I was reading Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, and then I was thinking about the course Patterson was teaching (selling) on creative writing. This new novel is probably the worst novel I have ever read by Patterson (and Ledwidge), or by anyone, in many moons. It’s so bad that it’s even difficult to articulate the ways that it’s bad. The protagonist is supposed to be a scientist (at least, a failed PhD), but he thinks and speaks like a character in a situation TV comedy for sixth graders (he even likes Doom Metal music and is ADD). I now know why: Big Marketing (the ones who truly run the show at Big Publishing) has finally taken over the reins of creation.
Characters are no longer people who are meant to be true scientists or lovers of just plain old “logic” (God forbid!). No, they have to be snappy and cool riders of bikes in the big city who have sexy neurologist girl friends who don’t understand basic psychology but can certainly pick apart our hero’s foibles to cause the “problems” in his life. OMG. Can’t the marketing people stand logic? The entire plot of this suspense-thriller, is that there’s an animal versus man “plague” happening all over the world. However, our “hero,” Oz (that’s right, the same name as that “doctor” we hear so much about in the media!), keeps a “pet” chimp named (wait for it) “Attila” (you know, like the Hun guy). Basic logic would hold that a failed (yet promising) Columbia PhD candidate with a theory he believes in that has made him an outcast (I can see why) in the intellectual community about HAC (Human-Animal Conflict), would quite possibly expect his chimp to MAYBE????? contract the same plague and turn against him????: YA THINK????
Oh no. Not our hero. And more people have animals in the midst of this horror story. His South African buddy has two giant dogs, etc., until I found myself shouting at the pages of my eReader: LOSE THE ANIMALS MORONS! Then I remembered the formulas that are hyped by the marketing folks in Big Publishing. Americans love their pets! We can’t have people not liking pets–even if it’s in the middle of the carnage of animals turning against humans. What would all the company sponsors think? Besides, it makes an easy way to add conflict in our pea-brained characters’ lives. No, I haven’t gotten that far in the novel. But, I would bet dollars to donuts (cliche) that this chimp Attila will be biting the hand of the Wiz of Oz (or else I would be).
I’m sorry, Mr. Patterson (and Mr. Ledwidge). I can’t continue with your little novel. I have worked with ACTUAL SCIENTISTS (at Caltech, of all places). The way you’re portraying them in this book is beyond belief and into the pages of every marketing person’s dream world. So many products (by the way) are mentioned in this novel that it also reads like commercials stuck inside the flow of creativity. I wouldn’t doubt that BIG PUBLISHING now has a handy algorithm that inserts these commercial names at “appropriate” points in the action, and we readers won’t ever be the wiser (but we are).
Here’s a quote I turn to whenever I learn that major publishing has turned to such “writing assistant methods.” I always remember that true artistry in writing is a natural gift to the author, who works at gaining basic grammatical competence in the chiseling out of the story, but this gifted author can never learn “vision” or creativity. The author who shares this quote helped to establish one of the most respected MFA writing programs at the University of Iowa, so she understands what is meant by being a “merely” competent writer:
“In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”
So, if one of the most “visionary” writers of our times, Ms. Flannery O’Connor, says you can’t really learn anything from a writing class taught by visionary writers, then what the heck is James Patterson doing teaching an online class on novel writing, you might ask? The answer is easy: money. Mr. Patterson has become a person who no longer even writes his own novels. This may seem horrendous to you if you’re a true creative genius locked in his garret, slaving over your visionary opus, but if you’re a former head of the largest advertising agency in New York (which Patterson was), it makes complete sense. Readers no longer expect vision or art; all they expect is an easy read that does little to make them think on deeper levels.
I’m afraid I can’t share this vision for the future of creative storytelling. Without artists with “vision,” we will remain a lackluster society, willing to drink any swill thrown to us by the “best-seller factories” out there.
Vision is not complicated. In fact, I read a very short visionary piece that made me both laugh out loud and enjoy the irony on the inside. Remember those short bits on Saturday Night Live by Jack Handey? His piece in the latest New Yorker can demonstrate vision so you can understand it in a very short “lesson.”
I also offer a short online course that doesn’t cost you anything, but it was created in order for you to see if you have any of this “vision” inside yourself. I happen to believe that when you find you have this spark of “vision,” you will apply it by creating stories and plays that satisfy your curiosity. O’Connor said she wrote in order to “find out what I thought about something.” How can this happen when one gives the job over to a writing assistant? It can’t. Your vision is yours to create and to mold into something uniquely yours and uniquely memorable to your readers, whom Shirley Jackson called “the enemy.” In order to win over your enemy, you must be willing to try anything in the way of visionary creativity, and I hope you can find that source of miraculous curiosity and playfulness within yourself!