Two years ago, I was assigned Understanding Comics, a reading on the psychology of comic books by Scott McCloud. In 2012, comic books have risen to a true art form: graphic novels. Not only are many of the illustrations as un-cartoonish as possible, but the writing is, well, sharp. There are no more BLAMs and KA-POWs, nothing Adam West would ever say. I’m still not hugely into them. I just don’t scoff when someone says ‘graphic novel’ instead of ‘comic book’ because they are different. Only now do I realize that they are linked to the success of James Patterson.
Much to my surprise, the reading found that the viewer connects with the graphic novel characters on a less personal level than he or she might connect with, say, a smiley face. The graphic novel is apt to entertain, but the more detailed the characters became, the more the reader recognized them as ‘not real’ and ‘not us’. It seems totally backward. The artists are talented; it’s no failure on their part. Thinking critically, it also makes loads of sense. The artists are effectively bringing us into their world with the precise landscapes they draw. Not only do I not have to imagine what a building or a character looks like, I can’t.
Text works semi-differently. Text is a sphere emptier than graphic novels. Graphic novels don’t bring the text to life; rather, they serve as an interruption between the text’s place on the page and in our minds. But the text is also not immune to the smiley face conundrum.
Think of a great novel as a graphic novel and a James Patterson novel as plain text. In one of my favorite novels, Anna Karenina, I encountered the Russia of old on Tolstoy’s terms. Everything I’ve ever known about the aristocracy came from that novel or some inexplicable flashback to a History class that I hated. Vronsky won Anna over at severe cost, a cost perpetrated by the propriety of the Russian society. Even if Anna hadn’t laid her head on the train tracks, the novel still cannot become the wish-fulfillment prototype that Patterson perfects with each book. It’s too detailed, too brilliant.
Surely, others write to just fill a niche. But where Patterson differs from other wish-fulfillment experts is that he’s completely delusional. Michael Bay ravages the land during a movie shoot worse than fracking does because that’s what we pay to see. (God only knows why.) But look at this quote from Patterson: “A good thriller always opens with a grabber — like the stunner in David Baldacci’s Absolute Power. A house burglar witnesses the president of the United States killing his mistress. Hey, it even sounds plausible.” Or this one: “With the villains I’ve created — from Gary Soneji of Along Came a Spider to Petgirl in the 8th Confession, along with the Tiger in the last Alex Cross novel — I tend to come up with a unique, driving ethic for each of them, and then let their force of personality be my guide”. Here is someone writing popular books because he writes virtual reality fiction, where you could just as easily be the main character, while refusing to believe he’s doing so. Patterson approaches his books as though they are character-driven, and his definition of ‘plausible’ is POTUS offing a mistress in the White House. That’s the only way you can touch the heat Patterson is throwing in the mass-produced book market: don’t buy into the fact that you’re creating books as complex as smiley faces. Keep thinking of them as intricate, restricted landscapes.