Thursday, July 1, 2010

Juxtaposition: Profiles of David Mitchell and James Patterson

Enjoy this — it may be the one and only time you'll find David Mitchell, British postmodernist extraordinaire, and James Patterson, prolific purveyor of the Alex Cross series of thrillers, mentioned within literary shouting distance of each other. But because both published new novels this week, both were recent subjects of entertaining profile articles that I thought are worth pointing out for a few different reasons.

Let's take Patterson first. If you're expecting a good genre fiction-bashing here, I'm sorry to disappoint. Believe it or not, after reading the 10 Questions feature in Time, I gained a somewhat begrudging respect for Patterson. When a reader asks how he'd respond to critics who say he's not a good prose stylist, he responds simply that "I am not a great prose stylist. I'm a storyteller." I loved that!

Earlier in the piece, he had said that his writing is all about story, story, story. As a genre-fiction writer, he's right on the money, isn't he? I mean, who's reading genre fiction for anything other than for the escapism of an enthralling story? Story is king.

Without getting into a whole big thing here, in literary fiction, a so-so story can be carried on the strength of prose or other literary flair, but not so in mass-market thrillers, where a reader isn't examining the symbolism behind Alex Cross' color choice of necktie. So, despite the fact that he may not even actually pen all the novels that bear his name and despite the fact the ones he does pen may not exactly be works of literary art, it was refreshing to see Patterson admit that he's not James Joyce. And then he concluded by throwing in a barb at his critics as well: "There are thousands of people who don't like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do." I loved that, too — a genre fiction writer with a little edge to him! 

Secondly, I love that Patterson says his two favorite novels are Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude. You can't help but respect that, right? (His new book, by the way, is titled Private.)

Now let's move from a novelist who enjoys reading James Joyce to a novelist whose writing has been compared to Joyce, as this wonderful profile article in the NY Times Magazine points out.  The article gives readers an engrossing, fun-to-read introduction to David Mitchell, by all accounts one of the more innovative and fresh novelists who has published in a long, long time. "Formal just one feature of Mitchell’s excellence," says the piece's writer, Wyatt Mason. (Mitchell's new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet came out June 29.)

The whole piece is great, but I loved the first few paragraphs the most — as Mitchell explains an encounter with a fan in New Zealand and how that episode has taught him to stay humble. "False modesty can be worse than arrogance," he says.  Indeed! This discussion of modesty is one Mason returns to later in the piece, when we learn from one of Mitchell's former professors, that modesty has always been one of his cornerstone qualities.

This is what I loved learning most about the well-traveled, worldly Mitchell, who enjoys a "cult following" and "'Lost'-like fanaticism" among his fans. One of the characteristics of novelists (and humans) that turns me off most is arrogance — hence, my seething disdain for Dan Brown. But despite his genius, Mitchell is just a dude — much like David Foster Wallace was, and part of the reason why DFW is my all-time favorite writer.

So, this article has greatly accelerated my timetable for reading Mitchell — in fact, now I'm really embarrassed to admit I haven't. But, I just picked up Mitchell's Cloud Atlas over the weekend, and Thousand Autumns (which, shockingly, was mostly well-reviewed by the NY Times' resident fiction hater, Michiko Kakutani) arrived in the mail earlier this week. I can't wait.

I haven't read Patterson either, but I enjoyed his responses to those questions enough that I'm willing to give him a shot next time I need a good plane read.

Help me out — any Patterson or Mitchell fans care to weigh in on their experiences with reading either?  


  1. I'm a Patterson junkie. I recently read Private and LOVED it. It's one of my favorites of his. I enjoy his Alex Cross, Michael Bennett and Women's Murder Club series, but the standalones - some good, some not so good. I definitely would recommend Private, though. It's one of his better books by a mile.

    Happy Hopping! :)

  2. Stopping by from the blog hop. It's good to see a guy book blogger. Have a great weekend!

  3. Hopping over via Hop! LOvely blog you have here! Sure to stop over some other time too!
    Have a great weekend!

    Lisa (Badass Bookie)xx

  4. Hi Greg-another great post! I just picked up black swan green at the library today; also Motherless Brooklyn (your fault) and Chronic City (sorta your fault). ;)

  5. I've never read Patterson, but I read a really interesting profile of him a while back in the NY Times magazines, called 'Patterson, Inc.". Worth a look at.

    I actually just finished "Cloud Atlas" and honestly I am on the fence. I read somewhere that it is a book that panders to the "average" reader, and makes them feel smart, like they "get" post-modern fiction. Right now, I am inclined to agree, but I am still thinking about it. Mitchell was obviously influenced by Italo Calvino's "if on a winter's night a traveler", which is a markedly superior book -- one of my all time favourites, highly recommended if you haven't read it.

    It almost feels sacrilegious to criticize Mitchell after how much praise he's getting, but there is something missing from "Cloud Atlas"; it didn't quite come off as it should have. But for all it's faults, it is an entertaining read.

  6. Hi! I found your blog through the Hop and I'm really glad I did because it's great :). I'm your latest follower so I'm sure I'll be back soon!
    Have a lovely weekend,
    Carly x.

  7. @Jennifer - Thanks for the recommendation, and for hosting the Hop again!

    @Beverly, amanda, Badass Bookie - Thanks for hopping by.

    @bibliophiliac - Thanks! I also have Chronic City on my shelf and am about to order A Fortress of Solitude. I'm definitely on the Lethem bandwagon!

    @Devon - Really interesting take on Cloud Atlas. That same idea that it's "postmodern for the masses" is sort of flowing just below the surface of the NY Times Magazine piece. "This proves less perplexing — and more pleasurable — in the reading than in the parsing, for Mitchell takes great care to blaze a second narrative trail, a detective story with the reader cast as investigator, one who’s on the trail of connective clues that Mitchell has hidden in plain sight." And thanks for the recommendation on Calvino - will definitely look for that!

    @CarlyB - Hey, thanks! Hope to see you back here again. ;)

  8. I'm not a Patterson fan myself, but I have an enormous amount of respect for his success - he never set out to write literature, just to write catchy mystery novels, and he's done so. And made millions (that number is a guess). It takes a certain amount of genius to turn an author into a brand these days, but he (and his PR/marketing team) have done just that. Kudos to Patterson and any other writer that don't try to be what they aren't.

    Although I was a little surprised to hear his favorite book choices...

    I have Thousand Autumns waiting on my shelf as well - I'm interested to hear your thoughts when you read it.

  9. I enjoyed your blog on J.Patterson. I came over on the blog hop. I am now a follower.

  10. Just hopping by via the Book Blogger post is here:

  11. Hey,

    Found you through the hop. I like what I see so far and I'll be back.

    As far as Patterson and Mitchell are concerned, I think they present opposite and equally important writer archetypes. Literary writers can learn to embrace plotting from Patterson. They can also learn how to be financially aggressive in the publishing industry. Genre writers can learn the more ephemeral facets of the craft from Mitchell.

    I think the sweet spot is somewhere in between.

  12. What I will say for Patterson (and the "I'm just a storyteller" attitude that you respect about him) is that at least the guy's self-aware. You can't say that for some other bestsellers like Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, or Nicholas "I'm Not a Romance Writer, Dammit" Sparks.

    Still: I know that plenty of genre writers are very well read, but I can't shake my skepticism of his Ulysses claim. It's a novel a lot of people like to *say* for that question...

  13. Caught you through the Hop! I'm now following and have added you to my Book Blog List. Sorry I can't be of help, but I haven't read either author yet.

    Hope you can hop over my way too ;)

    Care to venture into The Wolf's Den?

  14. Thoughtful and interesting post as always! I mostly read fiction for escapism (not so much Patterson who I think has mostly one-dimensional characters) but your piece and the NYT article made me want to try Mitchell.

  15. I've never read Patterson, but kudos to him for cashing in on a demand. As for David Mitchell, I recently reviewed Cloud Atlas here -

    The book was written beautifully, and I can understand (if not agree) with some people's views that he made his story a little more accessible for the general public.

    I mean, are we really going to have the "I'm more literary than thou" argument? Why should we be turned off by a book just because average Joe can understand it?

    Anyway, I haven't read Mitchell's latest, but I'm definitely excited to get my hands on it (I hear it's even better than Cloud Atlas). Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

  16. @Kerry - You're right, he's certainly been successful at turning himself into a brand. Once you do that, it really doesn't matter how good your books are - people still buy. Sad, in some ways.

    @Mayowa - I know what you're saying, but I'd say that the sweet spot is probably dependent on taste. For me, Mitchell is the sweet spot - a literary, creative novelist. But for many others who just want a good story to read on the beach, no spot is sweeter than Patterson.

    @thwok - Yeah, I wrote something about how Patterson is the anti-Sparks, and edited it out 'cause I wasn't sure how many people would get that reference. And I totally agree with you about Patterson's refreshing self-awareness. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt about Ulysses, I think.

    @Kathy - Thanks! Good luck with Mitchell. I'm wishing myself the same good luck, too.

    @thefriande - Very nice review! I'm even more excited to read Mitchell now. And as for the "literary for the masses" argument - you're right, I'm not sure it's even a relevant or important thing to think about at all!

    @everyone else - Thanks for stopping by from the hop. I stopped by each of your blogs, too, but my apologies if I didn't follow your blogs too. I try to limit the blogs I follow to just literary fiction. Nothing wrong with YA or urban paranormal romance - just not my cup 'o' tea.

  17. I had the same reaction as you did to the "10 Questions" in time last week -- it was quite insightful and makes the man/the storyteller that much more appealing/acceptable.

    I used to read a lot of Patterson and enjoyed them for what they were: a quick, filling meal stuffed with bite-size chapters and palatable plot turns. I can't say that I can really tell you what even one of the books was about or how it differed from his others (probably couldn't a week after reading for that matter...), but I remember liking the ride. Definitely worth a 'plane read' if nothing else.

  18. I'm a huge Mitchell fan, having first read Cloud Atlas--which remains on my all-time top 5 list--followed by Black Swan Green. What I loved, besides thinking the books were both excellent reads, was how different they are. Mitchell didn't just find a writing mode and stay in it--he really explores different types of writing.

  19. Greg, I know this is an older post & you've more than likely moved on, but hey, that's what's great about the interwebs - free of time and space!

    I ended up here through Entomology of a Bookworm, who cited your bit in a piece Kerry wrote about my ridiculous JPatt project - 117 Days of James Patterson. I think we're frighteningly on the same page with these two authors - Mitchell is my hands-down favorite and Patterson...well, just check out to see how I feel.