James Patterson's Super Sorry For Saying That Thing About Racism

·5 min read
Photo credit: John Lamparski - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Lamparski - Getty Images

James Patterson, mega-bestselling author and founder of an eponymous publishing imprint, thinks it’s hard out here for guys like James Patterson.

In a new interview with The Sunday Times, Patterson opined about the state of book publishing, lamenting that white male writers experience “another form of racism” when they struggle to find opportunities. “What’s that all about?” he continued. “Can you get a job? Yes. Is it harder? Yes. It’s even harder for older writers. You don’t meet many 52-year-old white males.”

But Patterson’s math doesn’t add up. According to research conducted by The New York Times, 89% of books published in 2018 were authored by white writers; meanwhile, VIDA (an intersectional feminist nonprofit tracking gender representation in the literary landscape) calculated that in 2019, only three mainstream literary publications devoted more than 50% of their coverage to women and nonbinary writers. Sounds like white guys are doing pretty okay! Patterson’s comments espouse what VIDA calls “the anxiety of replacement”: the erroneous belief that an expansion of opportunities for underrepresented groups is an oppression of white men, rather than a necessary and long-overdue correction of imbalanced scales.

Let’s also consider the source. With an estimated net worth of $800 million, Patterson is the wealthiest fiction writer in America—and the second wealthiest in the world, following J.K. Rowling. By and large, the ranks of the world’s richest writers are a carousel of white men: think Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, and Dan Brown. But even among these rarefied ranks, Patterson has a singular business model. In 2010, The New York Times reported that Hachette Book Group, Patterson’s publisher, had organized an entire staff around his titles, including “three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles, and a sales manager for all his books.” Michael Pietsch, who was then Patterson’s editor and the publisher of Little, Brown, told the Times, “Jim is at the very least co-publisher of his own books.”

What BIPOC writer gets to rule the roost like this? No one, because, contrary to Patterson’s belief, publishing doesn’t roll out the red carpet for BIPOC writers like it does white men. In 2015, Hachette doubled down and gave Patterson his own imprint, Jimmy Patterson Books, which planned to publish a diverse lineup of 8-12 children’s and middle-grade fiction books each year, with 4-6 of those books authored by Patterson. “It’s an opportunity for us to expand the voice and reach of a writer who’s already one of the bestselling writers in the world,” Pietsch told The New York Times. Expanding Patterson’s octopus-like reach is exactly what happened: in 2020, Jimmy Patterson Books was “restructured” to publish only books by Patterson, leading many readers to decry the loss of a platform for diverse writing. “So, Jimmy Patterson, which has been publishing some amazing diverse stories, is now shutting down, laying off many employees in the middle of a pandemic, to cater to an old white man, and there’s not even an official announcement?” one reader tweeted. Tell me again how opportunities for white men are in short supply?

It’s important to note that not every book with Patterson’s name on the cover is written by Patterson himself. With over 300 books to his name, the author famously employs ghostwriters to support his brand, and often refers to himself as the literary equivalent of a showrunner. Patterson delivers exhaustive notes and outlines to his co-writers, sometimes reaching up to 80 pages (we can only assume that these ghostwriters are chained up in his basement, as no sane person with free will would stand for 80 pages of notes). Despite the fact that he’s literally employing people to write James Patterson books, Patterson seems to believe that only he can write a James Patterson book. “The success rate when I write the outline is almost 100 percent. When other people do, it’s 50 to 60 percent,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post, where he went on to complain that “publishing doesn't innovate.” Maybe publishing could innovate if its business model wasn’t so beholden to white male moguls like Patterson. Even his own colleagues know the score; a publishing executive working on these ghostwriting projects with Patterson said, “It might be a factory, but it’s a hand-tooled factory.”

Yet the most illuminating section of Patterson’s new interview isn’t his commentary about publishing; it’s his reflections about his own work. Note the moment when The Sunday Times observed that Patterson’s early success is linked to his Alex Cross series, which centers on a Black detective. "I just wanted to create a character who happened to be Black," Patterson told the paper. "I would not have tried to write a serious saga about a Black family. It's different in a detective story because plot is so important."

With this attitude, clearly Patterson isn’t the right writer to pen that saga about a Black family. But his comments speak volumes about his blinkered view of writing and publishing. A character’s identity shouldn’t be incidental; it should be a considered and deliberate creative decision, affirmed at every step of the writing process through careful character-building choices. Patterson’s excuse about Alex Cross’s genre is meaningless; whether it’s a detective story or a literary doorstopper, meaningful representation in fiction, both on and off the page, always matters. But now and always, Patterson has made it painfully clear that, to him, diversity is just one of his many sales tools: useful when it stands to make him a profit, and inconvenient when it threatens his desire to feel special.

UPDATE, 6/15/2022: After an Internet shitstorm, Patterson is walking back his statements. “I apologize for saying white male writers having trouble finding work is a form of racism,” Patterson wrote in a Facebook post. “I absolutely do not believe that racism is practiced against white writers. Please know that I strongly support a diversity of voices being heard—in literature, in Hollywood, everywhere.” You've sure got a funny way of showing it, Mr. Patterson.

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