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Thursday, March 3, 2011


While I tend to avoid for the most part the "lesser" writing of so-called genre-fiction (becoming less and less the case as I continue to find, or am introduced to, examples of the stuff of unimpeachable literary excellence), I have always harbored a taste, and kept it fairly closeted until now, for another strain of genre, this one "musical" (quotes should connote potential for sarcasm) --that of heavy metal.  Just like mystery and sci-fi and thriller and horror and whatever else in fiction, so in music there is hip-hop, R&B, grunge, metal, jazz, and so on--ad infinitum, really (just check out that family tree of rock n' roll below).

a graphical history of 40 years' of rock n' roll, from lindsargwatt.com

I have not been quiet about my recent reading of Harry Stephen Keeler's mystery novel, Riddle of the Traveling Skull, which both delighted and astonished me.  I am now reading another genre piece, this one by famed genre master ("genre": though not typical of this author; and "master" only if sheer staggering quantity of book sales qualifies one for such a title), James Patterson: his Witch and Wizard (well, it's not really his--some Charbonet character, ghost writer--but has his name on the cover and bigger, which is essentially the same thing, as I can't imagine he'd sign off on it if it didn't at least match his far-from stringent qualifications).  While I firmly believe that Keeler surpassed the typecast of his genre (and this by a dense combination of wit, originality, utter abandonment of reality, and a total dedication to his craft), Patterson has murdered it.

Let's keep things as positive as possible, however, at least for a minute, if no more, because, well, Patterson must be doing something right if he's got 200 million books sold, right?  W&W is written for teens.  Teens have a short attention span (if this sounds like an insult, it's meant to; I don't feel this way about adolescents, but clearly Patterson does).  So instead of bogging down the reader with things like exposition and description and even emotion, Patterson simply deletes them.  Sure, the more seasoned reader is left with the impression that he's reading a plot summary or liner notes under the panels of storyboard illustrations for in-development B-movie, but teens are eating it up.  And, well, it could even be seen as a good introduction to fantasy for new readers, especially because there's absolutely nothing original to it. The book flagrantly steals most obviously and glaringly from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, among many others, including Lev Grossman's The Magicians (any of which is a little like watching some hack in the audition rounds of American Idol attempt a Whitney Houston number--why would he even want to have his book compared to theirs???).

Now, I've never read anything else by Patterson, so take my snap judgments of him with a grain of salt, and I don't plan to, especially after this.  I picked up W&W because so many of my students are reading it, and I wanted to be able to talk to them about it.  That and it was only 6 bucks at Wal-Mart, and I needed a new book for the bathroom.  Perhaps my problem here--because, really, this book is not next door to terrible, but flagrantly squatting in Terrible's moldy boiler room--is that maybe, just maybe, Patterson should have left fantasy alone and stuck with his more practiced genres of thriller and mystery, not to mention his shift of target audience (which audience, teen/young adult, and which genre, fantasy, tend toward the realms of sacred for me, especially in the case of the audience he's infiltrating (maybe I'm just jealous!)).  To really get my point across, however, I think I need to paint all this in the vibrant tones of analogy.

When I was a teen, my favorite genre band--hard rock/metal (metal, of course, is a subjective term and has developed significantly over the last thirty years) --was Metallica: slightly more musical than others, certainly more popular, and particularly great for weight-room blasting after track practice.  Over the years, of course, I grew up, and slowly grew away from Metallica.  In 1999, however, genre buster and genius composer/conductor for the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Kamen, decided to do up a fat concert's-worth of Metallica charts for symphonic orchestra, and charter the band to take the stage right with the strings and brass, winds and percussion.

The result was absolutely tremendous, and I loved it.  If pulp mysteries may be perhaps aligned with metal, maybe specifically Metallica, then Harry Stephen Keeler is Michael Kamen: a little bit crazy, a little bit genius, a lot reckless, and totally given up to having fun with what he does best and loves.  No matter how crazy, it just freaking works.

James Patterson, on the other hand, and apart from genre shifting yet, is more like pop hard rockers Godsmack, who simply take all the ideas that everyone else has already had, inject it all with a little more sex, a little more violence, and lot more bad language, and sell it to the highest bidder: teenagers.  Now imagine, just for a minute and the sake of argument, that a band like Godsmack took something sacred, like, oh, I don't know, Debussy's "Claire de Lune" and translated it to their particular brand of metal?  Well, you'd get--  Hold on.  Let me repeat that fantasy has more potential for sublimity, I think, than any of the other "genres."  Disbelieve me?  Take a look at the greats: Lord of the Rings and Ender's Game, a couple of my most mainstream favorites, and Summerland, though it's less well-known, or the brilliant stuff that someone like Margaret Atwood or Lewis Carroll or Louis Lowry or, heck, even Douglas Adams (to name only a few of the dozens of this world's and our history's greats) can do with it.  Let's use Lord of the Rings.  It's about as obvious for it's brilliance as is Debussy's "Moonlight."  See what I'm getting at here?  "Claire de Lune" is to Godsmack as Lord of the Rings is to James Patterson.

When it comes right down to it, the idea behind W&W is actually pretty okay, but instead of giving it to Godsmack (because Patterson DID NOT WRITE IT), why not dish it off to a band that can actually play--like a Sevendust or a Tool or a Porcupine Tree (okay, not metal, but it would be awesome) or, yeah, even Metallica?  Better yet, why not a Michael Kamen and the brute, masterful force of his orchestra behind him?  Because I still like a lot of metal out there.  And sometimes, cross-genre translations do work, but I'm sorry: Mr. Patterson, Ms. Charbonnet, yours doesn't.

(Ugh.  I'm gonna go read a poem.)


  1. At least you didn't insult it in the tagging section. When I hate something, I tag it, "trainwreck," as a parting shot.

    Also, I'm willing to cut him some slack on stealing from LOTR. Rowling did quite a bit of shoplifting on her own.

  2. I'm not particularly averse to author's pilfering ideas or themes, but it seems to go beyond that here. I'd say I'll find some examples, but I don't really want to go through it again.


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