I’d wrangle some ghostwriters. But until then, let me write the words, thank you.

Tim Kane