I’ve lost count of the books I’ve devoured over this past three months. I often have one or two audio books going at one time. I get mine through the Washington state libraries, and maybe it is my lack of expertise, but it is hard to find the good books. The classic novels are often not available in the MP3 format, or if they are (and I haven’t figured this out yet as to why) you must put them on hold for weeks or months before they are available for you to download.
This past week, during my sleepless nights of prednisone induced mania, I listened to two books. One was James Patterson’s Ambush (part of his Michael Bennett series). I found this book when I searched for “popular” audible books. The second book was John Updike’s book of poetry, End Point. I think John used that title because it was the last thing he wrote before dying in 2009.
Listening to these two books, back and forth, at the same time, highlighted a huge contrast. James Patterson is the highest paid author of all times (has earned over 700 million dollars in book sales alone). He has written the most #1 best sellers and there are many other accolades for him.
John Updike, on the other hand, has received his own honors, for example, being the first author to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He was also successful, especially toward the end of his life (he mentioned that his last tax filing in 2009 was huge because of such success of his last novel).
Beyond the similarities of the authors, the two books could not have been more different. John Updike was a brilliant wordsmith, in the same league of Faulkner, Dickens, and Austen. He is most famous for his “Rabbit” books, such as Rabbit Run. His creativity, his ability to imagine and to capture the reader’s imagination are uncanny.
On the other hand, the very best thing I can say about the Patterson book, was that it was horribly written. The plot, plan, and space that the story took place in was so uncreative, that you knew every line, as if you were reading the book for the 100th time, not the first.
I really don’t get it. You could easily say that Patterson is the most successful author in the world. But why? It’s like a painting that fetches millions of dollars at an auction and then later someone finds out that it was not even a painting, but a canvas that was laying on the floor to catch the drips when the artist was painting his or her real master-piece above it.
I’ve said before, there must be at least 50 million people in America alone who dream of being a full-time, self-supported author. I’ve seen the work of many these “amateurs” and many are incredibly talented, much closer to Updike than Patterson.
Patterson’s book is more like mass produced literary junk food. Cram as much in your mouth as fast as you can, rather than enjoying a 3-hour, seven course French meal at a Burgundy Chateau, which would be an Updike or Faulkner book.
I have no more observations from Patterson’s book, but could turn this into one of my long ramblings, if I got started talking about Updike’s book. But some things that he said, about being an author, really stuck with me.
The first thing was that his dear mother had more passion about writing than even he did. However, she spent her entire life trying to get something, one article, one op-ed, or short story published and came up with nil. No publisher wanted her work and she died alone on a farm in New England without single author’s credit.
John speaks of this with a guilt-laden voice. Why did he succeed so well, when his mother’s passion was greater? I don’t know and life is never fully fair, is it? But I certainly believe that his mother is what shaped him as an author. Without her passion, John’s writing may have never seen the light of day.
John also described the process of writing, especially his last novel (which I think was The Widows of Eastwick). For us who have written books and worked with publishers, be it journal publishers or book, the process is familiar. But I never thought that Updike would have to subject himself to such humiliation.
He describes sending in his manuscript to his faithful publisher. Now hold this thought in your mind that he is already very successful, Pulitzer Prize winning author and has earned his publisher a lot of money over the years. He says that the “Publisher’s minions” descend on his book and take it apart word-by word. Then the grammar police go through it and tear it up, not sparing one sentence. He says it comes back to him so marked-up that he can’t recognize it. Then, in the end, after his rewrite after rewrite, it ends up being in an exotic language, only spoken on Mars.
This is so reassuring to some of us who like to write. Especially for those of us who like to write fast without proofing and without the obsessive-compulsive impulses that some people have, where one typo keeps them awake at night. John was no dummy. He was a Harvard and Oxford man. Surely, he was well-versed in the English language, but thought-less mistakes didn’t ruin his self-respect.
I have a professional editor that I often work with (on big projects). He is very good. Not only does he have the eye for the technical syntax and grammar of sentence formation, but being a creative writer instructor at a college (and an editor for a major publisher in his other day-job) he does not hesitate to tell me when something I’ve written is good, or a piece of crap. If I had submitted to him the Patterson book as my own (pretend it was my own) he would not have hesitated to tell me that it was a complete work of shit. No imagination. Unbelievable characters (which he often tells me anyway) and behaviors of charters that make no sense. I am thankful to have him.
Now that I’m home and looking to the future, I want to start filling some of my time with writing again. I have about ten books etched in the back of my mind. There is nothing on this planet that is more enjoyable to me (almost) than me getting completely lost in one of my own stories . . . looking up hours later, not having a clue as to where I’m at or what day it is. And who knows. Maybe someday, if I do it really well, someone else will read one. Mike