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Anyone could do that!

Like many others, the company I work for in Italy closes for a couple of weeks in August. While I’m away, I’m in the habit of leaving my house to friends or relatives for a free holiday (they also look after the cat, but that’s a minor detail). This year it was the turn of the lovely Cuthbert and Lucinda (names changed to protect the innocent) to enjoy the mixed pleasures of a roof terrace in blistering 110-degree sunlight. They are both avid reader, so they left a few books when they left, a bit of light summer reading. Two of the novels were by authors that I’d never really bothered with, James Patterson and Peter Robinson. Patterson I’ve heard of, obviously, but Robinson was really a new one for me, in my ignorance. So it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at something new.

To be honest, we’re probably talking about authors who I’ve often viewed as a bit beneath me.  After ten or so years in academic humanities you start believing that you have to be Russian and dead to have any worth. To my credit, I think, I’ve always maintained that people who criticize popular authors like Patterson have rarely read them, and that if you haven’t you should shut up. More to the point, I firmly believe in the relationship between a writer and her chosen readership, and that especially in genre fiction the success of failure of an author cannot be judged according to a set of abstract values that merely reveal the prejudices of the person judging (you can blame Bourdieu for this). It’s rather like listening to a piece of dance music and complaining that it’s all boom boom bang, aesthetically inferior to the progressive experimentation of late Steely Dan. But what really gets me is when people say “anyone could do that”. Perhaps this has always rankled with me, as occasional purveyor of throwaway pop tunes (in the unlikely event you may be interested, a selection can be found here), because I know it’s just not true. Firstly, if anyone could do it, then everyone would, and everyone doesn’t. Second, I don’t believe for an instant that Jan Garbarek could knock out a good dubstep tune, any more than Lady Gaga could knock out a double fugue.

So, after all these good intentions had been tested against cruel reality, what did I actually make of James Patterson and Peter Robinson? (Of course, I realise that my opinion on this subject is not a question of world-shattering importance, and that both are vastly superior writers to me).

First off, apart from the truly horrible quantity of Apple product placement, I much preferred Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison, mainly for the detailed reconstruction of an era and the intriguingly-structured narrative. In short, this is an interesting story very well told. One odd feature of the writing, however, is the fact that all the characters, although they are well-rounded and believable, speak in a very plain, unnatural, uniform manner. They also tend to provide more information about their feelings than is usual in real life. It tends to be very stagey, for want of a better word, as if conscious of performing for the reader. Likewise, the prose style towards the plain and linear, clearly deliberately so, and the descriptions walk that thin line between accessibility and banality, generally with success, but at the expense of anything that shows off the author’s undoubted talent. I don’t mean that it’s plain in the same way as Coetzee or Hemingway are plain, i.e. stripped down and naked. It’s more as if the author has gone to great lengths to find an “anti-style” that removes all stylistic obstacles to enjoyment of the plot and character on the part of his target audience, i.e. anything that might draw attention to the writing itself or might halt the flow by forcing the reader to notice that they are enjoying the creative fruits of one man’s imagination: it’s not exactly Flaubertian realism, but the intentions are, I think, similar.

Would I read another one? Possibly. I certainly wouldn’t regard it as a chore, but I’m not sure I would buy one, as I think the style would begin to grate after a while.

As for James Patterson’s I, Alex Cross, well, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it. It was certainly a page-turner, both partly in the sense that I wanted to get it over and done with and could see any reason to linger. Having said that, I can certainly see the attraction of this type of work, but only in a “disengage brain, forget all intellectual pretence” sort of way. To me, it didn’t feel like reading so much as words passing in front of my eyes.  As much as I might occasionally enjoy a well-made boy’s toys movie, like these cinematic extravaganzas, it seemed to be framed as a very deliberately macho experience, all hint of art and general fluffiness gently erased,  Men were men and women were largely victims to be disposed of in an industrial mincer, but with the inevitable caveat that our hero is a caring, emotional, average Joe in his family life, as shown by relations with wife and mother. All this fits with the sort of persona that we expect these days: real men weep, protect (and service) their lovers, and instantly show their sentimental side despite a day spent extracting bad guys’ molars with little more than welt-marked hands and a monkey wrench.

Stylistically, Patterson is real low expectations stuff, anticipated attention span of reader coming in at less than a page and a half, although something tells me this is not quite the same as Tolstoy, Dumas and the feuilleton of yore: although the suspense-creating techniques are roughly the same, here we are beaten over the head with them, safe in the knowledge that we are not going to be expected to expend any energy investing in these characters or asking ourselves important questions such as “who are these people?” or “ is this even remotely credible?”. You realise from about page three where we are going (all the way to the White House), a mix of power-politics (these Romans are crazy!) and a vice-charged storyline that never actually steps over that line and into something that might challenge expectations or even be genuinely disgusting. The unpleasant aspects are all neatly parcelled up in a world of other, that place that exists in movies but which you will never get to see for real, so you can go to sleep thinking that this bad, bad place is somewhere entirely divorced from the dull but dependable domesticity of the ‘burbs . Personally, however, it reminds me of the front page of the tabloid newspaper that decries “disgusting filth” in large red headlines, with “full colour insert inside” directly beneath. And I much prefer Robinson’s suggestion that the bad stuff is lurking under your own bed if only you can muster the courage to take a look.

One thing I would be intrigued to know, however, is how exactly the division of labour works between Patterson and his co-authors works. I suspect that Patterson is little more than a brand name, and I can imagine there is a huge list of do’s and dont's for budding ghost writers, not so much in case they impose a style on the work which might clash with Patterson’s own, as much as to ensure that the end product is devoid of any such temptation. But then, I'd have to read quite a few more of these to be able to say for sure, and I'm not sure that's something I'll be doing in a hurry.

See, you can only keep the snobbery under control for so long.


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